You cannot report a war from the front lines. You can only report a battle. Ducking under fire, scared for your life, beholden to the largess and tolerance of the military forces you are traveling with, denuded of context, obsessed with the immediate action unfolding in front of you, while constantly keeping an eye over your shoulder for the ‘enemy’, riddled with panic, fear, doubt, and worry a reporter on the front line struggles to keep up with unfolding events. Like watching a movie, she is unable to see and think simultaneously – she can merely report the immediate, the literal, as it unfolds in front of her. And an embedded reporter is in an even worse position – trapped not only physically, but also ideologically and with the constant fear of being ‘locked’ out if she fails to tow the line.
But wars are not merely the combat and journalism isn’t only about reporting the battles. In fact, when it comes to wars, one could safely argue that the battles are the least interesting pieces of information, and the most misleading. They tell us nothing about how we got into the war, the broader social, political, economic, cultural and individual devastation they unleash, the millions of lives of ‘the enemy’ that are torn asunder, the suffering of those left in the wake of the war machine and the festering and degrading realities that emerge as a result of the occupations and repressions that necessarily follow.
The focus on the battles distracts from the war itself – its reasons, its objectives, and lets be honest, its real consequences for those who were trampled under it. And certainly when it comes to wars of choice, those that our leaders led us into on the basis of lies, journalists have to accept that the front line is in fact the worst place to report as it is most distant from where one can make the inquiries and investigations, understand the realities and histories, that went to make the war, and that plague the came in the aftermath.
But of course, photographers need ‘action’ and ‘events’, and the medium cannot comprehend many of these complexities is then left documenting only the most obvious, and literal manifestations of a conflict – the violence itself. But violence tells us nothing, nor does it really tell the story of a war. As was evidenced by most all the photo slide shows that recently appeared to ‘commemorate’ the 10th anniverary of the American attack on Iraq. Most all simply focused on the battles, the soldiers, the weaponry, the casualties – the front line where truth is in fact practically impossible to find.
Photography is perhaps one of the poorest ways of reading and understanding history – an image cannot hold a context, a chronology, an explanation of a cause or an effect. It can only document the immediate present, while erasing the past and the future. And yet it was a sort of a history, albeit a very limited one, that was on display in these slide shows. Context was created by the sequencing, and by the language used in the captions.
And whereas the images were familiar, it was the words and text that accompanied them that caught my eye. It was here, in the text, that one could explore the ways in which the war was carefully sculpted for American sensibilities, patriotism and sense of justice. It was through the texts that so much of the reality of this invasion was erased, and then recast to suggest American innocence, an equivalency between combatants, a delegitimization of Iraqi resistance, an insistence on Iraqi intransigence, an organic chaos, and a number of Orientalist troupes about Arabs and an Arab society.
But what struck me most forcefully was that in the best of these slideshows, the text was used, and despite all facts to the contrary, to absolve the United States of America of its war crimes, the unjustness and illegality of its decision to invade, the massive and widespread destruction of civilian life and infrastructure that it unleashed against a largely civilian population and a weakened military force (anyone remember the horrors of the oil-for-food program and the sanctions that came prior to the war itself? see here for a reminder), and the brutality of the occupation that followed and continues to maim the entire society.
Take for example one of the largest such ‘anniversary’ slides shows put together – Time magazine’s Lightbox blog featured fifty-six images from what the writer and editor Bobby Ghosh called ‘… some of the finest news photographers in the world’. It gives us a very specific view of the war and a very interesting way to study the language used to describe it.
I will not say much about the fact that the large majority of the images featured were produced by photographers embedded with the American military forces. This rather narrow view of the war – a view that continues to distort our understanding of the injustices, horrors and criminality that we unleashed there, is actually described by Bobby Ghosh as evidence of the Iraq invasion being ‘…arguably the most exhaustively photographed conflict in human history.’ But clearly, with most all Western / American photographers embedded with the American military, and under the strict and rigid controls of the military censor, it is hard to take this claim of ‘exhaustive’ documentation seriously. Bobby Ghosh cannot seriously believe that in a visual history where most all of the over 1 million Iraqi dead, 4 million Iraqi displaced, and countless others injured, maimed, dispossessed, traumatized, tortured, renditioned, are blatantly missing, that we have anything even remotely close to an ‘exhaustive’ documentation.
But perhaps this is the role that the text is meant to play; to convince us of that which is not true, to turn our minds away from the real facts that underpinned the war, and towards an imaginary history where we are absolved for our sins, given benign intentions, and allowed to present ourselves as having been misled into this misadventure, and then simply done our best to contain the damage.
Precisely such an attempt was on display in a recent Op-Ed that appeared in The Washington Post. Written by Bush’s security advisor, Stephan Hadley – one of the men who led us into the Iraq fiasco, he said that:
After Hussein was deposed, we did not find the stockpiles of WMDs that all the world’s major intelligence services, the Clinton and Bush administrations and most members of Congress thought that he had. It was less an intelligence failure than a failure of imagination. Before the war, no one conceived what seems to have been the case: that Hussein had destroyed his WMD stocks but wanted to hide this from his enemy Iran. The U.S. team charged with searching for WMDs concluded that Hussein had the intention and the means to return to WMD production had he not been brought down. (With Iran pursuing nuclear weapons, it is a good bet that he would have.)’
