Many people scratched their heads when President George W. Bush declared on May 1, 2003, from the flight deck of the U.S.S. Abraham Lincoln, the end of major combat operations in Iraq, even though it was clear there was more fighting to come.

On Thursday night, Philip Gourevitch told an audience of nearly 120 Fordham students at the McGinley Ballroom on the Rose Hill campus that the speech was part a deliberate plan by the Bush Administration.

Philip Gourevitch Photo by Bruce Gilbert

The idea, Gourevitch said, was to change the conflict from one in which people captured by the American military were called prisoners of war to another in which they were called detainees.

The Geneva Conventions mandate that a nation must treat prisoners of war humanely, but may be rougher with spies and saboteurs, a label which Gourevitch said the administration simply affixed to everyone they arrested after May 1.

The decision to exploit this loophole is one of the reasons why American soldiers were told to torture Iraqi prisoners at the Abu Ghraib prison.

“Inside that speech was a kind of legal pivot from one kind of war to another kind of war—a kind of war that we never quite admitted openly was the new structure, but which was immediately seen as being in effect,” said Gourevitch, whose book Standard Operating Procedure (Penguin Press, 2008) is based on interviews with the soldiers who appeared in photographs showing the abuse.

Earlier in the day, Gourevitch, editor of The Paris Review and a staff writer for The New Yorker, discussed the overriding theme of his work with a panel of Fordham professors at the McNally Amphitheatre on the Lincoln Center Campus. His appearence was sponsored by the Fordham Campus Activities Board’s American Age Lecture Series and the American Studies department.

Like Standard Operating Procedure, his book We Wish To Inform You that Tomorrow We Will Be Killed with Our Families: Stories from Rwanda (Picador, 1999) addressed what he called his fascination with false stories that Americans tell about themselves.

Most Americans would tell themselves that they would never force naked men to form a human pyramid, or drag them around on dog leashes. But Gourevitch noted that history tells a different story.

After the genocidal rampage that took the lives of at least 800,000 Rwandans in 1994, the refrain of “Never Again” was repeated, even as similar events were unfolding in Serbia, and continue today in the Darfur region of Sudan.

“In the case of Abu Ghraib, we collectively vilified all the people who appeared in the photographs. Even if we knew that these things seemed to be somehow connected to American policy, the idea was, ‘Those guys were scum, and I would never do that,’” he said. “Yet the history of the world tells us that the great mass of people do these things, that the people who actually behave well when the pressure comes down are comparatively few.”

He did not defend the actions of the soldiers, but suggested that Americans delude themselves by refusing to identify with them.

“In the name of giving ourselves a sense of security, we’re placing ourselves in more dangerous positions politically, morally and practically, by blinding ourselves to a certain kind of reality,” he said.


Patrick Verel is a news producer for Fordham Now. He can be reached at [email protected] or (212) 636-7790.