09 August 2004

Images of war

In the bizzare article "The war of images", Lee Harris makes a convoluted argument that proponents of the Iraq war face an unfair challenge in dealing with the ugly images which the war has produced.
Consider the images that have worked their way into our collective mind since the beginning of April: the images of the massacre at Fallujah; the images of prisoner abuse at Abu Ghraib; the images of the decapitation of an American civilian. Now compare the overwhelming intensity of these images with the "idea" that the Bush administration is invoking in order to fight against them, namely, the abstract ideal of justice.
How can such an abstract idea hold its own against such vividly concrete images?
When I first read this article, I had trouble following its argument. Is it talking about the disjoint between our alleged ideals and what we are actually doing? Um, no: he's worried about how angry Americans will be to see the Abu Graib torturers put on trial.

Really, he is. Read more and see ...

We must be prepared to brace ourselves, not only against more images of Arab atrocities and American prisoner abuse, but against the inflammatory images that will emerge from the spectacle of Americans being exhibited in public trials in Iraq --- images that will have much the same impact on the collective mind of middle America that the images of prisoner abuse had on the collective mind of the Arab world.

When the average American sees images of other average Americans on trial in Iraq, howled and screamed at by mobs of Iraqis, whose side you do think he will be on --- the side of the Iraqis or the side of men and women whose only difference from himself is that they were assigned to a miserable job in a hellhole of a prison in the midst of a war that isn't quite a war, fighting an enemy who isn't quite an enemy.

Harris' problem is with the power of images itself, because he expects "average Americans" to believe that the soldiers at Abu Graib were tragic victims of circumstance, doing to those nasty Arabs what we all wish we could do ourselves, because Arab violence justifies all, including an American impulse toward greater violence.

I may be a lefty intellectual who succumbs occasionally to grousing about the moral vision of people who support the war in Iraq and the Bush administration --- but I at least expect that the average American will approve of seeing torturers tried and punished, even if those torturers are white people. To suggest otherwise is an indictment of the "average American" far worse than anything I would suggest.

This vision is so alien to me that I genuinely had a hard time parsing what that article was saying. I thought at first that he was trying to make a point about how media images of violence are so multivalent. When you see a ten-second video clip with Dan Rather intoning "more violence today in Elsewhere-istan" over it, you come away without any understanding of who is doing what, or why, just an impression of aimless chaos. There is something unwholesome, even deceitful, about that kind of use of imagery.

So yes, images of violence can deceive us. The folks at Bushflash, an anti-Bush propaganda site I've posted about before, provide an example of some cheating propaganda that uses rapid flashes of de-contextualized violence to underline their argument that the Bush administration is bloodthirsty and counterproductive. It's an argument I generally agree with, but the movie is a cheat: it shocks without informing.

But they also have a brilliant, chilling little movie which makes exactly the point that Harris attempts to evade: that Abu Graib is in fact a demonstration to both Americans and the Arab world that our claims of benevolence and a moral foundation to our actions in Iraq are undercut by our real actions. This movie's juxtaposition of a Bush speech about the conduct of American soldiers with the pictures from Abu Graib is about the ideas and events which the speech and the pictures represent, and the hypocricy the disjoint between the two represents.

Like it or not, both fair and unfair use of the imagery of war is now an inescapable part of the fabric of both domestic and international politics. Once again, Phil Agre's observations from just a few days after 9/11 prove eerily prescient. Images are not a distraction from the use of force in the modern world. They are part of the point.

Because the fighting is all on television, the fine details of the fighting become political matters. Soldiers complain bitterly about politicians' interference, not understanding that technology has eliminated their zone of professional autonomy. The politicians are right to be interfering.
Al-Qaeda understand this: it was obvious at the time that their attack on the WTC was deliberately designed to be mediagenic. Strangely, in our allegedly media-savvy society, we seem to have missed the point.

If we are in any sense engaged in a war with terror, or with militant political Islamism, Abu Graib was a defeat. A far greater defeat than 9/11. Contrary to what wingnuts may say, lefties like me don't blame America for 9/11. But we can't cast responsibility for Abu Graib on anyone else, can we?

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

sigh - yezida