This is a lie. As is that last comment abour Iran pursuing nuclear weapons. The dogs of war remain hungry!
The US government, its intelligence agencies, most every international intelligence agency, and (gasp!) most journalists, knew that there were no WMD and that the Iraqi’s had not only argued this, but that it had been verified by defectors, and by inspections. And yet, this lie appeared unchecked and unverified in the Op-Ed pages of one of the nation’s major newspapers. It seems that we are still busy re-writing this history.
I want to carefully walk through some select images that appeared in this Time Lightbox slide show and examine the words used, and the perspectives offered. This exercise reveals some remarkably persistent prejudices that continue to inform the broader public about the reasons and nature of the conflict. And perhaps most egregeiously, they continue to mislead and misguide us about what actually transpired here. As our political leaders attemtp to sleep-walk us into yet another war – this one against Iran, once against based on lies and provocations, we would do well to remember how to read, to examine and to understand the words and language we see in the newspapers.
I begin with the very first image in the slide show.
It is as subtle as the propaganda can get. Its intent unclear, yet it is there in the words – to create a sense of the violence, illegitimacy and venality of Saddam Hussein’s rule, and set the stage for the images to follow. This image is a rather odd choice – one of only two ‘pre-invasion’ image to be included in the slide show. Taken by Tyler Hicks, it shows a group of Iraqi men – prisoners who had been pardoned by Saddam Hussein at the eve of the invasion, struggling to get out of the prison. What is clearly a prison riot is transformed by Hicks words to
‘…a collective movement against Saddam Hussein’s thuggish rule.’
This was an odd way to characterize this moment, but its effect was quite clear: that Saddam was an evil man, and that the nation was struggling to overthrow him. It is the only image and the only caption that attempts to create a ‘context’, and offers a ‘reason’ for the conflict by immediately letting the viewer feel anger towards Saddam Hussein. No other image plays this contextual role in the slide show. The only other image – Bruno Steven’s scene from outside a Baghdad cafe that follows next, is innocuous and benign, despite the photographer’s claims to the contrary.
As I went through the slide show, the text kept mesmerizing me. Throughout the slideshow there were subtle acts of obfuscation and propaganda, most of which we would miss if we did not read carefully. I am tempted to simply offer a few examples, but I find that I have to go through each of the images that caught my attention. So I ask for your patience, as I work through these and focus on the words used to describe the scenes we are being shown. It is clear that the photographers are adding additional details, comments and thoughts, because the photographs cannot carry it all.
In Image 4 photographer Paolo Pellegrin uses the terms ‘British forces’ and calls those fighting against them ‘pro-Saddam fighters’.
Here we see one protagonist of the war being referred to as a legitimate state army, and hence with a right to carry out violence, and the other suggests some sort of band of militants and guerrilla forces and hence illegitimate, suspect, disorganized, and aligned with the ‘evil man’. This is a language borrowed from the politicians and propagandist who took us into this war, here repeated unthinkingly, even after 10 years. The men resisting the American invasion could not be seen as member of the Iraqi Army or a legitimate resistance force or spoken of that way. Apparently we still cannot speak of them as that.
In image 5 we read Damir Sagolj telling us that this was a real war between two armies, which would be fine were it really true. And in fact, we are reminded of the minimum military resistance the Americans faced in the invasion …
…when in the caption to Image 6 James Hill tells us that in fact the only real opposition to the Americans was the desert sand and the weather!
But the text of Image 6 above is interesting for more reasons.
The photographer James Hill repeats the lie that many left liberals and right conservatives have used in the aftermath of the chaos and mindless of the war – that even today…’ it is hard to decide, even after the departure of American troops, what were the rights and wrongs and successes and failures of the campaign.´
This is frankly an outrageous deception – the rights and wrongs of this war were clear and precise from the moment it was a gleam in the neoconservative eye, and it is shameful that a photographer would use such an obfuscating sentence to convince us that there is any debate about its criminality, illegality, venality and injustice.
Perhaps James Hill would do well to read Peter Van Buren’s piece Why The Invasion of Iraq Was The Single Worst Foreign Policy Decision In American History(could there be a better title to an essay!) to help him decide. If you are still confused after 10 years, and all the facts and evidence that shows how our leaders lied about the war and its goals, you do not have the right to work as a photojournalist, let alone as a photographer. But statements like this play a powerful anaesthetic role, helping us hide behind the argument of ‘confusion’ and ‘benign’ intent, letting us off the hook of responsibility and accountability. A very Obama-esque move.
As we move to Image 8 we see perhaps one of the more famous ’embed’ photographers around, Yuri Kozyrev…
…offering his personal ‘proof’ of the accuracy of the American bombing campaign, and then two sentences later blatantly contradicting himself by pointing out the large number of civilian casualties that he witnessed. I quote:
On the first night, in spite of the thunderous explosions not far from the hotel the journalists were staying in, we observed that the weapons were destroying the targets with accuracy….And of course there were air strikes where many Iraqi civilians were killed.
