Seeing the Harrow

When I heard that U.S. Army Reserve Specialist Charles Graner was sentenced to ten years in military prison for abusing prisoners-of-war at Abu Ghraib, I immediately thought of “In the Penal Colony,” a famous short story published by Franz Kafka in 1919.

In this stark story, a prison officer is demonstrating a high-tech torture device to a mysterious visitor. This device is designed to kill prisoners over a period of twelve hours by slowly writing a few corrective words — such as “Honor Thy Superiors”, or “Be Just” — directly into their bodies with mechanical needles implanted in a harrow over a bed where the prisoner lies, biting on a stub of felt for relief.

The officer demonstrates the method to the visitor by executing a prisoner for the crime of falling asleep on duty. This short story might be mistaken for a simple indictment of torture, but every Franz Kafka story cuts at least two ways. In fact, the officer seems to suffer from his own feelings of guilt and inferiority, and he squirms uncomfortably as he tries to explain the virtues of his sadistic machine. The mysterious visitor seems to be an inspector of some kind, and the officer intuits that his beloved torture machine, once a popular device, might now be considered too barbaric in the fast-changing modern world.

The machine is also defective and overly complicated, and some Kafkaesque comedy ensues when the needles stick and the prisoner throws up all over the machinery. The story reveals its purpose when the visitor admits that he finds the machine revolting, despite the officer’s labored efforts to present it in its best light. The officer reacts by suddenly throwing himself into the works, killing himself the same way he’d killed so many others before him. The machine finally breaks during this last demonstration, failing to release the officer’s bloody, mashed remains into a pit.

The reader is left to remember the officer’s weak attempt at justification. He insists that the machine has curative powers for society and even for its victims, and he reminisces about older days when eager crowds would gather to watch criminals die: “How we all took in the expression of transfiguration on the martyred face! How we held our cheeks in the glow of this justice, finally attained and already passing away! What times we had, my friend!”

Charles Graner is also feeding the media with a few weak attempts at justification for the practices he oversaw at Abu Ghraib. After receiving his sentence, CNN reports, “Graner turned to his attorney and said, ‘That’s what makes the world go around,’ and laughed slightly.”

Like Kafka’s officer, Graner understands the ambiguity of his actions. “There were a lot of things we did that were screwed up,” he said on the witness stand. “If you didn’t look at it as funny, you couldn’t deal with it.”

And, like Kafka’s officer, Graner now finds himself on the other side of the justice system. He worked as a career prison guard in Pennsylvania before becoming a prison guard in Iraq. He will now be a prisoner of the U. S. for ten years, after which he will be released from the Army with a dishonorable discharge.

Kafka didn’t allow his readers to blame the middle-ranking officer for the torture system in his story, and likewise it doesn’t seem very useful to blame Charles Graner for much either. I’d like to know what you think about this resolution — does this conviction solve anything, in your opinion?

20 Responses

  1. Machinery of WarSure the
    Machinery of War

    Sure the machinery of war allowed Graner to commit his acts but he still has to be responsible for his actions. I was just following orders is not an excuse, a soldier is not compelled to follow illegal orders.

  2. I agree with you, Jim. I was
    I agree with you, Jim. I was going to say, “I agree, but…”

    The more I think about it, though, I can only say, I agree.

  3. Graner-Calley-BillHere’s a

    Here’s a good name for a socially conscious punk band: Graner-Calley. Lieutenant Calley was the guy in Vietnam in the late 60’s who massacred a large number of Viet Namese civilians and tried to defend his actions by saying his superiors ordered him to do it.

    I agree that one should not follow illegal orders. The problem is trying to figure out if an order is illegal. This world is reverberating with such convoluted ripples of evil that I sometimes see no hope of stemming the source. All I really mean by that is, we could say, Graner was wrong for what he did, but after all, a soldier’s training encourages the capacity for savagery; his superiors were wrong for allowing or suggesting it, but after all, these same officers order “legal” bombings which not only kill people but torture those who, instead of dying instantly, lay bleeding from shrapnel amputation; maybe our government was wrong for even sending the military to Iraq in the first place, but our children are taught in history books that during our own Revolutionary War, the British soldiers marched in straight lines and wore bright uniforms, while we feisty American freedom lovers hid behind trees and rocks and fought with the zeal (hell, they wanted too much tax for the tea!); then we can skip a few wars back to the Old Testament where the Jews were either being cruelly enslaved or else waging massive victories against their enemies, back and forth; then the snake of history stretches back to an ape-man whacking somebody with a mammoth leg-bone or, depending on your beliefs, Cain killing his brother Abel…

    I guess what I’m saying is , we have to find ways to stop wars. Simple, eh?


