The Sutras of Abu Ghraib

Tuesday October 30, 2007

Sutras Abu Ghraib

The Sutras of Abu Ghraib is Aidan Delgado’s account of the year that he spent stationed in Iraq, but this is not your standard military memoir. Delgado’s story is made complicated by the fact that, whilst he was engaging in military training, at the same time he was engaging in the practice of Buddhism, and the book charts the growing tension between his military obligations on the one hand and on the other hand his developing moral unease with the circumstances in which he finds himself. It is this tension that leads him to eventually file for Conscientious Objector status.

Whilst it is Delgado’s experience of this tension early on in his tour of duty, and not the horrors of Abu Ghraib, that leads to his application for Conscientious Objector status (an application that is eventually granted), it is only in the latter part of the book, after his unit is transferred to the notorious prison, that the depth of moral compromise implied by his position becomes clear.

It may seem, after the endless public discussion of the abuses that occurred at Abu Ghraib, that there is nothing else to know, that this is merely covering old ground. We know about the ghoulish theatrics captured on digital cameras and mobile phones, the scenes of physical and sexual degradation, the trophy shots, the images of brutal interrogation techniques amounting to torture. Yet, reading Delgado it becomes apparent how impoverished this picture is, how whilst we might believe that we know Abu Ghraib, we simply do not. Delgado’s picture of life inside the prison at Abu Ghraib – the squalor, the filth, the continual bombardment by mortar fire, the cold and the boredom, the fear and lack of comprehension not only of the prisoners, but of the soldiers posted there – paints a picture of a place that is not merely the site of a few terrible abuses, but rather of a regime that is far more more systematically undermining of the fragile human virtues that preserve us. Delgado’s picture of military life is vivid and unflinching, neither seeking to prettify nor to condemn. Whether exploring the petty racism of his colleagues or speculating on the continuum that might lie between this racism and the abuses of Abu Ghraib, or whether confessing to the ambiguities of his own situation, he is unsparingly clear-eyed. The story that he tells is one that should once and for all put paid to evasive “a few bad apples” arguments, and that should prompt us to look unflinchingly at the question: what are the conditions that lead to and sustain peace?

What makes this a book of particular distinction is that Delgado’s world is not one in which angels perpetually wrestle with demons. Instead this is a book that is written with a deep appreciation of moral and human complexity. Towards the end of the book, Delgado concludes that the problems with Abu Ghraib cannot be attributed merely to individual sadism nor to fault-lines in the chain of command. Instead, he writes,

Another part of the problem is moral and religious, and by that I mean to say that at its root Abu Ghraib is a spiritual problem. Many people believe in good and evil. Just that, that simple: good on one side, evil on the other. By default, we are always on the good side. This means that those who oppose us must logically be evil…

In claiming that this is a spiritual problem, Delgado is not making the platitudinous assertion that somehow the application of a hearty dose of religion might be able to save us from such horrors. Instead he is suggesting that any claims – religious claims included – to a monopoly on goodness bear the risk of themselves contributing to the problem. It is a spiritual problem in this sense: that it is a problem rooted in the very way that we understand – or fail to understand – our relationships with the world, with ourselves, with each other, and with the fragile hopes for goodness that we nurture in our hearts.

The absoluteness of good and evil is an incredibly dangerous doctrine, dangerous in the wrong hands and without proper restraint. I believe that experience demonstrates that never in life is anything wholly good or wholly evil. Good and evil are metaphors, signposts to guide us in the right direction. To render good and evil as actual physical truth is to render an infinitely complex moral world into absurd black and white. Further still, to hold that truth out to the mass of humanity and invite them to act upon it is to invite disaster and fanaticism.

Torture, atrocity, the self-righteousness that accompanies any military campaign: all of these are made possible by the moral Manichaeism that Delgado lays bare, a Manichaeism that pervades our contemporary culture. Yet it is to his considerable credit that, whilst calling into question moral surety, Delgado also permits us to glimpse his own moral complexities. Some may read this book as the story of a hero finding himself fallen amongst demons, but one who has the courage, nevertheless, to resist. Yet to do so would be to do Delgado a grave injustice and to fall into the simplistic moralistic evaluations that he himself is at pains to avoid.

The Sutras of Abu Ghraib is an impressive book and, on the evidence, Delgado is an impressive individual; not because he stands outside of the moral ambiguity and complexity of human life, but because he demonstrates that, if we value ethics at all, we must take our stand within this ambiguity and this complexity, knowing that, ultimately, there is nowhere else to stand.

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#1 · Peter Clothier

1 November 2007

Good to see that Delgado’s book is getting some deserved attention! Thanks for writing this. Did you happen to catch my own review on The Buddha Diaries? Cheers…

#2 · ken

20 November 2007

Thank you for the review. I wonder if Amazon has an employee discount? :)

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