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Arts and Culture

The Abu Ghraib Photos You Haven’t Seen

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Posted on Apr 22, 2011

By Nick Turse

I’ve spent a big chunk of the last decade immersed in people’s wartime memories. I’ve traveled across the globe to interview survivors about them—soldiers, guerrillas, civilians. I’ve read countless memoirs, reporters’ accounts and historians’ works on the subject of war. Along the way, I’ve also learned a lot about memory, specifically how people remember and forget certain incidents.

I’ve spoken to not a few veterans who’ve committed atrocities—including men who readily admitted the brutal deeds they had carried out as teenagers or 20-somethings. But sometimes I knew about a specific horrific act they witnessed or probably carried out and it seemingly was news to them. “I don’t recall it, but I can believe it” is a standard response. Or there was the officer who reportedly went around rounding up men to kill a group of women and children. “I guess I’ve wiped Vietnam and all that out of my mind. I don’t remember shooting anyone or ordering anyone to shoot,” he said when confronted. But he didn’t dispute that the massacre had occurred, saying “I don’t doubt it, but I don’t remember.”

Riley Sharbonno didn’t round up people. He didn’t carry out any massacres and didn’t witness any. But Sharbonno did go to war. And he did return with memories that were mixed up, messy or missing. Monica Haller helped him to put them back together in a fascinating photo book—a term she eschews, instead calling the project “an object of deployment.”

A thick tome of more than 470 pages, “Riley and his story. Me and my outrage. You and us.” is a piece of art and a historical document. It’s a war story and a meditation on memory as well as a rumination on its absence. [To see excerpts, click here and then click on “Download a PDF” at the bottom of the Web page that comes up.]

book cover

Riley and His Story

By Riley Sharbonno, Monica Haller

onestar press/Falth & Hassler, 480 pages

Buy the book

About to go into its second printing, “Riley and his story” offers readers something unique and haunting: a look through the eyes of a veteran who served at perhaps the most notorious locale of the Iraq War, one that historians will catalog alongside My Lai, No Gun Ri, Samar and Sand Creek—notable sites of past American atrocities. Sharbonno, a nurse at the infamous Abu Ghraib prison in 2004 and 2005, offers us a tour of his tour of duty through some of the 1,000 photographs he took. But these aren’t the photos of Abu Ghraib that we’ve seen before. There are no detainees on leashes or nude human pyramids or unmuzzled dogs menacing naked defenseless men. Still, this young veteran’s pictures offer a clear vision of the awfulness that is war.

“Many events during my time in Iraq were too complex, too horrific, or beyond my understanding. There were simply too many things I witnessed there on a given day to process, so I stored them as photos to figure out later,” writes Sharbonno, who provides snippets of text—taken from conversations with Haller over a period of three years—that narrate his photos throughout the book.

Right away we’re hit with a two-page spread. Thick fingers, clad in white surgical gloves, holding a shard of metal shrapnel still coated with human viscera. Then we’re off with Sharbonno on a convoy, a medical supply run between Baghdad and another place whose name is destined for infamy: Fallujah. The central feature of these photos, and other out-the-window shots from helicopters later in the book, is not the Iraqi landscape, not fields of brown and green, or waterways with floating garbage, or the trash dump with grazing cows in it: It’s the gun barrel in the foreground. And it reveals so much that so many books on the Iraq War fail to convey. 

As a capstone to the sequence, Sharbonno explains the story behind one key photo, an instance in which he spotted a figure in a dump truck with what appears to be a machine gun mounted on it; a figure neither he nor any of the others in his vehicle were able to discern as either friend or foe. The Americans pointed their weapons at the mystery man, but none pulled a trigger. Instead, Sharbonno took his picture. I’m certain the nameless, faceless figure is grateful for it, but it only drives home the fact that this is the essence of the American project in Iraq—a machine gun perpetually pointed out the window, automatically trained on anyone who happens to be there.   

There are also blank spaces in the book. Pages without pictures or text.  Pages with only text. Pages that offer clues about what might be missing. “Even today, there is so much—huge chunks—that I can’t figure out if the events really happened or not,” Sharbonno writes. There are some things that never appear in photos but are so vivid that we can’t help seeing them. We’re reminded that before it was a notorious site for American atrocities, Abu Ghraib was a notorious site for Saddam Hussein’s atrocities. The young veteran writes:

At Abu Ghraib everywhere we dug—and we dug four or five times—everywhere we dug we found human remains. I dug once to try and build a garden, we dug to build a shower, which ended up being the morgue. We dug to put in fences, to put cables down. … Every time we dug, we found human remains. Every time. The prison is built on a mound of human remains. It’s just disgusting.