Why was that comment put here? How many of us can believe that Kozyrev can assess the ‘accuracy’ of American air strikes from the window of his hotel room? Why repeat 10 year later a lie that was bread-and-butter in the build up of the war and used by so many newspaper reporters, pundits and others during the heat of the battle? In fact, a quick perusal of the media’s stupidity and mindless parroting of government propaganda reveals that this idea of accuracy was one of the main tropes used to silence dissent and marginalize those who opposed the war – we are killing only the ‘bad guys’. It should remind us of precisely the nonsense arguments being bandied about today in regards to drone strikes.
But this is still not enough. Yuri goes a step further and righteously tells us of how he was ’embedded’ and ‘minded’ by the Iraqis, and did not have the freedom to do as he wished. The same explanation of course vanishes when he spends the rest of his Iraq war coverage ’embedded’ and ‘minded’ by the Americans. Then the images are not subjected to these ‘caveats’ and offered as ‘real’ documentation of the ‘real’ war. I quote Kozyrev:
We were being watched by minders all the time, who gave us access to the events they thought were news: civilians affected by the bombing or a press conference at the Ministry of Information. We were not allowed to go anywhere near the military or the Republican Guard. They wanted us to report their side of the story — we couldn’t just get into the taxi and travel around.
This same text could be repeated for his time embedded with the American forces, but Kozyrev has never made such a statement or offered such a protest. In fact, watching a recent reportage Kozyrev produced about the withdrawal of American forces from Afghanistan, I commented that:
…we would never have tolerated such works had they emerged from a Russian / soviet war machine, as we do not when it emerges from an Iranian government press agency, a Chinese official release, or a Syrian government disclosure. these ‘axis of evil’ nations are mocked, their images trashed, their journalists a butt of jokes. and yet, when our photographers produce these works – and they are more sophisticated, we seem to take them so seriously. why do we garland these works – produced with deep engagement, negotiations and connivance of the US military, with anything other than suspicion and dismissal? my criticism is not about Yuri as a photographer – he is a fine, fine photographer, but about the institutions and systems within which his work has appeared – and this is not the first time. its not about him – its about the use his work is put to, and what his talent is available for.
As we move through the slide show we confront the incredible text connected to Image 16 – the famous moment when an American armored vehicle helped pulled down the statue of Saddam Hussein in Firdos Square.
Ron Haviv’s text is rather curious, presenting the entire event as if it unfolded spontaneously, organically and without anyone really thinking much about its inception. As Haviv says:
I could see pockets of celebrations, with flowers being handed out, small Saddam statues coming down, along with continued street fighting and the beginning of looting. Marines — who had been asked at the behest of terrified journalists based in hotels in the square to provide security during the power vacuum — were arriving. Inside the square, a small group of Iraqis were trying to take down the large Saddam statue with ropes and sledge hammers. Once they realized the futility of their pursuit, they turned to the Marine commander and asked for help. He obliged and as the assistance was given.
And yet, we know that this is not what actually happened. In a carefully researched piece The New Yorker’s Peter Mass pointed out that:
…very few Iraqis were there. If you were at the square, or if you watch the footage, you can see, on the rare occasions long shots were used, that the square was mostly empty. You can also see, from photographs as well as video, that much of the crowd was made up of journalists and marines….Closeups filled the screen with the frenzied core of the small crowd and created an illusion of wall-to-wall enthusiasm throughout Baghdad. It was an illusion that reflected only the media’s yearning for exciting visuals.
Some have argued that this was a made-for-television event, orchestrated perhaps at the behest of the American military, with hundreds of journalists invited for the show. In fact, Peter Maas in the same essay tells us of how Gary Knight, another photographer from Haviv’s VII Photo agency, had reacted to the situation:
Gary Knight, the photographer who followed McCoy’s battalion to Baghdad, had a similar problem, as he talked with one of his editors on his satellite phone. The editor, watching the event on TV, asked why Knight wasn’t taking pictures. Knight replied that few Iraqis were involved and the ones who were seemed to be doing so for the benefit of the legions of photographers; it was a show. The editor told him to get off the phone and start taking pictures.
It was a show. But you would not know that from Haviv’s caption, written ten years after these questions were raised, and investigated. His caption transforms this near stage-managed event into omething that was ‘spontaneous’ and ‘led by Iraqis’ with the Americans only being ‘asked’ by the Iraqis to come and help. His entire text is a summary of the lie that was used to tell the Americans why we were there – the Iraqi’s want us to come and liberate them and that we would be welcomes as liberators. And here it is – ten years later, a photographer continuing to peddle this untruth.
In fact, this is the only moment of the war that gets a number of different images to depict it – as if our memory of what actually transpired there cannot but help make it into the iconic event we wanted to believe it was. The editors of Lightbox offer us Ron Haviv’s, Jerome Delay’s and then David Guttenfelder’s images from events in Firdos Square or related (Saddam’s destroyed statues), and never once mention the orchestration and made-for-media staging that went into it. Theatre becomes history, myth trumps reality, and the photograph, with its shallow vision, becomes the truth.
As we move along, we arrive at Image 21, and Timothy Fadek offering us once again a conventional justification for the war – that Saddam was a ‘bad’ man, and that this ‘evil’ is a justification.
