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Deliverance Comes to Iraq

In the 1972 American film Deliverance, written by James Dickey and directed by John Boorman, four middle class white men embark on a canoe trip in the Appalachian Mountains of northern Georgia, along a wild river soon to be submerged beneath an immense artificial lake. But their nostalgic enjoyment of "nature" is rudely interrupted when two of them, after landing on the riverbank for a rest, are surprised by two armed mountain men. Ed the suburban adman, played by Jon Voight, is tied to a tree, while Bobby the overweight insurance salesman (Ned Beatty) is made to strip. He is then anally raped by the bigger of the two hillbillies, all the while being forced to squeal like a pig. At once bizarre and intense, the scene quickly became famous. Yet what — for me — has seemed to undermine it just a little when I’ve seen it on TV reruns is the almost caricaturish perversity of the "mountain men." As portrayed by Bill McKinney and Herbert "Cowboy" Coward — neither exactly a household name — they seem barely human, bent entirely, though with no clear motive, on degrading and humiliating two men who are presented as the bearers of civilized and decent American values.

Maybe it’s time, though, to rethink whether these characters were exaggerations, because in 2004, it’s as if the widely proclaimed American agenda of Deliverance-for-Iraq-from-Saddam-Hussein has morphed, grotesquely and ironically, into an epic scale version of Deliverance-the-movie. And it has done so via some of the film’s least appealing themes, which have burst like a pustule onto newscasts around the world, after having apparently slipped virus-like into Baghdad with the US Army, and having been both activated and mutated by the local vapours. For regardless of how many photos are eventually released showing the abuse of Iraqi prisoners, the precipitating cache from Abu Ghraib prison in Baghdad was produced by a group of reservist military police from Appalachia North: West Virginia, southern Pennsylvania, and Maryland.

The most prominent figure, though, in these initial, and so most surprising images is not a "mountain man" but, it would appear, a mountain woman, or maybe even a mountain girl: twenty-one year old Lynndie England, from a trailer park in West Virginia. It is the diminutive Ms. England who is shown, a cigarette dangling from her lips, making a machine gun gesture toward the genitals of a single hooded Iraqi prisoner in one photograph, and of three of them in another. It is also Ms. England who poses grinning behind a pile of naked and hooded Iraqi men in a third photograph, giving thumbs-up with a male soldier. And perhaps most notoriously, it is Ms. England who, in a picture published on May 6 by the Washington Post, is shown holding a leash attached to the neck of a Iraqi man who, in this case without a hood, is curled naked and cringing on the prison floor.
It is Ms. England, that is to say, who has given the most recognizable face to what even George W. Bush called, for a few days anyway, the "sickening" humiliations inflicted on Iraqi prisoners by some US troops. Whether she and her colleagues were actually ordered to inflict these indignities remains moot, though a widely-circulated report by Major General Antonio Taguba suggests that at least some forms of abuse were systemic. Nor does it seem likely that enlisted personnel would look so comfortable at their games, had not this pattern of behavior been condoned already at a higher level. But Ms. England, as the most distinctive, most malleable, and –– yes –– most improbable human face in the initial exposure of the pattern, very definitely does hail from hillbilly country: Fort Ashby, West Virginia to be exact, a town of 1200 people in the Allegheny Range, and a place that, according to the Daily Telegraph in London England, the locals refer to as "a backwoods world."

By an odd quirk of fate, Fort Ashby is at almost the same latitude, and about 150 miles east of less mountainous Palestine, the hometown of that other rural West Virginia army girl whom the Iraq War brought to the headlines a year ago, but as a passive heroine during the war’s apparently successful first phase. Lynndie England, by contrast, comes across as Jessica Lynch’s evil and much more active twin: a female incarnation of the rural sadism depicted so effectively in the film Deliverance, and darkly hatched as a public figure, it would seem, only when the war itself had entered a more uncertain and darker phase. Ms. England’s own least appealing traits appear to have thrived with stunning perversity on the lingering energies of Abu Ghraib prison, such that she and her friends succeeded in bringing American pornography’s abiding concern with a visual record of degradation, to a role reversal of what George W. Bush claims went on in Saddam Hussein’s prison "rape rooms." But in giving an American female face to the legacy of Saddam’s male torturers, she and her friends seem to have brought some "backwoods world" twists that would have done the mountain men in Deliverance proud.

