The Sirens That Sing Our Songs For War

Once he hears to his heart’s content, sails on, a wiser man.
We know all the pains that the Greeks and Trojans once endured
on the spreading plain of Troy when the gods willed it so—
all that comes to pass on the fertile earth, we know it all!

Odyssey 12.188–91

The confidential CIA memorandum, dated 11th March 2010 and titled Afghanistan: Sustaining West European Support for the NATO-led Mission-Why Counting on Apathy Might Not Be Enough, and made public thanks to the people at Wikileaks,  is quite explicit in recommending that the US administration and military pursue ‘media strategies’ that use the voices of Afghan women in:

…humanizing the ISAF role in combating the Taliban because of women’s ability to speak personally and credibly about their experiences under the Taliban, their aspirations for the future, and their fears of a Taliban victory. Outreach initiatives that create media opportunities for Afghan women to share their stories with French, German, and other European women could help to overcome pervasive skepticism among women in Western Europe toward the ISAF mission…

Media events that feature testimonials by Afghan women would probably be most effective if broadcast on programs that have large and disproportionately female audiences.

There is a tacit admission that the war effort and goals are unclear, and that public support remains low. There is a fear that underpins the memorandum that public support for the war is waning as the war’s objectives remain unclear and its goals appear impossible. The memorandum identifies other strategies that can be used to help bolster public support should a backlash against the involvement of European governments in the war itself. For example, it recommends highlighting:

  • …messages that illustrate how a defeat in Afghanistan could heighten Germany’s exposure to terrorism, opium, and refugees might help to make the war more salient to skeptics.
  • …the mission’s multilateral and humanitarian aspects.
  • … a message that ISAF benefits Afghan civilians and citing examples of concrete gains could limit and perhaps even reverse opposition to the mission. Such tailored messages could tap into acute French concern for civilians and refugees.

It was only a few months later that Time Magazine’s may have obliged the CIA when it offered us it’s egregiously exploitative piece on Afghanistan and the story of Aisha.

I had referred to it as ‘…one of the most blatant uses of photography as propaganda I have seen in a long time.’ Time Magazine’s issue of August 9th, 2010 prominently featured the mutilated face of a young Afghani woman called Aisha, with a headline that said ‘What Happens If We Leave Afghanistan.’

The issue clearly implied, in the wonderfully simplistic, populist, feel-good-America and yet so infantile way as only Time Magazine can, that our military has been placed at the service of the Afghan people to protect their women and their rights.

Reacting to this crass conflation of imperialism and feminism, I argued in an earlier blog post titled The Spotlight Of Humanity Or How We Are Told To Look Only Where They Tell Us To Look that:

The timing of this cover, its hysterically comical association of continued war and Afghan women’s rights are not coincidental. That people still employ this infantile and inane justification for our imperial dreams tells me more about the world of the editorial community running these magazines then it does about anything going on in Afghanistan or in the lives of these women they so seem to be concerned about. With no real reasons for our war there, with no rational arguments for our continued presence there, with no explanations for our continued killings and torture of the civilians there, with no real idea of the goals of our military and advisors there, we can always turn what is nothing more than a sordid and poorly managed military occupation of an increasingly restless and violently resistant population into a feminist exercise.

(Aside: I had given the photographer Jodi Bieber the benefit of the doubt and suggested that she did not know how her work was going to be used. Unfortunately I was wrong, as llistening to her talk about this work suggests that Jodi herself holds many of the very prejudices I had criticized about the magazine article itself for.)

It was only a few more weeks after which National Geographic Magazine offered their version of the same story, complete with the same faux-humanism and typical obsequiousness to the myth of American exceptionalism and moral righteousness that the magazine is now quite famous for.

National Geographic Magazine: Afghan Women

Did Time Magazine and others oblige the CIA consultants? We will never know, but its food for thought. And even more so as other publications continue to oblige us with the ‘humanitarian’ face of the war, carefully excising from our western and civilized eyes the violence that we are in fact inflicting on ‘the other’.

Thanks to the brilliant BagNewsNotes, my attention was drawn to this trio of embedded propaganda produced by three mainstream and popular photographers who have been assiduously and unquestioningly been presenting us with plenty of documentation of whitewashed wars from Iraq to Afghanistan.

And perhaps by no small coincidences, there is yet another piece on how the American’s are fighting ‘the good war’ against opium in Afghanistan in the latest issue of National Geographic Magazine where the story so carefully avoids mentioning role of the CIA and the United States in the growth of this insidious industry that the entire piece can’t even hold itself together in logic or meaning. The magazine’s version of Afghanistan’s last thirty years seems to suggest that the USA has never had an involvement in the region, and no hand in its current pathologies, violence, repressions and bloodshed.

