NO CAPTION NEEDED
ICONIC PHOTOGRAPHS, PUBLIC CULTURE, AND LIBERAL DEMOCRACY

No Caption Needed is a book and a blog, each dedicated to discussion of the role that photojournalism and other visual practices play in a vital democratic society. No caption needed, but many are provided. . . .

August 21st, 2013

If it Bleeds it Leads … Sometimes

Posted by Lucaites in visualizing war

Screen shot 2013-08-20 at 9.29.33 PM

Photographs of violent death show up in the mainstream media slideshows with some degree of regularity.  Not every single day, to be sure, but often enough to identify some sort of genre.  Such images don’t always include mourners, as does this one, which amplify the pain and suffering by extending it to the living, here a family member in grief, but they almost always feature the bruised and bloody body, often gruesomely so.  This image comes from Cairo, where the  government recently cracked down on supporters of the deposed president, Mohamed Morsi, but it could have been almost anywhere in the world, from Afghanistan to Chile, to Syria, Tibet and beyond.

The key phrase in that last sentence is “almost anywhere in the world,” because it is highly unlikely—approaching certainty—that we would ever see such a photograph taken in the United States and on display in the mainstream media.  Going back as far as the 1950s one of the very few exceptions I can think of is the photograph of the tortured and mangled body of Emmett Till, and that horrific image was put on display because his outraged mother insisted that the world bear witness to his lynching.  Another exception might be one of the photographs that appeared at the time of the slaying of students by the National Guard at Kent State University in 1970, though even there the most vividly gruesome images (here and here) received very little sustained attention, while a less  gruesome image went on to achieve iconic status.  And there maybe other exceptions, though I am hard pressed to identify them, but in any case they are so rare as to stand as proof to the rule of the convention.

The obvious question to ask  is why?  Why do we encounter such photographs from other parts of the world with regularity in the mainstream media, but not from our own world? This is not an easy question to answer.  Perhaps fewer such pictures are actually taken in the US, but that only begs the question, for while there might not be the same degree of concentrated violence in the US as elsewhere, there are surely enough occasions where such photographs could be taken and shown, but are not.  Or perhaps it is that we privilege the privacy of the individual in our own culture, but don’t allow privacy concerns to impede the ways in which we represent and depict alien cultures.  Or perhaps it is simply a perverse voyeurism that promotes our own culture over those we might characterize as “others.”  And there maybe other possibilities at well.

However we answer this first question, there is a second and, perhaps, more important question to ask:  Given the regularity and almost ubiquity of such images in the mainstream press, how is it that we see them without actually noticing them, viewing them all too frequently with a tired glance as we flip from one image to the next.  Just another photograph.  Some are no doubt content to answer this question with the old sop of “compassion fatigue,” but if that were true it is unlikely that photographers would keep taking the images or that editors would keep posting them with regularity, especially in slideshows where they are often surrounded with other images that don’t clearly address or inflect the violence that was perpetrated.  There has to be something else going on here.  I don’t know the answer, but the regular (commodified?) presence of such images of people from distant lands is surely a provocation to consider how it reflects our values and desires as much, if not more, than those of the people and countries being depicted.

Photo Credit: Khalil Hamra/AP

August 19th, 2013

War’s Assault on Civic Rituals

Posted by Hariman in visualizing war

If you are having trouble making sense of the carnage that is spreading across Syria, Iraq, Egypt, and other fracturing states in the Middle East and Africa, just take a look at this photograph from Aleppo.

Syria fighter, football field

The smooth surfaces, sharp clothing, and crisp visual tonality make it seem like a movie still.  The surreal juxtaposition of that killer weapon and the athletic field might suggest a photo taken on a movie set, or one that was Photoshopped.  Camouflage pants and a polo shirt are a good combination when every day is casual Friday at the revolution, but even so this guy seems disturbingly out of place.

That may be why the movie allusion comes to mind, as the line between fantasy and reality seems to be evaporating, or as artificial and irrelevant as the chalk line on the turf behind him.  The exceptional visual clarity in the visual field enhances this sense of fabricated unreality: it becomes hard to believe that the gun is a real gun, or that he isn’t an actor doing take two.   (“OK, this time keep looking wary, but don’t look look at the camera.”)  Of course, he is in role but for very deadly effect.

