Read with Butler in mind, Coetzee’s “Waiting for the Barbarians” portrays the ways an empire manufactures reality, justifying its attack on a broad, different “other” whose lives are “ungrievable” and exist only to further the narrative that the state has constructed of itself.
On J.M. Coetzee’s Waiting for the Barbarians and Judith Butler’s Frames of War
Decades after the international humiliation that the United States experienced during the Vietnam War, initiatives such as Operation Desert Storm and the Iraq invasion gave the country an opportunity to project its military might and superiority against a new enemy portrayed as hostile, barbaric, and a direct threat to the country’s safety. Such a depiction served as part of a broader narrative the United States created and employed to further its political agenda in the Middle East. In Frames of War: When is Life Grievable, Judith Butler describes how and why states seek to monopolize depictions of wars. They often justify such decisions by dehumanizing the “other” that they are at war with. We see such a depiction in Waiting for the Barbarians by J. M. Coetzee, a novel that tells the story of an unnamed empire’s torture campaign against an enemy known simply as “the barbarians.” Read with Butler in mind, Waiting portrays the ways an empire manufactures reality, justifying its attack on a broad, different “other” whose lives are “ungrievable” and exist only to further the narrative that the state has constructed of itself.
Butler emphasizes that war essentially divides populations “into those who are grievable and those who are not,” in which an ungrievable life “cannot be mourned because it has never lived, that is, it has never counted as a life at all.”1 The distinction between the grievable and ungrievable is drawn clearly in Waiting: An empire with an extensive bureaucracy views itself as under threat, and uses outsized displays of power against an outside “other”—the barbarians—to “save” itself. Butler would characterize this process as creating a “frame” through which the state can justify its violence. Coetzee’s empire portrays itself as fighting a necessary battle against the backward, premodern barbarians who have become an existential threat to the empire. To craft this frame, the empire sends officials from the Third Bureau, “the most important division of the Civil Guard,” to a settlement at the frontier, signifying the magnitude of the threat that the barbarians posed to the empire.2 Officials such as Colonel Joll lead extensive campaigns to collect information, often amounting to little more than torture campaigns. Colonel Joll characterizes his task as absolutely necessary. Although the narrator, a magistrate of the empire, thinks the barbarians to be “small groups of peaceful nomads,” Joll insists that in reality they are “a well organized enemy.”3 Throughout Joll’s “interrogations,” barbarian prisoners are subjected to cruel treatment, to the point where one girl loses her sight and ability to walk, and her father is killed. Despite this brutality, little is done to put an end to these tactics due to the frame that the empire crafted of these people as dangerous criminals. Butler writes that “the frame is always throwing something away, always keeping something out.”4 Indeed, in Waiting, characters trust the empire’s explanations over their own experiences and instincts. When questioned about the tortured girl and her father, a guard grows anxious and tells the Magistrate, “There was nothing I could do, I did not want to become involved in a matter I did not understand!”5 This suggests that subconsciously, the guard believed there must have been more to the matter, a grave concern that drove the empire to such methods, a narrative of secret information that he was unaware of, and thus had to look the other way because he simply “did not understand.” The lives and injuries of the barbarians are insignificant compared to the survival of the empire, and the constructed frame of the other is so pervasive that the soldiers remain silent in the face of the barbarians’ torture, all in the name of an elusive greater good.
However, the blame does not lie only with the empire officials. Butler claims the success of a frame “depends upon a successful conscription of the public.”6 In Waiting, we see what a largely successful conscription looks like. When Colonel Joll returns from an expedition to “the frontier,” he returns with “a file of men, barbarians, stark naked, holding their hands up to their faces in an odd way as though one and all are suffering from toothache . . . A simple loop of wire runs through the flesh of each man’s hands and through holes pierced in his cheeks.”7 In this scene, the torture of the barbarians becomes public. The spectacle signifies the empire’s power, its ability to do whatever it wants to these people who are not really people. The narrator describes one particular officer who “stands with his hands on his hips panting, smiling, gesturing to the crowd.”8 The officers encourage the public to actively participate in the torture, reinforcing the dehumanization. The barbarians stand like animals, naked and harassed. A shy girl from the audience is pushed forward by her friends, and then, “She lifts the cane, brings it down smartly on the prisoner’s buttocks, drops it, and scuttles to safety to a roar of applause.”9 Meanwhile, Colonel Joll, “stooping over each prisoner in turn [. . .] rubs a handful of dust into his naked back and writes a word with a stick of charcoal: ENEMY. . . ENEMY . . . ENEMY. . . ENEMY.” As the empire parades the prisoners before the public, treating them the way animals in their society are treated, it presents an image of the barbarians as not really human, creating a disconnect between the subjects and the objects of torture. Such a depiction facilitates a “successful conscription” of the public into the state’s narrative, thereby justifying their torture.