According to the Telegraph’s Sharon Churcher, "the poor, barely-educated and almost all-white population" of Fort Ashby "talk openly about an active Ku Klux Klan presence." And indeed the iconography of the hooded prisoners recalls precisely –– but again indulges through projection in reversal –– the spooky anonymous hoods of the Klan. What’s more, though, another local woman, Colleen Kesner, explained to Churcher why Lynndie England is locally seen as a hero: "A lot of people here think they ought to just blow up the whole of Iraq. To the country boys here, if you’re a different nationality, a different race, you’re sub-human. That’s the way girls like Lynndie are raised. Tormenting Iraqis, in her mind, would be no different from shooting a turkey. Every season here you’re hunting something. Over there, they’re hunting Iraqis."

It sounds as though "the country boys" from Deliverance had no shortage of relatives.

In the film, the characters played by Voight and Beatty are rescued from their tormentors by the silent arrival of their two companions in the other canoe, and by a well-aimed arrow from the bow of survivalist Lewis (Burt Reynolds), that kills the rapist, and drives away his leering companion, at least temporarily. But then the four run into problems about what to do in regard to the law. Afraid that even an argument of self-defense won’t work with a local court, they take a vote and opt to circumvent what is ostensibly law-in-the-public-interest by simply burying the dead man, in anticipation that his grave will soon be covered by the lake. As they continue downriver, though, it’s the gentlest among them (Ronny Cox), and the only one who had argued for telling the truth to the authorities, who is shot from a distance by the surviving hillbilly, who in turn is killed by an arrow dispatched by Voight. Eventually, the three remaining men slink out of the valley, and back to civilization. But the passage has been a harrowing downward spiral of degradation, with the mysterious wilderness of the river given a parallel in the mysterious brutality of the mountain men, and with the technology-friendly message that maybe the whole mess is better covered up by a dammed lake after all. Which at the very least –– the implication seems to be — will produce enough electricity to keep the hillbillies watching TV, and which seems to offer the only non-ironic way of reading the title "deliverance." Though even this suggestion is ambiguous, in that the film ends (thanks Cathrine) with Lewis’ nightmare of a grasping hand breaking the surface of the lake from beneath.

So is 2004 the year in which this grasping hand has finally broken not only the surface of the filmed lake in Deliverance, but the limits of an onscreen narrative that now looks not so much fictional as frighteningly prescient? At the very least, the United States of 2004 cannot look to rising waters to obscure so strange a melding of "backwoods world" values with the legacy of Saddam’s most notorious prison in Baghdad. Nor can its leaders afford to ignore –– as the canoeists in Deliverance do, to their expense –– any voice that pleads for the entire mess to be brought before the law for a thorough airing. But in another twist, the residents of Fort Ashby, Appalachia certainly these days do watch TV. And when they do, they see one of their own who has gained the notoriety that, sadly, now so often equates in the United States with fame: a sort of international and unrestrained projection of the sideshow antics which are indulged by the Jerry Springer Show. As articulated to Sharon Churcher, their views are themselves an indictment of an America where the gap between rich and poor hasn’t narrowed since 1972, but got much wider, leaving many "backwoods worlds" festering in neglect and bigotry. In this case, though, courtesy of an already illegal invasion, the views have made their way as actions to a worldwide screen, leaving little optimism about "deliverance" either for Iraq, or for a United States where a culture of vulgar brutality has been no more improved by the Bush administration’s contempt for international law, than it has by the damming of rivers to make for more TV.

So the question possibly does become, or will become soon: who exactly does speak for the United States of America? The lawmakers with their respect for the constitution, and their general horror at what has been perpetrated in Iraq in their country’s name? Or those multitudes of "folks," both rural and urban, who still think, along with George W. Bush, that Saddam Hussein was behind September 11th; that weapons of mass destruction were found in Iraq; and that the four "civilian contractors" ambushed and butchered in Fallujah were just innocent "civilian contractors": "our boys," as they were described by a man interviewed in the southern Pennsylvania hometown of Jeremy Sivits, the first of the MPs to be court martialled for the brutality at Abu Ghraib. Would it matter to such Americans that the four "contractors" –– more accurately described as armed mercenaries employed by Blackwater Inc. of North Carolina –– were killed after, and not before, the photographed abuses took place in Abu Ghraib prison, and that "civilian contractors," working this time as interrogators, are likewise being implicated in the scandal? Just possibly making the ambush in Fallujah not an act of gratuitous terror, but one of retaliation for terror inflicted already.

It’s an ugly cycle. Do most Americans want to understand it? Or jaded as they are by network television’s 24-7 fostering of an almost psychopathic dissociation, would they rather just see it all as an extension of Reality TV?
Or maybe even as Deliverance: The Series.

1851 w/ May 14, 2004

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Douglas Ord

Douglas Ord is a novelist and historian whose most recent book is a critical history of the National Gallery of Canada, published by Mc-Gill-Queen's University Press in 2003. He also produces the website Lear's Shadow at http://home.eol.ca/~dord

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