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The Character of Occupation

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Specialist James Barker, United States Army, took a plea agreement that will allow him a life sentence in a Federal Penitentiary.

He was among the group of soldiers that killed an Iraqi family in Mahmoudiya -- a father, a mother, and a 4-year-old boy. They had spared the fourth, 14-year-old Abeer Qassim al-Janabi, from death for a few minutes after the rest of her family had been executed in a bedroom. They used this delay, as the 14-year-old girl was screaming and crying, for Barker and his team leader, Sergeant Paul Cortez, to rape her. After the group of five soldiers had murdered her family, and after Cortez and Barker had raped the screaming girl, Private Steven Green -- who had done the executions of the two adults and the 4-year-old boy in the bedroom -- also raped Abeer. When he finished, he buckled his trousers and fastened his belt and shot Abeer in the head.

The fact that Barker is telling this story -- which he does without showing the least remorse -- as part of a plea agreement that gives him a life sentence, means that capital punishment is not only on the menu, but that the likelihood of conviction is very high. The military means to make an example, though they will spin this as an aberration.

On the same day that this story is breaking, General John Abaziad -- Commander of the entire regional theater -- is being quoted from his appearance before Congress, saying that there is still a chance that the US Armed Forces can stabilize Iraq. He wants a little more time.

So now the ghost of Westmoreland is standing alongside the ghosts of My Lai in the shattered ruins of Mespotamia. Yet no one is paying them any mind. The enumeration of the dead here is trying to catch that of the living. There are ghosts everywhere. This has become our new vampire colony, The Kingdom of the Dead.

Abazaid, Congress, the Bush administration, and television-medicated America are all in a parallel universe from the actual war, that war Abeer Qassim al-Janabi experienced. It's an abstraction, even to Abazaid, who reside safely in the Green Zone -- that great, glowing, electrity-eating, alien presence in the midst of the ruin... sitting in Baghdad like a scene from Close Encounters of the Third Kind.

I have engaged in more debates than I can remember now, about how wars become race wars on the ground, about the trope of sexual revenge in the heart of martial masculinity, and about the situational construction of the atrocity. Perhaps the sociopathic testimony of James Barker will put these arguments to rest, once and for all.

James Barker was not born a rapist or a murderer. Who was James Barker before he went to Iraq? Who were Jesse Spielman, Bryan Howard, Paul Cortez, and Stephen Green? Either they were born with a genetic predispoition to rape and murder, and fate placed them all in the same unit at the same time; or there is a common experience they share that shaped them to visit this horror on a modest household in Mahmoudiya.

They are men, shaped and calibrated in the hothouse fraternity of a hostile military occupation. This is the reality of the war that Abazaid says can still succeed in "bringing stability to Iraq," the reality for which we dare not speak its name. The reality of James Barker, 22-years-old when he poured lighter fluid on the lifeless body of Abeer and set her afire.

Spielman was 21. Howard was 18. Cortez was 23. Green was 20.

I have been challenged more than once for having said, "Perfect masculinity is sociopathic." If that wasn't part of this equation, then why the rape? If masculinity is not constructed as vengeful violence, and eroticized as such, then how do three young men achieve orgasms in the process of inflicting sexual torture on a child they intend to murder?

I have been challenged more than once for having said that all wars of occupation become race wars on the ground. Thus it was in Vietnam. So it is in Iraq. I have cited the Stanford Prison Experiment to explain this, but still the power of denial, denial that we socialize boys for rape and murder, that we deny the humanity of The Other, and that we are not the source of light in the world, has prevailed against these attempts at persuasion.

So now I am going to give you the argument of Barker's own words:

"Cortez pushed her to the ground. I went towards the top of her and kind of held her hands down while Cortez proceeded to lift her dress up. Around that time I heard shots coming from a room next door."

"I hated Iraqis, your honor. They can smile at you, then shoot you in your face without even thinking about it."

And now I am going to tell you that Barker cannot be an aberration, unless we accept the improbable premise that five sociopaths were assigned by Army Personnel Management computers to the exact same team at the exact same time.

This trial is giving us a peek not at the characters of five men, but at the character of masculinity and imperial war.