« Another Disability Heard From | Main | Go. Now. »

June 07, 2006

The War In Pictures

Truth will come to sight; murder cannot be hid long.
- The Merchant of Venice. Act ii. Sc. 2.

"I'd never have believed it, had I not seen it with my own two eyes."

"Seeing is believing."

"A picture is worth a thousand words."

How often in life do we prefer the evidence of our eyes over what we hear with our own ears? After all, words can be deceptive. People twist the truth, beguile our hearts with honeyed phrases or pour subtle poison in our ears to make us doubt where we once loved. But what we see with our own two eyes must be the truth, isn't it? The eyes don't deceive us. They are an unfiltered and neutral recorder of life's ups and downs, its glowing victories and bitter defeats; those quiet moments of beauty amid the storms of daily events.

They are, aren't they? Of course they are. We can trust our eyes:


Again and again throughout this war, amateur photographs have exposed the flaws of the military's carefully constructed image of discipline. Photographs made Abu Ghraib a symbol of shame throughout the world. And photographs and video images are again undermining the military's cherished reputation for calm under fire and heroic self-restraint.

The most horrifying images are not published or shown on TV, though they're easy to find on the Web. But the ones we are confronted with are bad enough: A small child, a victim of a devastating and controversial U.S. airstrike in Ishaqi, is dressed in baby-blue, his eyes are closed, and his tiny, gently clenched hand rests by his side. He might be asleep, except that the photograph, which ran in Newsweek, shows a mangled, bloody arm next to him. The unidentified, shredded limb (does it belong to yet another child?) reaching into the center of the image might well stand for all the rest of these photographs that prick the conscience: They seem to come from the margins of our attention, they reach in and put their bloody imprint on a war that we wish had more innocence and calm to it.

The military has concluded that there was no U.S. wrongdoing in the March 15 Ishaqi attack that left the child dead.

But the photograph can't tell us that, can it? The damage, however, is done: the image seared into our brains, an indelible reminder of the innocent victims of war. The world will not forget.

We will not be allowed to forget.

higginssmear.jpg And the grim scenery of war continues to haunt us long after the words which give it context, or utterly fail to do so, have passed beyond recollection. Sometimes, we never learn the real story behind the photos burned into our retinas. Or we learn it too late, long after they have circled the globe, passing from newspaper to newspaper, from web site to web site; leaping like a juicy rumor from Inbox to Inbox on a million PCs, replicating like a virus.

Photographs make us all silent witnesses to the tragedy of war. They bring the carnage into our living rooms: suggesting, urging us to act, tugging at our consciences, wrenching our guts, whispering that all is not well; that it can never be well in a world where babies bleed and their parents sit, numbed with overwhelming grief or wail out their agony and their anger.

They cry out for a justice that can never come quite swiftly enough, that can never assauge the pain that slices through our guts each time our eyes are confronted with the grisly reminders that war is, indeed, hell:

The U.S. military is still looking into the Haditha killings. It's also looking into the possibility of a military coverup, which kept the killings under wraps for half a year.

Photographs are immediate. Investigations are by necessity methodical and often slow. These two different senses of time -- the immediate and the methodical -- are now in troubling conflict. A dead child cries out for immediate response; the military investigates. We see photographs of men doubled over with grief, tear-stained faces, mouths contorted in pain, and the pang is instant; the military investigates. A boy standing next to the bodies of his family or friends looks up at his elders with a blank stare on his face, an image that puts death and childhood in excruciating proximity; the military investigates.

Photographs may play an important role in some of these investigations. But it is the degree to which the photographs exist in a world of their own, apart from the military's cautiously worded statements, that is increasingly perplexing. Throughout the war, the notion of two realities has dogged the warmakers. Is the president living in a world of good news and progress and missions accomplished, while our soldiers and the Iraqi population live in a world of chaos and death and uncertainty? Are the media presenting a world of antiseptic images, bloodless and vague, mere suggestions of a carnage they know all too well but dare not make explicit to the public?

We know, we believe, what we see, and the evidence of our eyes is compelling. But what of the evidence we never see? Has there been no single shred of decency to come from all the blood shed in Iraq and Afghanistan?

