One of the earliest posts I did here at NCN was of a photograph of three Iraqi children staging a mock execution with toy guns. The image, which literally stopped me in my tracks, bordered on the surreal, the expression on the boys faces marking a dialectical tension between the “pleasure” and “horror” of human violence. I’ve thought of that photograph often over the past year, especially as I have encountered more than a few photographs of children with toy guns, not least this AP photograph which showed up this week on the Guardian website.
The caption reads “Baghdad, Iraq: A child armed with plastic toy weapons approaches a US soldier on patrol in Sadr City.” As with the photograph of the mock execution, it is fraught with tensions that make it hard to distinguish between the real and the surreal. At first blush, the scene invites comparison to a shootout between two gunslingers squaring off in a frontier town. But of course the opposition between a fully equipped US soldier carrying a high powered, automatic weapon and a young boy – he can’t be more than eight years old – with toy guns suggests that something more than a simple parody is taking place here, though what is not exactly clear: on the one hand, we might view the scene with the same kind of reflexive and approving smile we use when we see children trying to act like their parents, cutely imitating what they take to be adult roles; on the other hand, we have a young Iraqi child “approaching” a US soldier in one of the most dangerous suburbs in one of the most dangerous countries in the world right now while appearing to point “toy weapons” at him. And, of course, any hint of an approving smile has to fade to deep concern. Are they really toy guns? Is this an innocent child or an insurgent? And even if the child poses no immediate threat to the soldier, is this an insurgent in the making, someone he will have to worry about down the road?
One might argue that these last few questions reflect a typically western paranoia—and in large measure I would be inclined to agree—but it has to be tempered by the fact that in the past year we have seen more than a few photographs of Iraqi and Palestinian children wielding “toy guns” that they had received as presents and marking them as members of a culture that actively nurtures violence. Of course, if you are a male who grew up in the 1950s and early 1960s as I did, there is a good chance that you too received toy guns as presents and did your part to help make the world “safe for democracy” while storming the shores of Iwo Jima in your own backyard. And so where is the difference? One answer is that anymore we rarely see images of US children playing with toy guns (go ahead … search “toy guns” and “kids” at Google Image and see what you come up with). This is not to say that contemporary US children are not enchanted with guns and weaponry—as I was out for my afternoon jog today I came across a five year old playing with a set of toy golf clubs, except he wasn’t using his putter in imitation of Tiger Woods, but as a rifle trying to shoot me as I passed; and certainly the cottage industry of “shoot ‘em up” video games would make the point as well—but it does suggest how the public visual economy functions to constitute a palpable cultural difference between the West and the Middle East. If nothing else, it implies the sense in which “their present is our past,” and operates as a marker of our “cultural progress and superiority.”
But there is, I think, an additional and more important point to be made. As I noted above, virtually all of the contemporary photographs of kids with guns that have circulated in recent years are of either Iraqi or Palestinian children, literally the future citizens of countries widely assumed to support state terrorism and thus a direct threat to the United States and its European allies. During World War II U.S. propaganda typically represented Allied children as they went to school or church, played baseball, did chores around the house, and in general represented an uncorrupted innocence, while Axis children were represented as being trained in the arts of war (see, for example, Frank Capra’s Prelude to War). I do not want to suggest that photojournalists are complicit in some sort of concerted propaganda effort, but there can be little question that something like a visual trope is at work here as the visual representation of children—abroad and at home—become powerful signs of what purports to be a potent and pernicious cultural threat.
Return now to the photograph above and attend closely to its caption: “A child armed with plastic toy weapons approaches a US soldier on patrol in Sadr City (emphasis added).” The word “approaches” seems to domesticate the image some, as an “approach” is not necessarily a threatening move. And indeed, the image itself reinforces this ambiguity as it is shot from behind the soldier and at waist height, thus making it impossible to see his face and eyes, and so difficult to interpret how he is reacting to the child’s behavior: Is he smiling in recognition of his own childhood “playing soldier” in the backyard? Or is there the look of caution and concern? And yet, for us the viewers, operating within the contemporary visual economy of representations of Middle Eastern children, it may well be that “armed” is the more important verb in the caption, for while the child carries “plastic toy weapons” there is nothing to suggest that he is “playing” at anything. And while the “approach” might appear somewhat innocent, there are too many markers within the larger visual culture to suggest that “plastic toy weapons” are simply a precursor to the real thing.
Photo Credit: Petros Giannakouris/AP