Fadek exact words are:
Looking back, there’s no doubt in my mind that the war was a tragic, catastrophic mistake. Yet, it’s important to remember that Saddam Hussein did indeed rule by sheer terror and medieval brutality.
Here once again we have the obfuscation and confusion argument – Saddam was evil, we had to do something, but I am not sure it all worked for the best. Woe is us. Nothing is said about the fact that over 1.5 million Iraqis had to die for this sense of woe to emerge, and that nearly 4 millions were permanently displaced and dispossessed of their history, land, homes and futures. Does he realize that we had become the greater evil – that our brutalities in Iraq somehow overwhelm perhaps what Saddam had done and that which we used as justification?
There is no doubt that Saddam Hussein was ‘a bad man’, but clearly we can agree that he was also ‘a bad man’ while he was one of our staunchest Middle Eastern allies. The photograph of Donald Rumsfeld shaking his hands while traveling there to sign weapons deals still sits in my head. Perhaps it does in yours Timothy?
It is also important to note at this stage that we are half way through the slide show, and there is no mention of mass Iraqi casualties and deaths. The first mass death offered is of a massacre carried out by Saddam Hussein nearly 13 years prior to the invasion! The past is put to use to justify the present, while the massive loss of life at the hands of the American war machine have to as yet not appeared in this slide show. So far the slide show shows nothing of the consequences of the massive violence unleashed by the Americans – there are no massacres of Iraqis and certainly no visual acknowledgement of the massacres that ensued as a result of the invasion.
Image 22 is the fabulously silly Thomas Dworzak work…
…where he, without any sense of irony or embarassment, stayed inside the American Humnees and simply admitted that:
I would almost entirely focus on photographing the Americans, since I hardly ever met any Iraqis.
He does not even leave the vehicle. What more can one say about this?
We go on.
Image 24, Stephanie Sinclair’s image of the aftermath of the bombing of the UN building, carries within it the naivete and frankly, ignorance, that perhaps informed so many photographers covering the conflict – that…
…the Americans had a plan, that Iraqi society would somehow manage to withstand this onslaught, and that all hell would not break lose in the aftermath. That she admits to it is a testament to her intelligence, but that she had thought otherwise at any time suggests a refusal to face the facts of the build up to the war. As she states:
…maybe naively, I hadn’t expected the complete implosion of Iraqi society so quickly either. When the UN headquarters in Baghdad was attacked on such a large scale it became instantly clear that in addition to losing hearts, minds, and lives, the US had begun to lose control, and perhaps, even more importantly, a sense of perspective about what they were up against. Many of us began to wonder if they’d ever had one to begin with.
Quite something to admit that it was not until this attack, and so much violence, so much madness, so much destruction and death for the realization to sink in that the American’s were ‘…losing hearts, minds, and lives’. At what point in an unprovoked invasion did the people ever offer their hearts, minds and lives to the invader? Where did this naivety come from? What formed it? What idealized, idealistic, white-man-savior complex (thank you Teju!) allowed such a delusion to exist in the first place? At what moment did she convince herself these massive armies, their devastating bombings, these crushing sanctions, this jack-boot occupation were the foundations of the beginning of a new ‘democracy’ and ‘liberty’? It could not just be naivity I would argue, it also had to be willed suspension of common sense.
Mike Kamber’s comments to Image 25 reveals how editors sitting some 15,000 km away were trying to ‘direct’ the presentation of the war as seen by the Americans.
Sent to create the impression of ‘normality’ as he himself admits in the text, he is confronted by a situation that is fast deteriorating out of control. Mike Kamber claims that it was at this moment that things changed for him – I find that a shocking admission for it once again reveals an individual disconnected from the realities of the conflict, and the realities of war. It is as if these photographers got drunk on the Bush cool-aid, and were rudely bought to earth by experiencing the violent reality, something that their common sense could also have helped them see.
Image 27 offers us the frequently used troupe of ‘the good American’ helping a hapless Iraqi – maimed, injured, ruined by American military action, but apparently saved by American civic concern.
The hypocrisy of this entire episode is lost on the photographer and the image works to highlight not the fact that we brutalized a child’s life, but that we ‘saved’ him from ourselves. The joke is a cruel one. I have seen such jokes in Gaza and the West Bank, where some Israeli philanthrophist will try to ‘save’ a Palestinian child maimed and crippled by Israeli soldiers. Such tiny acts of compassion of course grease the way for the larger violence unleashed against these occupied societies – they act as a balm to our realization of our own brutality, helping us not go mad in the face of our venality and murderous rampages and convincing us of our ‘civilized’ values even as we reject them.This is a classic of liberal piety and pity – first destroy their society, steal their lands, murder them with impunity, but occassionally pluck one of them, bestow upon him the ‘gift’ of a public display of benevolence and numb ourselves against our venality.
Image 29 offers us an unusually narcissistic (some of my friends insist otherwise!) Stanley Greene transforming the rape of a nation into a moment of personal angst and sorry.
Ironically it is the sight of two dead Americans that so moves him that he, in his own words:
Seeing those dead burnt bodies really shocked me. Back at the hotel, I sat down and cried. I’d lost something that day and knew I was never going to get it back.