Where are the pictures of the schools and roads built, of children playing, of the thousand minor celebrations amid the chaos of war? Where are the moments of peace amid the chaos, the visual reminders of the progress we're making, the perspective that might stiffen our spines and straighten our shoulders? Where are the photos that could remind us why, for uncounted centuries, men have been willing to face the horrors of war, have been willing to kill, and bleed, and die so that perhaps one day, future generations may greet each new day without fear, shoulders unbowed, faces untroubled by the specter of sudden violence? Not on the front pages of our newspapers, that's for certain.


The war passes before our weary eyes each day in pictures.

Pictures of Abu Ghuraib bow our heads in bitter shame, but there are none of Saddam's torture chambers to awaken fury and stern resolution in our hearts. No severed tongues, hands, ears; no women shamed and defiled, no silent screams from half-exhumed corpses in a mass grave, no tiny femurs pointing like silent accusations from the dust of a once-great civilization. No bodies in free-fall, plummeting from a flaming skyscraper. No imam's shade twisting in a doorframe, his only crime that he dared to oppose desperate men bent on preventing the birth of a democracy. No child's forlorn corpse, its guts spilling out: turned into an obscene booby trap for the unwary soldier who stands with tears of pity dropping from his eyes. He reaches out his hand...

...but we don't see what happens next, nor the grisly obscenity that led to his death. We will see him only once more in this life, as one of the Faces of the Fallen, a testament to yet another one of America's humiliating failures.

Those are inconvenient truths, judged too upsetting for our eyes. We don't need to see them.

We might get the wrong idea, you see.

And so, in the end, what we are left with is an endless parade of horror, a veritable feast of death and destruction. Carnage and mayhem, cruelty and fear and grief all jumbled up like some obscene salad for our delectation. And we do feast our eyes. We can't stop ourselves. We are afraid to look and yet, transfixed, we cannot quite bring ourselves to avert our gaze.

baby.jpg We can trust what our eyes tell us, can't we?

Sure we can.

And the only image that fades, as the war grinds on, is the one with which we prepared for battle: the fantasy, so beloved of Americans, of a clean, surgical, decent war...

Fade to black.

Update: I should have just let Jimmie talk.

Posted by Cassandra at June 7, 2006 07:31 AM


It is complicated eh?

Damn fine post Cassie! One of the best you've written!

Posted by: JarheadDad at June 7, 2006 09:57 AM


Posted by: Hummer at June 7, 2006 10:01 AM

You show the shame of the terrorists and the strength of our weakness: The desire to protect the innocent.

No, I am not crying, I am in mourning.

Posted by: Cricket at June 7, 2006 11:50 AM

Through a glass, and darkly, I sometimes see the way the future might unfold, and it makes my insides feel like they are falling out.

I've seen this all before, in the other war, in the '60's and early '70's.

Cass, this column of yours and Michael Yon's post that you linked to.

What will become of us?
Thanks for keeping the faith and blogging on this. You express the hopes and ideals of many people you cannot ever know.

Posted by: Don Brouhaha at June 7, 2006 12:24 PM

The radical Islamists are counting on psyops images to prove that Americans are weak with no stomach for protecting their way of life despite the cost.

It is easy to be shocked from the comfort of our protected lives. Would it shock us equally to begin thinking like a terrorist and respond accordingly to their threat? Yes!

Suck it up people and get on with the nasty business of war.

Our failure to prevail would shock us more. Ask the victims of Saddams rape rooms, torture rooms, and chemical attacks on innocents!

Now that is something to think about on a personal leve.!

Posted by: vet66 at June 7, 2006 12:27 PM

I fear I make but a poor candle against the growing darkness, Don.

..try to live each and every precious moment
Dont be discouraged by the future
Forget the past
That's old advice but itll be good to you
I know there's a balance
I see it when I swing past

Between a laugh and a tear
Smile in the mirror as you walk by
Between a laugh and a tear
That's as good as it can get for us
And there aint no reason to stop trying

Posted by: Cassandra at June 7, 2006 12:37 PM

Quite a powerful post Cassandra, good job.

Posted by: Jane at June 7, 2006 12:42 PM


"Truth will come to sight; murder cannot be hid long."
We can only hope for that.

Posted by: Beth at June 7, 2006 11:43 PM

The old saw still holds true:
"Don't believe anything you hear, and only half of what you see..."

Posted by: camojack at June 8, 2006 01:24 AM

Beautifully written!

Posted by: beth at June 14, 2006 08:22 PM

Post a comment

Remember Me?

(you may use HTML tags for style)