    Once I was arrested and charged with a DUI only three blocks from my house.
    “Can’t I just go home?” I pleaded.
    “I’m sorry,” the cop said. “I feel for you but I’m just doing my job.”

    In fact, the charges were dismissed because, after I was arrested, they gave me a breathalyzer test which I passed easily. The only reason I failed the field sobriety test was that I have bone spurs in one toe and bad knees. I can’t walk as straight as I used to. They didn’t have any breath-testing equipment in the squad car. But once I got downtown, they couldn’t release me until the next day. The food wasn’t bad but they lost my shoes, knowing I would be so glad to go home the next day that I wouldn’t complain about walking out onto the streets in a pair of rubber flip-flops they gave me as a consolation prize.

    I can’t blame the cop, though, because when I worked for a government agency myself, I often felt that we were harsher than necessary to the people under our dubious power. It’s no fun telling someone they have to pay child support for a child who is now in their custody, but until they obtain a new court order from the judge, we have no choice. The whole thing stinks.

    Are we trapped in a Kafkaesque, topsy-turvy world? You bet. Can we overcome it? We have to try.

  4. Keeping the Spark AliveIt is
    Keeping the Spark Alive

    It is not about blame –

    it is about responsibility and about keeping the spark of compassion alive inside ourselves.

    Nobody can take over our own responsibility for how we live and what we do, and even if we leave decisions over to someone else, we are still responsible for our actions – including the action of shifting decisions to others.

    ‘Just’ following orders?
    Too many horrible things have happened this way.

    “A ‘No’ uttered from deepest conviction is better and greater than a ‘Yes’ merely uttered to please, or what is worse, to avoid trouble.”
    — Mahatma Gandhi

  5. I agree with this too. Just
    I agree with this too.

    Just in case I was vague about this, I do hold Graner totally responsible for his actions. When I talk about the value of blaming him, though, I guess one thing I’m wondering is if somebody higher up in the chain of command than a reserve Corporal could have been court-martialed. Doesn’t seem right.

    And, of course, Kafka sheds a deeper light on the whole thing. Why has torture been so widely used throughout history, by most peoples if not all? What does this mean about all of us? How does the human desire for torture, which expresses itself easily among groups, manifest itself in individual relationships?

    That’s the kind of stuff I’ve been sitting around thinking about lately.

  6. Blow up the PrisonHow could
    Blow up the Prison

    How could we have been so dumb as to use the same prison as the former dictator? Never should have been done it…we should have blown it up as a symbol of the end of tyranny. Instead, we said to ourselves, hey, we can use this prison that’s already built. Oh, the irony … too Kafkaesque.

    I realize we needed to house prisoners, but somebody overlooked the symbolism of it all.

    Sure, Graner, this is what makes the world go around, you said as they handed down your sentence…and what you did ruined the credibility of American idealism around the world.

    Ten years is too light a sentence. Maybe ten years in an Iraqi prison would be better.

    Graner humiliated prisoners, and America, too.

    I have met so-called “tough guys” guys like Graner before, bullies drunk with power.

    I wonder if will he get special treatment in a military prison? Will the guards secretly give him perks and wink the other way? Will they pat ’em on the back and say, “way to go Charlie, way to go.”

    I don’t think story has a very good ending at all.

  7. What I’ve always found
    What I’ve always found interesting is if you put someone in crowd & they can become anonymous how easily they’ll start to operate outside of societal norms, the Nazis, crowds that become riotous, & the internet is still a work in progress.

  8. It Runs DeeperI personally
    It Runs Deeper

    I personally don’t believe the concept of prisons are that great to begin with, but the day I heard about the abuse at Abu Ghraib, I felt like vomiting. What was the reason we were in Iraq? Something about stopping the abuse of the Iraqis at the hands of an oppressive government?

    I don’t think that the conviction will solve anything, since the problem will continue to exist as long as people believe that it is okay to treat fellow human beings in such a fashion.

    Even Nazis were “just following orders.” I don’t believe that that excuse went over too well back in the day. Isn’t there some international law against torture? Guess it just doesn’t apply to America.

  9. No, there isn’t a crime in
    No, there isn’t a crime in using a prison to be a prison, the crime is saying that’s one of the reasons we’re there is to end things like that, but then we continue the same practices. All that happened was a change in ownership & if we don’t fully account for that & rectify that we (America) will be blamed for it for the next 50 years.

  10. Hola!I understand what you’re

    I understand what you’re saying and respect your feedback.

    As a PR practitioner, though, my first recommendation would be for the military to obliterate Saddam’s houses of horrors and avoid using them at all cost.

