May 23, 2013
The Abu Ghraib Photos You Haven’t Seen
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 is a piece of art and a historical document.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.]
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:
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