The caption is quite insulting, because it is all about the photographer himself. And his personal trauma – real or imagined I can only guess. What was it that he would not get back? And what about the real victims of this war – somehow Stanley forgot to mention the fact that there were a few million people who had actually lost things that they would never get back – families, and their own lives. But what was it that he had lost? And why has he become the subject of the war?
We then have Luis Sinco, Image 36, hiding behind the classic argument that we will never know the truth about this war.
It matters not that we in fact do know the truth, but it seems that the photographers much prefer obfuscating the realities they document, never allowing facts and knowledge to color their work. This ‘sitting on the fence’ – an attitude captured well by a recent VII Photo Agency traveling exhibition called ‘Questions Without Answers’ seems to be a safe and apolitical posture for photographers to employ. It is however deeply hypocritical because the very men and women who claim to cover the world’s ‘historic’ events, later attempt to feign ‘neutrality’ about the same events, hiding behind postmodernist positions while refusing to take a stand on the basis of clear and obvious principals. Sinco insults our intelligence with his resort to orientalist cliches:
Arabs have two sayings: “Insha’Allah” (God Willing) and “Maktub” (It Is Written). Someday, somewhere in between, we may find truth.
I think that somewhere between ‘Oil’ and Dick Cheney, we have found the truth. If you don’t believe me then perhaps you can believe Chuck Hagel, the current Secretary of Defence, who once said:
People say we’re not fighting for oil. Of course we are. They talk about America’s national interest. What the hell do you think they’re talking about? We’re not there for figs.
Or perhaps if he is not good enough, we can ask General Abizaid, former CENTCOM Commander, who pointed out while speaking at Stanford University:
Of course it’s about oil, it’s very much about oil, and we can’t really deny that. From the standpoint of a solider who’s now fought in the middle east for six years – my son-in-law’s fought there for four years, my daughter’s been over there, my son has served the nation – my family has been fighting for a long time.
So, lets not seek the truth by resorting to banal Arabic phrases, but perhaps in the real world. Why Sinco would try to distract us with his nonsense I will never understand. Why would you want to continue to suggest that we do not know what happened here, or continue to propagate the lie that this was a war of ideals and that it later went terribly wrong?
Then you have the otherwise intelligent Andrea Bruce, documenting a women’s protest, in Image 37, (perhaps the best image in this entire slide show!) repeating yet another false cliche – the one about Iraqi’s and their new found freedoms.
Suicide bombings and mass graves were common. People were disappearing. Even still, Iraqis were testing their new found freedom to protest.
She seems to completely miss the irony of her own statement where the horrors of the occupation – suicide bombings, mass graves and disappearances are not a part of ‘the new freedoms’, but the organization of a protest is. The Iraqis were apparently free to die in a hundred different ways – a freedom that we bestowed upon them, but hey, at least they could congregate on the streets with placards. Long live freedom!
It reminded me of of a quote from The Freedom, a book about the U.S. war in Iraq by investigative journalist Christian Parenti. Parenti offers this sardonic observation from Akeel, a 26-year-old resident of Baghdad, about the supposed freedom brought by the U.S. invasion:
Ah, the freedom. Look, we have the gas-line freedom, the looting freedom, the killing freedom, the rape freedom, the hash-smoking freedom. I don’t know what to do with all this freedom.
The ideological blinkers are shocking to see. Otherwise intelligent individuals reduced to repeating propaganda, blind to the brutal realities unleashed in the aftermath of the war, and ‘celebrating’ the nonsensical, the trivial, the marginal, while completely ignoring and explaining away the overwhelming, the vivid, the most obvious.
Ashley Gilbertson’s text for Image 38 is as confusing as it is banal.
Stating the obvious – that in war man kills those he cannot see or know, it nevertheless juxtaposes the two protagonists as ‘insurgent’ vs. American soldier. Here again we see the use of a word that de-legitimizes the Iraqi resistance to the illegal American military invasion and occupation, while bestowing credibility on the American soldier by referring to him as ‘a Marine’ or ‘American military’. One is a rebel, guerrilla, insurgent, militia, terrorist, and the other is a soldier. That Iraqi’s resisting the American military presence have a right to do so, a right protected by international law, is negated by constantly referring to them as ‘insurgents’, or ‘militia’ or ‘pro-Saddam’ as we saw earlier.
There are a number of images of the ‘injured’ American soldiers – the ‘victims’ of this ‘senseless’ war. I have criticized this concentrated focus on the injured and killed American soldiers, calling it an attempt to transform members of an invasion force into a group of ‘innocent victims’, struggling to simply survive a conflict they may once have gleefully anticipated. Here, in these images of the dead, the injured, the American soldier is humanized in a way that no Iraqi victim – civilian or military, ever has been. Here, in these images, we find complete histories and moment of human concern – attitudes that are absent when it comes to speaking about the real victims of the war – the Iraqis themselves.
There is Maya Alleruzzo, Image 27, with her talking about the dead soldier’s life story with this small statement:
…the medic, Scott Gillis removed the man’s wedding ring, wearing it on his own ring finger for safekeeping until it could be bagged and sent home to his wife, who did not even know she was a widow yet.