National Geographic Magazine: Opium Wars

The National Geographic story excises from its readers awareness the fact that the United States and the Karzai regime are intrinsically linked to the opium growth and trade in Afghanistan. You would not know this from this piece by Robert Draper, but you would only have to look elsewhere, for example, to Tom’s Dispatch where Alfred McCoy, in a piece called Can Anyone Pacify the World’s Number One Narco-State? has a rather different take on the situation;

Opium is an illegal drug, but Afghanistan’s poppy crop is still grounded in networks of social trust that tie people together at each step in the chain of production.  Crop loans are necessary for planting, labor exchange for harvesting, stability for marketing, and security for shipment. So dominant and problematic is the opium economy in Afghanistan today that a question Washington has avoided for the past nine years must be asked: Can anyone pacify a full-blown narco-state?

The answer to this critical question lies in the history of the three Afghan wars in which Washington has been involved over the past 30 years — the CIA covert warfare of the 1980s, the civil war of the 1990s (fueled at its start by $900 million in CIA funding), and since 2001, the U.S. invasion, occupation, and counterinsurgency campaigns. In each of these conflicts, Washington has tolerated drug trafficking by its Afghan allies as the price of military success — a policy of benign neglect that has helped make Afghanistan today the world’s number one narco-state.

And you would certainly not know that our erstwhile ally, the illegal and unelected Hamid Karzai is deeply involved in this business, and yet he remains ‘our man’ in the country. As McCoy points out:

Indeed, opium’s influence is so pervasive that many Afghan officials, from village leaders to Kabul’s police chief, the defense minister, and the president’s brother, have been tainted by the traffic.  So cancerous and crippling is this corruption that, according to recent U.N. estimates, Afghans are forced to spend a stunning $2.5 billion in bribes. Not surprisingly, the government’s repeated attempts at opium eradication have been thoroughly compromised by what the U.N. has called “corrupt deals between field owners, village elders, and eradication teams.”

National Geographic Magazine works hard to blame it all on the Taliban. If nothing else, it is what the memorandum recommended.

What does embedding do to journalism? As Patrick Cockburn argued in a piece in The Independent, it simply distorts your view of the war, it convinces you that the only way to read the situation is through the lens of military action, and that the news is where the army takes you.

“Embedding” obviously leads to bias, but many journalists are smart enough to rumble military propaganda and wishful thinking, and not to regurgitate these in undiluted form. They know that Afghan villagers, interviewed in front of Afghan police or US soldiers, are unlikely to say what they really think about either. Nevertheless, perhaps the most damaging effect of “embedding” is to soften the brutality of any military occupation and underplays hostile local response to it. Above all, the very fact of a correspondent being with an occupying army gives the impression that the conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan, countries which have endured 30 years of crisis and warfare, can be resolved by force.

And yet our ‘finest’ news publications continue to pursue this avenue exclusively, not even attempting to offer a perspective to either the Iraq or the Afghan conflict from outside the stifling sameness of the view from the military’s gilded window. As I learn that Nachtwey (someone who has determinedly covered America’s wars exclusively from the American side and not even attempted a balanced and journalistic documentation of its conflicts), Tyler Hicks and Louie Palu I can’t help but wonder what forces are compelling their employers to not just produce the same ‘humanitarian’ stories, but also work exceptionally close to eliminate any and all possibilities that we may see ‘the other’ and the horrors being inflicted on them by what is only the most powerful military force in the world fighting only some of the most impoverished and weak people in the world.

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From “Headmen” To “Hitmen”–A People Brutalised Yet Again

Another photographer turns up at another manufactured ‘traditional’ geography, and produces another set of racist, reductive and entirely fake set of images. I don’t mean ‘fake’ in the way that most photographer’s get all concerned about. I mean ‘fake’ in a much more serious way, one that reduces people to social, political and historical caricatures and makes them into concocted objects for class titillation and voyeurism. And this American magazine–mired deep in the heart of American imperialism, its violence and its brutality–publishes the images and accompanies them with what can only be described as one of the most incredibly ahistorical, obfuscatory and infantile articles I have read outside of stuff frequently published by Time Magazine and/or The New York Times.

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Thomas Sankara’s Restless Children

The project is now complete. Although, we may never really complete the telling of this remarkable story. You can see the project by clicking on this link here, or on the image below.


Eyes Of Aliyah–Deport, Deprive, Extradite Initiative By Nisha Kapoor

I have publicly and on this forum very explicitly argued against the strange ‘disappearance’ of black/brown bodies that are the actual targets and victims of our ‘liberal’ state policies of surveillance, entrapment, drone assassinations, renditions and indefinite detention. I recently argued:

“Western visual journalism, and visual artists, have erased the actual victims of the criminal policies of the imperial state. Instead, most all have chosen to produce a large array of projects examining drone attacks, surveillance, detentions and other practices, through the use of digital abstractions, analogous environments, still life work or just simply the fascinating and enticing safety of datagrams and charts. Even a quick look at recent exhibitions focusing on the ‘war on terror’ or wars in general, have invited works that use digital representations of war, or focus on the technologies of war. An extreme case of this deflection are recent projects on drone warfare that not only avoid the actual brown/black bodies that are the targets of deadly drone attacks, but are not even produced anywhere near the geographies and social ecologies where drone attacks continue to happen! Yet, these works have found tremendous popularity, though i remain confused what kinds of conversations or debates they provoke given that the voices of the families of those who have been killed, are not only entirely missing, but people who can raised the difficult questions about the lies and propaganda that are used to justify the killings, are also entirely missing.”

