Blowback: Saddam’s DNA

Commentary by Mark Willis

Photo of Saddam Hussein after his capture in December 2003. [Source: NYT 120303]

There is a logic to empire that differs from the logic of a nation, and acts committed in service to an empire but never acknowledged as such have a tendency to haunt the future. The term ‘blowback,’ which officials of the Central Intelligence Agency first invented for their own internal use, is starting to circulate among students of international relations. It refers to the unintended consequences of policies that were kept secret from the American people. — Chalmers Johnson, Blowback: The Costs and Consequences of American Empire

Will this image “haunt the future”? It haunts me. In the media-giddy hours after the announcement of Saddam Hussein’s capture in December 2003, the U.S. military provided conflicting explanations about what is happening here. An early account said the medic in latex gloves was collecting a DNA sample from inside Saddam’s cheek. Later accounts said it was a routine medical exam, implying humanitarian concern for the prisoner’s well-being. In either case, publicizing the image violated the Geneva Convention about depicting the vulnerability of prisoners of war. But then, in the Global War on Terror (GWOT), there are prisoners of war; there are enemy combatants; and there is Saddam Hussein.

It’s hard to swallow the notion that this image represented a concern for Saddam’s dental carries. On the day of his capture all of us were fascinated to see the visible signs of this pompous tyrant’s downfall. He looked like he’d been living under a bridge. Given a poncho and bandanna, he could have been one of those homeless vets you meet at the Vietnam War Memorial. Had he been vaporized by a bunker-buster bomb during the “Shock and Awe” phase of “major combat operations,” a valuable PR opportunity would have been lost. We needed graphic images of Saddam the Loser to help us forget the embarrassing images of Saddam, Our Geopolitical Buddy. Remember the famous photo of Donald Rumsfeld pressing the tyrant’s flesh during the Reagan era? Talk about blowback…

What this image says about power and powerlessness is clear enough. The fact that a tyrant like Saddam Hussein is subjected to this tends to justify any abuse of power. If Saddam didn’t deserve it, who does? When you look at the image, do you imagine your mouth convulsing in a gag reflex? Or is it your hands in the latex gloves?

What haunts me is the ambiguity of this image’s subtext about DNA. It seems to say: We will find you, even if you are Saddam Hussein, even if you have seven palaces and seventy bunkers and ten look-alike flunkies to throw us off the trail. We’ll find you in the DNA. Look again and the subtext changes: This is simply a matter of protecting public health. In the name of fighting the GWOT, it could be your DNA or mine. How can we object? What do we have to hide?

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