Although images of torture are powerful at furthering the state’s appearance of power and invincibility—specifically, of the empire’s ability to efficiently subdue its enemy—the images also have the potential to risk the state’s conscription of the public. In fact, they can become moments where cracks appear in the manufactured frame. Although the Magistrate initially describes himself as a “loyal servant of the empire,” it is the image of torture, of the brutal intent to abuse the barbarians, that allows him to (almost) break free of the frame.10 The Magistrate had not wanted to interfere, conscription being easier than objection, but as Colonel Joll pulled out a hammer from behind the barbarians, the Magistrate moved to the front of the crowd: “You would not use a hammer on a beast, not on a beast!” he screamed.11 The sight of the barbarians crouched in pain, blinded and ignorant of Joll’s intent to use the weapon on them, is what caused the Magistrate to recognize and call out the brutality inherent in the frame. Despite this, the empire is dedicated to maintaining its narrative and the Magistrate’s actions have heavy (and public) consequences. Physical assaults begin, but the torture by no means ends there. Through humiliating acts such as forcing the Magistrate to walk before the townspeople naked and filthy, performing tricks for the officers’ amusement, and even donning a woman’s smock as the officers attempt to hang him, the empire publicly strips the Magistrate of his masculinity and even his human-ness. It is unknown whether other members of the audience might have disapproved of the treatment of the barbarians, but it is unlikely that anyone would speak up after witnessing the Magistrate’s punishment. When Joll interrogates the Magistrate after the spectacle, he mockingly says, “You want to go down in history as a martyr, I suspect. But who is going to put you in the history books?”12 After all, the victors have an outsized role in the writing of history, and given the asymmetry of power between the empire and the barbarians, the lack of public opposition to the narrative only allows the empire to continue its campaigns of violence and maintain its characterization of the war as just and necessary. As such, Butler considers public opposition to torture from regular citizens to be obligatory, stressing the importance of fostering a “sense of global responsibility from a politics that opposes the use of torture in any and all of its forms.”13
The empire’s attempt at framing in Waiting for the Barbarians is useful to better understand why the United States so strongly attempted to control the images of the Iraq war. In 2003, the United States invaded Iraq under the allegation that Saddam Hussein had weapons of mass destruction. The invasion, in the shadow of the terrorist attacks of 9/11, was described as part of a preemptive strategy, as according to George Bush: “If we wait for threats to fully materialize, we will have waited too long.”14 This, of course, means what constitutes a “threat” is left at the discretion of the Bush administration. It is thus unsurprising that we find many parallels between the Bush administration’s characterization of the “enemy” and Coetzee’s empire. For example, just as the empire was unable or unwilling to distinguish between the nomad groups and the barbarians, the United States similarly seemed unwilling to differentiate not only between Muslims and actual terrorists, but even between Muslims across nations, religious sects, and ethnicities. The Iraq invasion felt as though it was revenge for 9/11, a massive display of force against the “Muslim world” to show off America’s military strength, despite there being no link between 9/11 and Iraq. Bush would even invoke the Crusades, further framing this war as part of a larger, eternal conflict between the “civilized” West and a “barbaric” and coherent Muslim world. Such characterizations were necessary, according to Butler, in order to achieve a “successful conscription of the public.”15
Controlling the images of the war was part and parcel of the successful conscription of the public. The United States was aware of the capacity images had in affecting public opinion. As such, the Pentagon employed a strategy called “shock and awe” to display the power of the American military. CNN broadcast footage of Baghdad at night, showing buildings erupting into plumes of fire and smoke. The thundering sound of the explosions assaults the viewer’s ears, making one wonder what it must be like to actually live under these bombs, not knowing whether your house might be next. Both the name (shock and awe) and the images of this style of attacks were meant to send a message to “enemies” everywhere: America’s military strength is unrivaled. It was believed that such jarring displays of force would strike fear in the hearts of evil-doers, letting them know that revenge would not be even; it would not be proportionate. It would also send a message to Americans at home, still reeling from the pain and shock of 9/11: We have the most powerful military in the world, and we are capable of deterring foreign forces (barbarians, wherever they may lurk) from even considering messing with us.
