“Among the corrosive lies a nation at war tells itself is that the glory—the lofty goals announced beforehand, the victories, the liberation of the oppressed—belongs to the country as a whole; but the failure—the accidents, the uncounted civilian dead, the crimes and atrocities—is always exceptional. Noble goals flow naturally from a noble people; the occasional act of barbarity is always the work of individuals, unaccountable, confusing and indigestible to the national conscience.
This kind of thinking was widely in evidence among military and political leaders after the emergence of pictures documenting American abuse of Iraqi prisoners in Abu Ghraib prison. These photographs do not capture the soul of America, they argued. They are aberrant.
This belief, that the photographs are distortions, despite their authenticity, is indistinguishable from propaganda. Tyrants censor; democracies self-censor. Tyrants concoct propaganda in ministries of information; democracies produce it through habits of thought so ingrained that a basic lie of war — only the good is our doing — becomes self-propagating. (…)
Reputation, image, perception. The problem, it seems, isn’t so much the abuse of the prisoners, because we will get to the bottom of that and, of course, we’re not really like that. The problem is our reputation. Our soldiers’ reputations. Our national self-image. These photos, we insist, are not us.
But these photos are us. Yes, they are the acts of individuals (though the scandal widens, as scandals almost inevitably do, and the military’s own internal report calls the abuse “systemic”). But armies are made of individuals. Nations are made up of individuals. Great national crimes begin with the acts of misguided individuals; and no matter how many people are held directly accountable for these crimes, we are, collectively, responsible for what these individuals have done. We live in a democracy. Every errant smart bomb, every dead civilian, every sodomized prisoner, is ours.”
Philip Kennicott, A Wretched New Picture Of America, 4 May 2004, Washington Post