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Public Release of “The Sinner”

This is my first feature length documentary film and we–Justice Project Pakistan, with the guiding support of Sarah BelalRimmel Mohydin and others at Justice Project Pakistan, are finally releasing it.

And we are doing it first in Pakistan.

The film takes us into the world of capital punishment in Pakistan through the life of one man; Jan Masi. Jan Masi worked as an execution for nearly 30 years, and claims to have executed over 1800 people. He started his work in the enthusiastic pursuit of revenge for the execution of Pakistan’s Prime Minister Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto.

This isn’t a typical documentary film. No talking heads. No linear story-telling. No polemics or moral grand standing. No righteous exclamations against capital punishment. Instead, Jan Masi, his life, his scars, his fears and despair, act as metaphors for the meaning of capital punishment in Pakistan, and the consequences it has on the broader Pakistani society.

Sudhir Patwardhan

Sudhir Patwardhan.

Can you discover ‘an influence’ after the fact?

What do you call someone who seems to embody your eye, your sensibility, and yet you had never seen his / her work, and yet, when you now see it, you see the ‘influence’…the similarities?

Is he confronting the same questions? Is he seeing this incredibly complex and multi-layered world with the same desire to depict it as close to that complexity as possible?

I was taken aback. The aesthetic pursuit is so familiar. It is as if he is a step ahead of me. He is a step ahead of me.

I am going through these images–gorgeous, striking, unique, and no, I refuse to give you some ‘European’ reference to understand them in any way. They are Patwardhan’s and his alone. But I want to make them as photographs.

They are the photographs I would make if in Mumbai. It is beautiful stuff. It makes me want to go and make photographs.

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Make It Right For Palestine, November 4, 2017

Be there. Hyde Park. Speaker’s Corner. London. 12:00 noon. 4th November, 2017.

The Polis Project…Is Up And Running

If you can’t join them, then just do it on your own.

We launched a new collective focused on research, reportage and resistance. The specific goals and objectives are being developed as we speak, but the idea is a simple one: to collect under one banner a group of individuals from different fields – artists, writers, academics, photographers, intellectuals, poets and others, who are consistently working against the grain. In this time of collective conformity, and a media sycophancy to power and extremism, some of us felt the need to create a small space where people are still determined to refuse the agendas of political power, debilitating capitalism, nationalist extremism and neoliberal idiocy, and remain fools in their hearts, and idealists in their souls.

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Short Doc: “As If A Nightmare”;The Story Of Former Bagram Prisoner Abdul Haleem Saifullah

 

We are commemorating 9/11 this week, but by remembering the ‘other’ victims of that event that few chose to remember. These are the brown bodies that rarely make it into visual media projects, that since 9/11, have chosen to hide behind digital representations, data charts, and other visual forms that do a lot, but never permit us to see or hear the brown and black people who actually suffer the consequences of drone attacks, sweeping surveillance, targeted entrapment, renditions, indefinite detentions, torture and other forms of inhumanity that today liberal minds seem to be able to easily justify.

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Short Doc: “Prisoner 1432” – The Story of Former Bagram Prisoner Amanatullah Ali

 

We are commemorating 9/11 this week, but by remembering the ‘other’ victims of that event that few chose to remember. These are the brown bodies that rarely make it into visual media projects, that since 9/11, have chosen to hide behind digital representations, data charts, and other visual forms that do a lot, but never permit us to see or hear the brown and black people who actually suffer the consequences of drone attacks, sweeping surveillance, targeted entrapment, renditions, indefinite detentions, torture and other forms of inhumanity that today liberal minds seem to be able to easily justify.

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10 Things To Consider…

I recommend that photographers, photojournalists, documentary photographers remember these wise words by Tania Canas, RISE Arts Director / Member – I am copying and pasting it here. As brown and black bodies are stripped of their clothing, as brown and black children are dehumanised to mere misery, as brown and black women are reduced to simply victims, as ghettos and brothels and refugee camps and slums become the ‘paint by number’ formula for White photographer’s career and publishing success, it becomes increasingly important that those of us on the receiving end of White ‘largesse’ begin to build obstacles, speak back, and refuse / reject these ‘representations’ and their reductive, violent and brutal narrative frames. We have lost too much, and are in danger of whatever little we have left as humans and as histories, if we permit this process to continue.

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