A touching gesture of compassion, one largely reserved for the Americans / European forces, and absent for all others.
There is Robert King’s ridiculous caption to Image 33 – a close up of a marine in tears, collapses into complete travesty, with him concluding with:
The image still haunts me, and at times, members of Battery B, 3rd Battalion, 112th Field Artillery, Army National Guard, have reached out to thank me for my work. It brings closure to this horrific tragedy where American heroes gave the ultimate sacrifice to their country.
Here once again we see a photographer parroting official, nationalist, patriotic propaganda. A war of choice against a defenceless nation that had not threatened the USA in any way, is presented as ‘…the ultimate sacrifice to their country’. There is not even a hint of irony here, and certainly not a hint of reality. The jingoism is purely Fox News, and absolutely ahistorical. That the editors of Lightbox simply repeat it makes you wonder what the intent of this entire display of images was. What we are witnessing is a re-write, an Argo-ization of the Iraq war from the illegal and dishonorable invasion and occupation that it was into a conflict of honor and national pride. That there are American who still believe in the honor, and service as appropriate ways to speak about this hideous, misguided, venal invasion, still leaves me reaching for breath!
Ed Kashi, for Image 40, offers us a kind of work that has been oft copied – the injured Iraqi soldier.
But what I found fascinating about this text was how he inverts the balance of power that actually existed on the ground, suggesting an equal battle between of the world’s most advance military machines, and the Iraqi soldiers and fighters resisting it. I quote Kashi:
They were being slaughtered physically and shattered mentally by this new kind of urban warfare and asymmetrical conflict, fighting an enemy that was hidden and always lurking in the shadows.
The Iraqi ‘lurks’ like a beast, an enemy who ‘hides’ unlike real soldiers. There is asymmetry of conflict, suggesting a balance of power that in fact never actually exists. Only a few thousand American soldiers died in this massive invasion, compared to hundreds of thousands of Iraqi fighters. But you would not know this from Kashi’s depiction, were we are being told that there was a battle between equals, that the American’s were ‘being slaughtered’. If the Americans were being slaughtered, what was happened to the Iraqis who were dying in numbers ten times as great? Kashi has nothing to say about this.
But this turn towards the American injured – a turn taken by many photographers including James Nachteway, Nina Berman, Eugene Richards, Ed Kashi, Ashley Gilbertson and more, was a turn to convert the attackers and occupiers, into victims. Works such as these remind me of a question that Jim Nielson raised, that:
…the question remains: how, against the best efforts of so many, did a war once perceived as a nearly genocidal slaughter to perpetuate American neo-colonialism come to be viewed as an American tragedy? And to what extent have cultural and in particular literary representations of the war helped in that transformation? It could be argued that Vietnam War novels and memoirs have contributed significantly to this process, since they reach an important readership – the editors, publishers, writers, pundits, and professors who make up America’s intellectual class. By promoting a literature that favors individual lives over historical contingency, and textual sophistication over social analysis, this class has helped reproduce, not merely in the small audience of serious fiction writers but in the general public as well, a simple and ideologically unthreatening view of the war.
(Jim Nielson, Warring Fictions: Cultural Politics and The Vietnam War Narrative, From Ammiel Alcalay’s Scrapmetal)
And today photography and photojournalism plays an equally powerful role in this inversion where yet another American slaughter is transformed into an American victim hood. In a post I wrote earlier titled Photographing the Unseen Or What Conventional Photojournalism Is Not Telling Us About Ourselves I argued that:
[a]…set of photographers have focused on the ‘aftermath’ of those [American soldiers] suffering from the violence of combat. Most all of these works act as quiet ‘memorials’ to the sacrifices of ‘our boys and girls’. These reveal the individual soldiers and their post-conflict trauma and take us into the world of those who are physically or emotionally maimed, or whose families are dealing with loss. As important as these works are, what concerns me is the sheer one-sidedness that has now emerged as a result of not a single American or European or other photographer producing similar works about the other victims of our conflicts…They, the ‘other’, are completely missing in this discussion. The one-sidedness is difficult to accept…What I fear is that these projects on post-war scars – as wonderful as so many of them are e.g. Nina Berman‘s work, or AshlyGilbertson’s or Eugene Richard’s to name just a few, are helping the rest of us forget the real victims, and the real crimes committed in our name. They are distracting us from our willed and ‘democratically’ supported acts of warfare, terror, repression, torture, occupation, control, murder and devastation. They help repaint us a ‘good’ and ‘noble’, as involved in ‘defensive’ actions against ‘evil’, as simply honorable knights that have fallen defending the nation, in innocence and purity. They claim to be ‘anti-war’ but they in fact do quite the opposite. They create a sense of ‘us’ being wronged, as victims and innocent and fuel our ‘righteous’ belief for the need to continue their wars. They invert the situation in front of us, allowing us to think that we are the ‘objects’ of violence, the focus of ‘evil’ while helping us forget that we are in fact the aggressor, the occupier, and the oppressor. They help us wear the garbs of ‘honor’ and ‘courage’ and ‘dignity’ while we carry out acts of dishonor, cowardice and inhumanity. Rather than provoke a larger discussion – one that has yet to take place, about how we have entangled ourselves in this mess, and how our democratic ideals and the foundations of our republic have been weakened, we are using such projects are in danger of helping us garland ourselves with righteousness and the self-pity of victims.
