A few weeks ago I called attention to how the attempt to institutionalize the “rule of law” in Iraq was encoded in practices and narratives reminiscent of the conquest of the American frontier. The trope of the conquest of the American west, complete with its allusions of manifest destiny, has been used with both sledge hammer subtlety and various degrees of finespun nicety since virtually the very beginning of the U.S. invasion of Iraq.
The theme is eloquently and poignantly inflected in this image from Nina Berman’s 2004 “Purple Hearts” art exhibit, which was recently reprised in the NYT. “Purple Hearts” is a book/exhibit/DVD that includes pictures and interviews with six American veterans who were seriously injured in Iraq. This photograph is of Pfc. Adam Zaremba, a 20 year old “wounded in Baghdad when a mine blew off his leg.” The matter of fact objectivity of the caption reads like the conventional title in a family photo album – “Uncle Joe fishing at Lake Erie, 1923” or “Sally, 7, sits on Santa’s lap, Xmas 1952”—and contrasts with the evocative content being shown. The only thing missing, of course, is the date, which marks the scene as timeless. The formal minimalism of the caption contrasts as well with the intricacies and artistry of the image, the effect being to magnify the everyday relationship between the simple and the complex.
What we are looking at is a little hard to say—a fact that belies the unsayability of the picture. The image thus calls our attention to the capacity of the visual to help us see things that can’t be put into words, or can’t be verbalized with ease or efficiency. Indeed, a large part of the power of the image is in how it layers multiple transcriptions of meaning upon one another so as to complicate both the relationship between viewer and viewed, as well as the relationship between past, present, and future. The first thing to note is that Zaremba appears to be sitting in front of a television screen, and what we see is not his unmediated image, but rather his reflection in the monitor. The reflection reverses his orientation so that the viewer of the photograph loses the sense that Zaremba is watching the screen and, instead, is literally part of the scene being enacted, albeit looking away from the chaos behind him and past us to what we can only imagine is a future anterior moment. Though we know he is only a spectator here (and given his injury he can only be a spectator), nevertheless he is implicated in the action being projected outward. The difference between spectator and actor is thus elided, and so just as Zaremba as viewer is implicated in what is happening on the television screen as an active agent, so too are we as viewers implicated in the action, albeit once removed.
The scene seems to be part of a fairly traditional chapter from the received narrative of America’s manifest destiny. Modern progress, marked by the locomotive on the right hand side, required a transformation of the landscape, which threatened the indigenous and native cultures. Rather than to embrace the modern world, native Americans fought back, often in terrorist raids, and had to be controlled and eventually contained by the military and various and sundry mercenaries. Many good Americans sacrificed their lives to the cause, but as the saying went, they “died with their boots on.” Zaremba fights in a modern war where injuries are in some ways more horrifying than death (and so, ironically, he lives without legs), but there is more than a simple analogue to the war in Iraq operating here as the image functions in a more complex, allegorical register. Notice how the received narrative is complicated by the ghostlike apparition of native Americans flying through the air, a haunting of the image that simply won’t go away, even after a century of freedom and progress. And in this context, note too that Zaremba’s image is only slightly less spectral than the native Americans, projected equally backwards into the past and forwards to the future in what appears to be an almost straight line.
Walter Benjamin once wrote that “every image of the past that is not recognized by the present as one of its own concerns threatens to disappear irretrievably.” But according to this image it may well be George Santyana who has the final word when he reminds us that “those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.” The emotionless and stone cold look on Zaremba’s face implies a zombie-like existence as he glares beyond the present to an eternity that will be “irretrievably” haunted by the specter of our involvement in Iraq, just as we have been haunted by the specter of Vietnam, and before that the Trail of Tears, all wars fought in the names of “progress” and “freedom.” The overall effect is thus one of looking “back to the future”—or perhaps more accurately, looking forward to the past.
Photo Credit: Nina Berman