    Now hospitals and schools are a different matter. I would use them. But to move into the same prison and use it as a prison was a BAD decision that led to an even worse situation that cost us the hearts and minds of the people we were trying to liberate/oppress or whatever the hell we’re supposed to be doing to them.

    Meet the new boss, same as the old boss…

    Thanks for commenting.

    -Peace out, Jota

  11. That was always one of my
    That was always one of my favourite quotes from The Who. Anyway, the American military sometimes does things without always thinking of the way people non-Americans will react to them.

    One example would be in Asia, the head is sacred and the feet are considered dirty (it is insulting to point your feet at someone). So…when the military flies over in helicopters, with the soldiers’ feet hanging over, their feet are pointing at the people on the ground’s heads. Result: the American military just insulted a grand quanity of people in quite possibly one of the worst ways in that region.

  12. Questions Without AnswersMy
    Questions Without Answers

    My friend Max makes his living spreading lies, half-lies, and
    the sort of fictions that become true when enough people start to believe in them. I’m not exactly sure who employs him– in the beginning it might have been the CIA, but after his stories started spreading their roots, he seems to have transcended the organization–at the moment I wouldn’t be surprised if he were “consulting” for a dozen different groups, from opposite ends of the political spectrum. In that regard he’s a dangerous S.O.B.– when he starts tugging at something, you never quite know who or what is going to fall, or in what direction.

    It would be a mistake to believe anything he says to you, but it would be equally foolish to dismiss him off-hand.

    So, knowing all of this, I suppose it must’ve been the mistake of a lifetime asking him WHY excatly we had gone to war
    in Iraq, for such dubious reasons, and in such an apparently incompetent manner?

    He smiled, tight-lipped, working the gin around in his mouth. “Oh, we’re not as dumb as you think we are, Ambon– don’t you know, this is the Endgame?”

    I should’ve just call bullshit then and there and walked outside by myself to have a cigarette, but something in the way he said it, something grim hiding behind that smirk of his, made me ask the obvious: “What the Hell are you talking about– what game do you propose we should be ending?”

    “Ambon, brother, WE aren’t ending anything of our own volition– if I had my way, the game would go-on forever, just as we’ve been playing it the past hundred years. But I’m afraid it isn’t our place, to set the rules.”

    This wasn’t an approach I’d seen from him before– he’s an impulsive game-player, a born manipulator, and in all the years I’ve known him I’ve never heard him saying anything to the effect of, he doesn’t own the rules.

    It made me wonder just what sort of game he was trying to play on me– what sort of head@#! was this? I said as much to him.

    He laughed to himself, and ignored me, ordering another round from a passing bar-maid. Then, after he’d sat there awhile, pretending to muse to himself and generally just being a grade-A bastard prick, he finally said to me,

    “Look, it’s all about misdirection– you know, a feint, a false thrust, like in chess.”

    “So you’re telling me this really is a bunch of 1984 I Love Big Brother Bullshit?”

    He shook his head. “Hell no. Controlling the American public is no longer our objective– that’s a lost cause.”

    “Could’ve fooled me– seems like you guys wrapped-up these last two elections, well enough.”

    “No, really, I mean a LOST CAUSE. America’s done-for, buddy, the way we have it now– and I mean, literally.”

    “I’m supposed to buy existentialist angst from a propagandizer? No thanks, Max.”

    “Shit, Ambon, you dimwitted @#@!, you still aren’t following me– I’m not spouting any metaphors here. When I say America’s ticket is about to get punched, I mean it.”

    “Oh? So what rogue state is gonna bring us Armagedon, then?”

    At this, damned if he didn’t shake his head sadly, and say to me: “Wyoming.”

    “Come again?”

    He set his glass down. “You heard me right, Ambon– Wyoming’s the state that’s gonna take it all down.”

    “How? Why?”

    “Yellowstone, man. It’s a massive @#$)@ volcano, and it’s gonna blow, soon– and when it does… bye-bye, miss american pie. That’s why we’re in Iraq, brother– and that’s why we’ll be going into a fullscale war with Iran, in the next year or so, and I’m talkin’ about the whole nine-yards, every available male between the ages of eighteen and twenty-seven’s gonna be bundled up, and sent to the Middle East– and you wanna know why? Because when that great big bastard of a volacano blows-up, they’ll be the only Americans to survive. And, here’s the bonus, post-apocalypse we’ll have all of the oil, and maybe that will give us the chance to rebuild something of this country, from the ashes.”

    At that point, I just started laughing hysterically.

    Sonofabitch, he really had me going there for a moment–Yellowstone, my eye!!! I told him he was a sorry bastard, and demanded that he buy me the next round.