This theme is repeated in Image 42, by Seamus Murphy, Image 43 by Nabil al-Jurani, Image 46 by Nina Berman, Image 48 by John Moore, all fall into this category of works as they ‘humanize’ and create into ‘victim’s those who were in fact willing participants in an illegal invasion, and whose acts and actions resulted in unimaginable horrors and continue to scar the citizens of Iraq.
I will stop here.
It is surprising to see how much the rhetoric offered in the slide show echoes that which was on offer at the height of the invasion. It is as if the photographers who covered the war refuse to understand beyond the immediate moment they experienced it. It is as if since then, and despite ten years of new reporting and coverage, many of them have simply refused to adjust their discourse. Or perhaps this is yet another of the tragic flaws of using photography as history: the fact that it traps not just a moment, but also the ideology, prejudice and presumptions that were present when the image was made. That it becomes impossible to imbue an image with a new idea without completely discrediting it. The photographers here, said to be ‘…the finest news photographers in the world’, continue to repeat phrases, perspectives and argument long discredited by scholars, activists, journalists and even by some of the same politicians who danced us towards this hideous war. If the image freezes time, does it also freeze thought?
What is also striking about this slide show is what is not said – that the war was based on lies, and that the American occupation destroyed the social, cultural, historical, intellectual, creative and political structure of an entire society. There is no reflection on the march to war, and the circus put on my the members of the Bush administration to take us there. There is also no reminder of the tens of millions who protested against this war – that across the globe there was universal condemnation of this most unnecessary of conflict and millions came out onto the streets to try to stop it. There is nothing of course about the 12 year sanction regime – a near genocidal punishment that crippled this nation, bringing it to its knees, before we ‘valiantly’ invaded and occupied it.
There is also no reminder of how most every single ‘source’ who squawked under torture and gave us the lies that were later used to argue that Iraq possessed WMD was later shown to have been wrong. There is also really no visual evidence offered of the immense scale of American violence directed at the millions of Iraqis we know who died as a result of the violence – these civilian and Iraqi military dead are carefully excised here in this and other slide shows. There is no Faluja, nor the continuing consequences of the violence there – the divisions, the fear, the mutations, the sick and those who continue to die there. There is no divided Baghdad, none of the corrupt, nepotistic political institutions we left, none of the daily fear, paranoia and death that stalks the streets of the country. There is no Abu Ghraib – that most enduring image of the Iraq war, the one by which most of the rest of the world remembers this fiasco.
What is also left out in the slide show are the major scandals of the war and the evidence of the war crimes that were revealed in documents published by outlets such as Wikileaks. The torture at Abu Ghraib, the chaos and looting that was encouraged in the aftermath of the invasion and that led to the pillaging of Iraq’s cultural and historical heritage. The coterie of corporations close to people like Dick Cheney and Donald Rumsfeld that stepped into reap the profits of war. (See also here, here and here). The illegal and shady deals signed to give American corporations access to Iraqi assets. The brutal legacy of war in dirth defects, and other health issues. The private mercernearies that were invited to share in the spoils, and that carried out a number of massacres and killings. The torture regime instituted to break the back of the resistance, as recently reported. And the simple failure of it all – a useless, pointless, dishonorable war based on lies and one for which so many suffered and continue to do so. All of this is missing from the slide show. Here, crippled by a need to show only images, some of the most if not the most important stories and consequences of the war are completely absent. Photography makes for terribly bad history.
Christian Caryl summarized this well in a piece called The War We Couldn’t See, where he said:
…journalists deserve a share of the blame, too—and not only for the failure to question more skeptically the Bush Administration’s claims about Saddam’s non-existent WMD. Journalists failed, above all, to show the war as it was. Americans who did not serve may think that they have some idea of what the war in Iraq was like, but they’re wrong. The culprit here is a culture of well-intentioned self-censorship that refuses to show the real conditions of modern warfare. You can search the seven years of US broadcast news from Iraq almost in vain for images of dead US soldiers, or the grotesque effects of a suicide bombing on buildings or bodies, or the corpses of Iraqi families who had been riddled with bullets by nervous young Americans manning nighttime checkpoints…We can hardly expect Americans to comprehend the grisly reality of wars like the one in Iraq until we’re prepared to show the consequences of the policies we so blithely adopt. The Iraqis themselves, of course, need no counseling on this matter. The war was never invisible to them.
We see the photographs, but we do not see the war. The claims to an ‘exhaustive’ document remain false and misleading.