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By Ronbo, April 24, 2011 at 4:13 pm Link to this comment
(Unregistered commenter)

Why is it never reported in the US media that these morons stripped and sodomized the boy they killed and proudly displayed? Most of the rest of the world have no problem with reporting this neglected fact. Der Spiegel has 4000 photos many depicting these perverted sexual acts. These photos will eventually appear on the internet anyway. The few photos made available are the tamest among thousands.

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By Clash, April 24, 2011 at 9:55 am Link to this comment

The mad confine the insane, or is it the insane confine the mad. This is the history of the dominant culture for at least 600 years. This same madness infects the politics and social structure of all of the so called industrial societies. It has spread into every facet of the culture, and even reason is not immune.

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By restrep, April 23, 2011 at 10:36 pm Link to this comment
(Unregistered commenter)

truthdig does have an editorial kink. It’s selective; and this is historical.

when the Brits sent the dragoons into war, the officers bought their
commissions and got the glory and the statues. The dragoons were torn
to shreds exactly like Sharbonno’s pictures show us. Literally shredded
meat.

When the doughboys went to Europe to end the war to end all wars, the
generals and the politicians got all the glory, and the statues. The
soldiers were torn to shreds. Meat loaf. Exactly what you see in the
store at $1.48 a pound.

And we have neither caught, nor prosecuted, ONE “terrorist”. Not ONE.

Forget bin Laden!! — a fiction. A total complete lie.

Ground meat, people.
Ground up meat.

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By Virginia777, April 23, 2011 at 10:08 pm Link to this comment

Whats going on with censorship on this thread? Lol.

Thanks in advance, Truthdig, for your reply.

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By marriea, April 23, 2011 at 8:16 pm Link to this comment

I’m sure many of our military men still don’t know why we were in Iraq. I’m sure that many found themselves in the position of fighting for their lives because they had had to or be killed. I’m sure that many wondered why they had to be the ones killing someone whom they had never met, had not even said hello to even in passing. The women, the kids, everyday folks trying to scrap out a life for themselves, killed at the hands of our soldiers because someone hundreds of miles away said they were our enemy. I’m sure many probably ask themselves, ‘who is our’.
I’ll be willing to bet that many who killed themselves realize they couldn’t live with themselves,the guilt of why we were actually in Iraq was too painful to fathom.
Just to think, we had invaded a country and killed its citizens because they had something we wanted, the oil.
Many joined the military to pay respect and homage to what we stood for. They wanted to join in servicing our great country. But our country was destroying its own. Eating us up worst than the propaganda we have been fed about other countries.
We were supposed to be the good guys. Actually the soldiers were. But our so called leaders…....
I know it’s a conspiracy theory. But could our country needing an excuse to invade a country half way around the world, for its riches, could or would our leader be so cavalier as to be a part of an event that killed many in our own country, on our own turf
....Could it be that that thought ran through the minds of many of our guys in Iraq.
One of these days we might have to look some things squarely in the face and come to terms with who and what we are as Americans. And if we think the pictures taken in Iraq are a nightmare, think what it would be like if we truly find out why we were there.

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By Grady Lee Howard, April 23, 2011 at 7:07 pm Link to this comment

This is not a book: This is evidence: This is in progress; still happening. Still happening in the consciousness of confused witnesses and participants, ongoing in all places of violent conflict.
This is not a documentary, not croppable, panning without edges. This is proof of experiential trauma upon living minds.
Artifacts? Facts? Art? Assemblage. Industry. The profitable business of war with outsized external costs.
Were you a soldier? A nurse? A victim? A reporter? An informant? A viewer?
Can’t talk about it. Want to but I can’t. Can’t pull it together. Can’t go ahead. Can’t let go of the shock. I’m neither here nor there.

(I was especially struck by Fernando Botero’s Abu Graib paintings… another version not being a book. Let’s insist this subject matter be kept open like the death camps. People today have extreme difficulty today determining what is real.)

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By drbhelthi, April 23, 2011 at 1:10 pm Link to this comment

Renzo, I share the hopes you presented, and admire your courage
for stating them.

To me it is sad that your blog, a second brief blog afterwards,
and the 3rd, my original response, were published, but later
removed.

Has Truthdig acquired a server virus? Or is Truthdig a relative of “Air America” ?

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By dorndiego, April 23, 2011 at 8:22 am Link to this comment
(Unregistered commenter)

Ahh… but is there an American nightmare?

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