From Abu Ghraib to Dover AFB: Understanding images of war

I've been largely silent on the photos of torture coming out of Iraq's Abu Ghraib prison--more of which were published today--because it's so shocking and sad and unfathomable. And frankly, what can I add to the already-raging discussion? Any honorable person should be angry as hell, so instead of venting my ire, I'm posting the unedited version of my article from the print edition of the current Adbusters. The book I'm writing on, Susan Sontag's Regarding the Pain of Others--like the images of US-inflicted torture, charred bodies lynched on an Iraqi bridge, and flag-draped coffins coming home from Iraq--haunts me. Maybe Sontag has something to offer the discussion.

Those who oppose war on grounds of its unfathomable barbarity are backed up by harsh photographic evidence: a nude girl, three-quarters of her nine-year old body blistered by napalm, fleeing a South Vietnamese aerial attack; an Iraqi soldier frozen in the hatch of a bombed-out tank, his lips charred away to reveal long teeth, his uniform incinerated to expose striated black muscles. But, while we recoil at such images--agreeing, as we must, that war is hell--what good does it do?

Without a name for the dead or details of why they’re fighting, our ire has no focus. But when the dead are identified—a Palestinian child, an American GI, a North Vietnamese woman—the images lose their neutrality. Now we can place blame. In Regarding the Pain of Others, Susan Sontag writes that photographs of war’s victims are "a species of rhetoric. They reiterate. They simplify. They agitate. They create the illusion of consensus." In 2004, as always, that rhetoric takes on a decidedly political tone.

During the Vietnam war, imagery turned Americans against military intervention. Watching footage of 58,000 formerly marching, laughing, high-school graduating young people return home in zipper bags can temper patriotic fervor. But by the end of the first Gulf War, George Bush declared, "By God, we've kicked the Vietnam syndrome once and for all." Why should Americans be gun-shy about entangling foreign wars when the casualty counts are so low, the killing is seemingly done on videogame monitors, and the dead come home in "transfer tubes"—a termed coined by the first Bush administration—instead of body bags? To further obscure war's gore, Bush issued a military order prohibiting the media from covering the arrival of dead soldiers at Dover Air Force Base, a policy his son, George W. Bush, enforces today. Thanks to this rule, you might've missed the news that the junior Bush's war in Iraq took more American lives by November 2003 than did Vietnam over its first three years.

While allowing us to see the human costs of "liberating Iraq" doesn’t serve Bush’s future war plans—after all, these 767 soldiers died at his command—keeping the dead in the public eye makes political sense when someone else is ordering the killing. A controversial Bush-Cheney campaign commercial, featuring a flag-draped body being removed from the site of the World Trade Center attacks, sends a clear message: Look what "they" did to us. Just as a photographer excludes some images when he focuses on others, the ad pinpoints a collective moment of shock, ignoring the complex issues that surround it.

"The problem is not that people remember through photographs, but that they remember only the photographs," writes Sontag. "Harrowing photographs do not inevitably lose their power to shock. But they are not much help if the task is to understand." Bush, like any wartime president, would rather leave Americans staggered by a visceral image of vulnerability and impotence than have them asking questions. Why was the president hindering the 9/11 investigation? Why did the White House fly some 100 Saudi citizens, including members of the bin Laden family, out of the US days after the country’s biggest terrorist attack? Where's Osama? "Narratives can make us understand," says Sontag. "Photographs do something else: they haunt us."