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Abu Ghraib Ain't No Animal House
Tuesday, May 11, 2004

By now you’ve probably seen the photos of Americans mistreating Iraqis at Abu Ghraib prison. It’s some pretty compelling stuff.

In one, there’s a woman with a naked man on a leash—like a Co-Ed Naked Westminster Dog Show.

In another, a naked man with a bag on his head sniffs another naked man’s groin. It’s like Kurt Vonnegut’s alien zoo in Slaughterhouse Five. Humans are animals. They screw in captivity.

And the list goes on:

Naked men in pyramids.

Naked men in body bags.

Naked men with panties on their heads.

It’s like the old Times Square, this demented Male Revue. It’s disgusting. But you know what else disgusts me? The way it’s been analyzed.

Think about it. Pee-Wee Herman was arrested for petting his bird in a Grown-Ups Only theater. Janet Jackson is the scourge of the Earth for flashing a single nipple—a body part everyone has. But as for Abu Ghraib? Abu Ghraib we compare to frat house antics.

That’s the best we can do.

“This is no different than what happens at the Skull and Bones initiation,” says Rush Limbaugh, condoning what went on.

Yet, meantime, Kathleen Parker condemns it with the very same analogy. “The images from Abu Ghraib, now irreversibly tattooed on the Arab brain, were every frat-house clich* magnified,” she says. “[T]he soldiers seem bereft of historical conscience, unburdened by any awareness of larger—and lethal—contexts into which their frat-house scrapbooks might be placed.”

Something is wrong with this picture. And I’m not talking about the pictures themselves. I’m talking about the comparison. There’s something wrong with it.

Abu Ghraib ain’t no Animal House. It just isn’t.

And comparing the two is an injustice to both.

Let me tell you something: I am a product of the Greek fraternity system. Me. JDM. And proudly so. I pledged a fraternity during the fall semester of my sophomore year in college, and it was one of the best things I ever did. Yet, at first, I didn’t even want to do it. In fact, I hated fraternities before I went to college. I hated the idea of buying my friends.

But that’s not what I did. I made my friends before I pledged the fraternity. It just turned out that many of them already belonged to it. They treated me like a member before I wanted to be one. I liked that. I liked what they had. And that—not “some fraternity”—is what I joined.

You can tell me I bought my friends if you want. I couldn’t’ve bought a better bunch. No buyer’s remorse here.

And it’s with that that I tell you the prisoner abuse/frat boy comparison represents a fundamental misunderstanding of frat boys.

My fraternity was community service oriented. We cleaned up the nearby beaches on rainy Saturday mornings. We chaperoned dances for handicapped kids. And we threw some of the best goddam parties in town—a community service all its own.

We were also fairly diverse. A number of White, Anglo-Saxon Protestants. A few black guys. Hispanics. Even a few gays. Hell, we even took a couple of guys who weren’t cool. Not everyone is Brad Pitt, you know. Some guys are David Schwimmer. But sometimes a guy just needs someone to reach down his throat, drag out his potential, and beat him over the head with it. We did that two times a year.

It wasn’t about all men being equal. It was about judging men by their own worth.

And while it’s true some guys just ended up joining a herd, other guys ended up shepherds. We told the same jokes and ogled the same girls, but an individualistic spirit was alive and well beneath our matching shirts and caps. Everyone brought something different to the table. That’s what made us strong.

“But what about hazing?” you say. “Wasn’t there hazing?”

Sure there was. Of course. And I won’t get into specifics here, but let’s just say I went through six weeks of humiliating initiation rituals, and I put the next group through the same thing once I got in. And, yes, a few frat boys have killed their pledges over the years. But those guys are idiots. Their antics aside, hazing isn’t pointless—no matter what you’ve heard.

Lots of times, when you graduate high school, you think you can conquer the world. But what happens when you fall down off a high horse? You hurt yourself. And that’s where fraternities come in: They knock you down, but they dare you to ride again. And you know what? Real men always do.

Real men get up. They ask for more. They say, “Thank you, sir, may I have another,” and they never stop saying it for the rest of their lives—no matter the things they may face. Fraternities drill this thinking into you. From where I stand, that’s a good deed.

But was there a certain sick and twisted pleasure to watching the new guys writhe? Of course there was. I won’t lie. But that came with the territory. I won’t apologize.

And that’s just the thing: Guys who pledge fraternities want to pledge fraternities. They go streaking through the quad and call their peers “sir” because they want to. It’s a rite of passage, but it’s passed by freewill. No one has to be there. It takes a lot to earn Greek letters. Nobody owes them to you. And if you don’t like that, you can drop out. There’s no reason to endure this stuff if it isn’t worth it to you.

Which brings us back to Abu Ghraib.

The prisoners there were just that: Prisoners. And prisoners, by definition, are kept against their will. And whereas a frat boy wants to join those who haze him, what happened here won’t make many Iraqis join America. If anything, it’ll have an opposite effect. So say what you will about this stuff being justified in the context of war. Say what you will about what kind of people the prisoners were. The Iraqis had a government that hazed them for thirty years. They didn’t need ours to do it for them.

To be honest, I can laugh at the Abu Ghraib photos to the extent that the Animal House similarities exist. But unlike what happens in a frat house, they weren’t meant to be funny. That’s what makes this comparison bunk. No frat boy ever endangered American troops in 130 countries. These soldiers did.

Way to lead by example, guys.

Jonathan David Morris is the author of Versus Nurture. Like him on Facebook at facebook.com/readjdm.

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