The build-up of America’s image as an unrivaled empire has turned those captured or imprisoned during the invasion of Iraq into mere tools through which the United States can “prove” its power. We see this reflected in the photos American soldiers took of Iraqi detainees at Abu Ghraib prison. One photo shows U.S. soldier Sabrina Harman beside the decaying corpse of Manadel al-Jamadi, an Iraqi detainee. In another, a different detainee is pictured with bloody fingers, the skin on his face and hands suggesting he had been dead for some time. Rarely is death an occasion for joy, yet Harman can be seen smiling and giving a thumbs-up, as if to say, “Look what we did!”– violating the sanctity of life by displaying such enthusiasm beside the corpse of someone who was once living, a human being. To make matters worse, other soldiers also took turns taking photos beside the bodies of the Iraqis killed during these torture campaigns. The corpses were used almost like entertainment, a measure of the ease with which American soldiers exercised their power cruelly and unjustly over the Iraqis during the occupation. More importantly, perhaps the photos serve as a measure of the sanctity of some lives over others, and the irony of the frame – civilization versus barbarism– in the politics of empire.
Other images of Iraqi detainees offer a harrowing look at how the soldiers of empires dehumanize the “other” as part of such campaigns of grandeur. In a disturbing photo, we see U.S. soldiers Lynndie England and Charles Graner standing behind several detainees.16 The detainees are assembled in a human pyramid, naked and stacked atop each other. Bags are placed atop their heads to prevent them from seeing their surroundings. The detainees have their heads bowed, and the fact that they are completely undressed only increases the shame and humiliation they must feel in this photo. But perhaps most disturbing are the wide smiles England and Granger wear (Graner also gives a thumbs-up at the camera) as they stand behind the detainees. The way they look at the camera seems again to say: “Look what we did!” The soldiers must have had a “vision” of the image they were trying to create, assembling the different pieces together to bring this image to fruition. The photograph frames the U.S. soldiers as superhuman, able to inflict shame and put others completely at their mercy. The soldiers are able to humiliate the Iraqi men, and the Iraqis cannot do anything in return; they are powerless before them.
Like the spectacle Colonel Joll orchestrates in Waiting for the Barbarians, the Abu Ghraib photographs, meant to frame the U.S. as powerful, also reflect the empire’s cruelty, thereby risking the conscription of the public. The fact that the Iraqi ”barbarians” were naked, blinded, and used as tools of entertainment is reminiscent of how Coetzee’s empire also turned its enemies into props. Given their grotesqueness, such images prompted people to question whether “enhanced” interrogation techniques were ever justified. In 2007, a demonstration outside the Justice Department included a staged waterboarding. The protesters were calling upon the Senate to reject the nomination of Michael Mukasey as attorney general due to his “reluctance to define the interrogation tactic as torture.” As the Magistrate reflected, such treatment would be cruel even to a beast. The images of Abu Ghraib would cause more and more people to grow vehemently against the war. Such cruel displays of power, tools that the United States used to frighten its elusive enemies and showcase its incomparable strength, would also cause cracks to appear in the frame.
As the saying goes, absolute power corrupts absolutely. Mighty empires wield unimaginable levels of power, and such influence allows them to craft grandiose narratives to further bolster their image, or as Butler would describe it: frames of war. Too often, these narratives include antagonists who exist outside the empire’s borders, just beyond the frontier, with alleged designs against the empire. It does not matter how (un)verifiable these allegations are, the empire’s power alone gives it the authority to make such claims and act upon them, with little accountability. To act upon them, however, Butler reminds us that the empire must convince the public that it is for a good cause, i.e., the survival of the empire and protection of its people from hostile outsiders. The ability to torture others is a tool to exert its strength, but to torture without question rests upon the public’s conviction in the necessity of war. This makes images of torture such a delicate part of wars—while they may bolster an empire’s claims of strength, they may also cause people to question the empire’s asymmetric use of force, thereby breaking the frame. Waiting for the Barbarians and the images of the Iraq war call on us to question the ways in which empires construct these frames, pushing back against the empire’s attempt to conscript us.
- Judith Butler, Frames of War: When Is Life Grievable? (Verso, 2016),50.
- J.M. Coetzee, Waiting for the Barbarians, 4 (Royal National Institute for the Blind, 1985).
- Coetzee, Waiting for the Barbarians, 177.
- Butler, Frames of War, 15.
- Coetzee, Waiting for the Barbarians, 55.
- Butler, Frames of War, 15.
- Coetzee, Waiting for the Barbarians, 100.
- Coetzee, Waiting for the Barbarians, 164.
- Coetzee, Waiting for the Barbarians, 154.
- Coetzee, Waiting for the Barbarians, 17.
- Coetzee, Waiting for the Barbarians,103.
- Coetzee, Waiting for the Barbarians, 176.
- Butler, Frames of War, 50.
- Geroge W. Bush, “President Bush Delivers Graduation Speech at West Point,” National Archives and Records Administration, The White House, 2002.
- Butler, Frames of War, 15.
- Jane Arraf, “The Scars of Abu Ghraib,” Al Jazeera, July 15, 2013.