A Beinecke Scholar and former Turkey Fulbrighter, Muira McCammon (@muira_mccammon) has written about Guantánamo for Slate’s Future Tense, The Kenyon Review Online and a few other publications. She will soon graduate from the University of Massachusetts-Amherst with an M.A. in Comparative Literature/Translation Studies and received her B.A. in International Relations and French from Carleton College. Her thesis probes the stories that have been told about the Guantánamo Bay Detainee Library. Muira enjoys talking to the journalists, artists, veterans, lawyers, and others whose paths have intersected with GiTMO. She also works part-time for the Harvard Berkman Center for Internet and Society. Link rot and the challenges it poses to wartime researchers and archivists have been on her mind a lot lately. She is hoping to end her losing streak in Scrabble soon.
In 2013, Charlie Savage, a New York Times reporter, began a Tumblr to share photos he and other journalists had taken of the Guantánamo Bay Detainee Library. At the time the Joint Task Force of Guantánamo, the government body responsible for the detention camp, permitted reporters to peruse the shelves, to examine the books that detainees read. Two years later I began studying the Guantánamo Bay Detainee Library. My first instinct was to try to collect as many images as possible of the books that detainees read. At that juncture I did not have access to a full inventory of titles, so I focused on the photographs I uncovered.
Veterans and political scientists have contemplated the power of framing and the variety of images that have emerged from Guantánamo. Elspeth van Veeren noted that “in particular, the visualities and materialities of Guantánamo tours were used to construct the site as ‘safe, humane, legal, transparent,’ Guantánamo’s official motto” (2014: 20). In his book Murder at Camp Delta, Joseph Hickman, a former U.S. Army Staff Sergeant, remarked that “to make sure everything looked its best, the guards would walk the routes and inspect everything…The military escorts would put on a show and say things like, ‘Hey, let’s go down this way,’ and take them toward a particular cell block, as if the tour were spontaneous, when, in fact, the whole thing was an act” (2016: 80).
Any books, which include the content listed below, will not be circulated and will be immediately returned to the source (e.g. ICRC, private donor, etc…):
(1) Extremism (Modernist writing that incites Jihad)
(2) Militant Islam / Militant Jihad
(3) Anti-American topics
(4) Anti-Semitic topics
(5) Anti-Western topics
(6) Any military topic
(7) Sexual situations
(9) Language Instruction
(10) Technology/Medical Updates
Standard Operating Procedures for Camp Delta 2004, p. 94
When I began writing this blog post, I had hoped to talk about my research: the people, policies, and practices that have shaped the Guantánamo Bay Detainee Library’s collection.
Instead recent events have compelled me to trace the trajectory of this one single image.
In 2015, I stumbled upon the Walsh Report (its official name is the “Review of Department Compliance with [the] President’s Executive Order on Detainee Conditions of Confinement”). I wanted to examine images of the detention camp that had been taken by non-journalists, and conveniently there was an appendix entitled “Photos Depicting Camps at Guantánamo.” It was there that I first found this image. The inclusion of the bilingual Arabic/English translation of Anna Karenina intrigued me most. The selection of this title in particular seemed strategic; it spoke to the degree of linguistic diversity represented in the Guantánamo Bay Detainee Library.
In 2016, when I clicked the hyperlink again, I fell down an informational black hole. This time a phrase “File Not Found” taunted me. I began a correspondence with the Department of Defense. Nine phone calls, 19 emails later, I received this response in my Gmail inbox: “Because this document is on the archived Defense.gov site, we are unable to find the links for you. We also are unable to find the originator of the document—we thought they would be able to assist, but we were unsuccessful.”
I used the Internet Archive’s Wayback Machine to rescue this photograph; its afterlife raises questions about the broader challenges of constructing wartime archives.
Who gets to choose which aspects of the detention camp will be preserved? What tools—apart from photographs—do journalists, defense attorneys, U.S. government officials, and human rights activists use to assess the state of Guantánamo? As librarians, architects and others reflect upon the future of libraries, who will step up to ensure that declassified files from Guantánamo are accessible to a variety of stakeholders and future generations?
A short time after I contacted the Department of Defense in 2016, I returned to the Walsh Report. I saw that the broken hyperlinks had been changed. I clicked on “Photos Depicting Camps at Guantánamo” and was promptly rerouted to the Department of Defense’s homepage.
The very fact of knowing that the books in a library are set up according to a rule, whichever that may be, grants them preconceived identities, even before we open their first pages.
Alberto Manguel, The Library at Night 2011, p. 65
Andrew Hoskins recently speculated that “from 2026 there will be barely any new paper history of warfare left to emerge.” Individuals conducting research on Guantánamo will undoubtedly need to traverse a complex cyber terrain, and in this process they will need to consider a new set of legal and ethical challenges. They must learn to improvise and innovate. They can shrug at the occasional broken hyperlink, or they can embrace a set of tools like Amber and Perma.
As I write this post, I am drafting another email to the Department of Defense. I want to know if they will consider reactivating the hyperlinks listed under the “Photos Depicting Camps at Guantánamo,” given that other readers might not know to turn to the Internet Archive’s Wayback Machine for assistance. So far our correspondence has been cordial, but I fear they might not indulge this latest request of mine.
The photograph first appeared in Appendix 12, Part 7 of the “Review of Department Compliance with [the] President’s Executive Order on Detainee Conditions of Confinement” (2009). This copy comes from the Internet Archive’s Wayback Machine.
The Image Series invites HASTS affiliates and guest authors to write freely about one image relevant to their work. To contribute to this set, contact Lan Li at email@example.com.