    He just smiled, and laid-down his money without another word. Can’t really remember what we spoke-about, afterwards… something about football, maybe…

  13. War is AmbiguousSomeone did
    War is Ambiguous

    Someone did something bad. It happened somewhere in the world. Things like this happen. The laws are set in place that when someone does something bad, a posse (a judge, a jury or whoever) gets to decide what punishment to inflict on said bad-doer. Tell me how this solves anything. How is anyone justified by saying they have the right to determine someone else’s future? The people who determine this would say, well, Mr. X did something bad, so he should get punished in same. Does that make it right? No one really truly knows. Well someone does, maybe God, maybe not. Just as we have no answers as to why someone commits a crime, we don’t have answers as to whether punishing them does anything good.

    War is not an excuse for going against the law, but people use it as an excuse. Mistakes are always made during war, sometimes they are swept under the rug, sometimes the wrong person gets blamed.. maybe someone else was responsible for commanding those soldiers to go against the law. I don’t know. But yeah what they did was wrong. And they should have known that. Going nuts and hurting anyone else is always wrong, but you have to look at how war is. War is a situation where for some reason, it is ok to possibly hurt others, and is not against the law in all cases. So you’re going to get some people who don’t know where to draw the line. It doesn’t make it right. War. It’s a situation where the lines are blurry, and nothing will ever be clear.

    One thing I would hope the soldier would learn is that what he did was not funny, it tarnished how the world looked at our US military and will for many decades to come. While he laughed, he caused foreign countries to mistrust our military, maybe even more so than they had before.

  14. I appreciate the appropriate
    I appreciate the appropriate mahatma quote but it’s sooo much easier said then done. Ghandi was a bleepin saint!-not a sad brainwashed G.I.

  15. Nice to have you here,
    Nice to have you here, Harley. Personally, though, I say a Mahatma quote is always a good thing.

  16. Harley, you are right – what
    Harley, you are right – what Ghandi said is easier said than done (a lot easier), and, yeah, there is a certain difference between Mahatma and a subordinate under control (but then, who made the difference?).

    Yet, this quote isn’t meant to speak to him, but to us – Graner isn’t a Litkicks member and therefore won’t read this anyway.

    We cannot escape from our responsibilities; ‘just’ following orders might be an explanation for our terrible deeds, may make them more understandable, but it is no excuse.

    We may say ‘yes’ out of indifference or complacency, ignorance or fear, or out of any other human weaknesses…. but this only means that we have let our inner spark of compassion die, the spark that we’re always responsible to shelter and nourish, because it is our only future.

    And all those small innocuous ‘yes’s against our deeper conviction, that seem so insignificant when spoken, subtly and imperceptibly potentialize and grow into a greater wrong, one that we get used to so alarmingly quickly and that gets out of control too fast.

    We are responsible to not let his happen, to let compassion always rule over any orders, and no one and nothing releases us from this responsibility.

    Our task: To hope and strive to have the strength to say no in the right places, loud and clear – and to be able to find these right places among the rubble and the orders, our inadequacies and fears.

  17. Can we overcome it? I think
    Can we overcome it?

    I think not. I think life is made up of conflict. Never will our world be without conflict. I think my way of thinking is correct because it’s how I see the world. But no one sees it as I do.

    Do we think it’s awful when the life of the caterpillar ends when it goes into the cocoon?

    I love this quote, not sure who it’s by:

    Peace comes not from the absence of conflict, but from the ability to cope with it.

    I experience an aspect of my greatness every time I look fear in the face, and yet still take a step forward.

    I say this, and yet like you, I now look back at some of the things I’ve done, like work in a juvenile detention center where I used to ‘rate’ the kids on their behavior and whether or not they made their beds. Who the hell am I to play God over them?

    I also spent my first night in jail this summer, experiencing the opposite side of the detentioner/detentionee relationship. Heh, they had signs posted such as if I didn’t make my bed before I went out of the room, I wouldn’t be free to spend time in the day room. What the hell!!! And yet I once saw it differently, and told the kids they had to leave their bed looking tidy before leaving their room.

    Wow, how things do come back to bite us in the arse.

  18. Our past biting us in the
    Our past biting us in the ass. Yes, I have certainly experienced that.

  19. I feel you’re right about
    I feel you’re right about using the same prison, but then again in Vietnam, the U.S. Army built their own prisons and the result is the same. In a perfect world, a military jailer would go through a ton of psychological tests to prove he (she) is sensitive and compasionate. Anyone who is angry by nature, and loves control, Well, we know what happened. This
    programme I attend states, “we are not saints, but we are willing to grow along spiritual lines.” Sometimes the growth is painful brah!

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