Before I conclude this post – and it has become rather long, i will add that there were moments of lucidity and intelligence also captured in some of the images. Christopher Morris’ cynicism saves his work from joining the banality of the others. In Image 10 he reveals his scepticism yet again demonstrate the individual and intelligent thinker that he is. Geert Van Kesteren’s work remains unique in that he speaks out against what was happening in front of him, and speaks honestly. Image 23 has him speaking honestly about, and not without some anger, at the practice of torture and its tolerance and perpetuation by the Americans. He carried this indignation throughout his time in Iraq, and his recent books confirm a mind fighting against all the stultifying simplicities being forced upon it. Evan Vucci’s image (Image 54) of the shoe thrower, is a classic. In his text he adds:
I managed to capture was the frustration of many Iraqis over the violence, bloodshed, and chaos play out in a singular act of defiance
Realizations such as these give me hope that not all is lost. That thought many of these photographers may be ‘…the best news photographers in the world’, they still have a long way to go in understanding the worlds that they purport to document. If their perspectives on the Iraq war are any measure, we as Americans are a long way from understanding what really happened here. But should that surprise us?
The American media was complicit in the build up to the war, and in disseminating the lies that allowed us to conduct it. There has never in fact been a proper investigation of this, and many who were once mouth pieces for government lies today sit in powerful corporate positions. The ‘…world’s finest news photographers’ were working for this very media, and most continue to do so. The perspectives, prejudices and priorities that they bought to the work mirrored those that they saw and judged to exist in the broader media landscape.
There was no dissent, no critical re-evaluation of the reasons for war, and certainly no hesitance during the combat operations. At that time, with bombs raining down on the hapless citizenry, the journalists were on the front lines celebrating the ‘precision’ attacks, and the remarkable ability of American weapons to kill only ‘the bad guys’. They were working in a world created by the very media that was selling us the story about the WMD, about Saddam’s brutalities, about American exceptionalism, about the arrival of democracy in Iraq, about the flowers that will be spread at our feet, about the chemical weapons factories, about the ‘mushroom cloud’ scenario, about the missles that were minutes away from our metropolises, about the impending ‘ticking time bomb’ threat that was the Saddam regime, about the uniquely venal nature of his rule, about the cries of the Iraqi’s begging us to liberate them, about the ‘birth pangs’ of a new Middle East and so much more. These photographers were working at a time of relentless jingoism and mindless patriotism, most all drummed up by the Bush administration to win acquiesence for its war aims in Iraq. There was no room for dissent, and no room for doubt.
But what is troubling is that ten years on, we still see, in the words and the depictions of this conflict, the same refusal to dissent. There is no self-reflection or doubts expressed by the photographers as they speak about this tragedy. The same old cliches, the same old justifications, the same old discourse of ‘us’ vs. ‘them’ is offered to a pliant American public. It is as if we have remained trapped in our own lies, and now must consistently repeat them for no other reason than to protect our initial lies. And the photographs act as totems to these ‘truths’ – anchors around which we can continue to speak as if nothing new has been learned, no new truth unearthed, or even older truths finally admitted.
Not to put too fine a point on it, but the invasion of Iraq turned out to be a joke. Not for the Iraqis, of course, and not for American soldiers, and not the ha-ha sort of joke either. And here’s the saddest truth of all: on March 20th as we mark the 10th anniversary of the invasion from hell, we still don’t get it. In case you want to jump to the punch line, though, it’s this: by invading Iraq, the U.S. did more to destabilize the Middle East than we could possibly have imagined at the time. And we — and so many others — will pay the price for it for a long, long time.
The photographer never has to look back. It seems that we can simply take a photograph, tie it to a moment in time and opinion, and never have to look back. The story remains as it was – complete with the prejudices and presumptions it carried when it was produced. There is no re-examination of what happened, no re-evaluation of the realiy. There is no acknowledgement of the role these photographers played in the propaganda of war, and in the justifications that were offered for starting it, and then latter for sustaining it. In some ways the confusing, doubt ridden language of the captions helps absolve us of what we know we actually did. It creates a sense of confusion and uncertainty around a war that was anything but that. Here rather than an accounting, photography seems to be acting as a white-wash. The incredibly narrow, shallow narrative that emerges from slide shows such as this one, is not the ‘exhaustive’ truth, but in fact a very carefully craft act of historical re-write, where a crime of war, and a near genocidal slaughter of innocents, is reduced to a few pitched battles, some remorse, a lot of mea culpas, sugestions of Iraqi intransigence and inhumanity (they deserve this!) and a false sense of arriving at a normalcy.
So I leave you with this – from Dahr Jamail’s recent piece title Living With No Future about the new Iraq, the one bequethed to its citizens by the Americans and its lust for spreading democracy abroad:
The Iraq of 2013 staggers onward in a climate of perpetual crisis toward a future where the only givens are more chaos, more violence, and yet more uncertainty. Much of this can be traced to Washington’s long, brutal, and destructive occupation, beginning with the installation of former CIA asset Ayad Allawi as interim prime minister. His hold on power quickly faltered, however, after he was used by the Americans to launch their second siege of Fallujah in November 2004, which resulted in the deaths of thousands more Iraqis, and set the stage for an ongoing health crisis in the city due to the types of weapons used by the U.S. military….
Almost 10 years after U.S. troops entered a Baghdad in flames and being looted, Iraq remains one of the most dangerous places on Earth. There are daily bombings, kidnappings, and assassinations. The sectarianism instilled and endlessly stirred up by U.S. policy has become deeply, seemingly irrevocably embedded in the political culture, which regularly threatens to tip over into the sort of violence that typified 2006-2007, when upwards of 3,000 Iraqis were being slaughtered every month.