Our Lady of Minor Hostilities

Iraqi prisoner, Abu Ghraib prison; Virgin Mary statuette, Houston, Texas.

Iraqi prisoner, Abu Ghraib prison; Virgin Mary statuette, Houston, Texas.

There is an echo in the institutional ocher of the walls, the wet shine that smells of a fresh coat of paint. Something familiar also in the open palms and upturned hands; in the veil draped to the shoulders; in the blue gown angling from the arms like wings. The hooded figure could be standing in the basement of a Catholic Church somewhere in America, except there it would be a depiction of the Virgin’s acceptance of her fate; her famous fiat upon hearing the angel Gabriel’s Annunciation of God’s plan: Let it be done to me according to thy will. Agreement in the face of unspeakable power.

In Catholic iconography it is the embodiment of awed compliance. At the Abu Ghraib prison outside Baghdad, however, the hooded figure in the dark robe is the embodiment of — well, maybe it amounts to the same thing. This photograph (one part Grim Reaper, one part Black Madonna) and the other bizarre images of mistreated Iraqi prisoners aired by 60 Minutes II this week are evidence of American soldiers’ attempt, as the New York Times put it, “to break down their will before interrogation.”

There is another echo, then, in the broken will — the downcast eyes; the head in the sack —   and in what remains in its wake. She stands on a serpent, keeping Satan in his place. He stands on a box; his keepers tell him if he falls the wires that bite his fingers will spark to life and he will die. Hands, feet, and neck the only flesh visible, they model their garments as if cloth and obedience are all that they own.

It has been a year since President Bush swooped down from the sky in his flight suit and declared “the end of major hostilities,” and so it is particularly fitting, on the anniversary of that Annunciation, to be shown a picture, an icon, of what that actually means.

Look at him balance on his box, Our Lady of Minor Hostilities. The president has voiced “deep disgust” at the images of abuse by American soldiers, and yet they are inevitable faces of his ongoing war; a war made of petty violence and crude indignities that are bound to continue, because, outside of church basements, agreement in the face of unspeakable power can only look like death.

Peter Manseau is the author of Songs for the Butcher's Daughter, Vows: The Story of a Priest, a Nun, and Their Son and, most recently, Rag and Bone: A Journey Among the World's Holy Dead. He founded Killing the Buddha with Jeff Sharlet, and the two wrote Killing the Buddha: A Heretic's Bible. Follow him on Twitter @petermanseau.