The journalistic context assures us that the scene is real rather than imaginary, while the blast hole in the wall reminds us of the lethal potentiality at hand.  Even so, the primary value of the photograph is precisely how it capture’s war’s surrealism.  And unlike the artistic scrambling of texts and images, war’s destruction of ordinary conventions such as games and walls is regressive.  Instead of challenging a society to grow, it destroys the fictions and arbitrary distinctions that sustain civilization.

The regression in this image is that he is walking a foundational analogy backwards.  Instead of thinking of sport as a metaphor for war, we see sport being left behind as it is transformed back into war.  What was a playing field is now a war zone–really.  As he walks warily from the field into the space before him, he is walking back into a Hobbesian world of all against all, a world without rules, clear lines, or any occasion for coming together for anything other than a battle.

Sports are not one thing, but they certainly function in part as a symbolic substitution for armed combat. Civilization advances by transforming violence into less harmful forms of competition, and athletic competition in turn becomes most representative of that substitution.  Sports can be physical metaphors for warfare, and their rules are the most obvious example of how competitive passions can be regulated and how arbitrary regulations can create productive activity.  Being performed for spectators ensures that these lessons acquire high social status while being taught through participation in collective rituals.  No wonder one might wish the photo above were from a movie: otherwise, too much is being destroyed.

To make the point one more time, let’s look at the photo I was going to feature today before I saw the one above.

Chin Music

The caption said that Pittsburgh Pirates’ Starling Marte ducked out of the way of a wild pitch, but it sure looks like he has been shot.  That thought might come to mind because of the formal similarity with Robert Capa’s famous photo of the Falling Soldier in the Spanish Civil War.  Even without the allusion, the athlete’s bodily contortion and the way the bat has flown out of his hands suggest extreme duress as if he had been hit with a bullet.  And of course he is in uniform, surrounded by other uniformed comrades from both his side and the opposition, while the ball and the bat are like weapons, etc.

I liked the photo because it was visually dramatic, captured the athleticism and grace of the professional athlete in an unusual manner, and suggested that the conventional comparison of sport and military prowess wasn’t quite so trite after all.  After seeing the photo from Allepo, however, I realized that it showed much more as well.

The photo is a portrait of a society that continues to be very fortunate.  Sports are still a metaphor for war, not its backdrop.  The stadium is full, not emptied by violence so that those yet alive can cower in their homes or stagnate in refugee camps.  The lines are clear and the rules are followed by both sides, sectarian hatred has been transmuted into booing the ump, and heroes risk a concussion, not bleeding to death.  In this world, an image of being shot is only a trick of the eye, and one the draws on a heritage of visual forms in sport, dance, photography, and probably other arts as well.

It is a cliche now that truth is the first casualty in war.  We forget that it is not the only value at risk.  Ambiguity goes just as fast, and nuance, tolerance, patience, compassion, and many other virtues are soon under siege.  Consider also that these are part and parcel of the ritual forms for civic life.  The wars we are witnessing today may have lower death rates than seen in the past, but they are more vicious in their destruction of games, festivals, markets, holidays, and the other events that, we now can appreciate, should be included among the genuine achievements of civilization.

Photographs by Daniel Leal-Olivas/AFP/Getty Images and Keith Srakocic/Associated Press.

August 5th, 2013

Vietnam and Afghanistan: Kicking the Ball Down the Road

Posted by Hariman in visualizing war

The slide shows currently are full of human interest shots from city streets, small towns, tourist havens, summer festivals, and similar settings where people can kick back a bit and enjoy life.  But for one detail, this photo could easily be included in the mix.

Afghan burned girl

A girl kicks a ball down the corridor of a hospital, reminding us that you don’t have to be at the beach to have a good time. The red ball is clearly out of place in the grey and white functionalist decor, and the pastel gown now seems a bit festive, adding to the contrast between her free spirit and the institutional setting.  What’s not to like?

The caption read, “8-year-old Razia plays ball at the U.S. military hospital in Bagram Air Base, north of Kabul, on June 11, 2009. Razia was evacuated to the hospital in May after she was severely burned when a white phosphorus round hit her home in the Tagab Valley, killing two of her sisters during fighting between French troops and Taliban militants.”

And so we get to her face.  That, and not the 2009 date is the reason this photo isn’t a human interest story.  But why bring it up now?  2009 was, well, a long time ago, and isn’t the US pulling out of Afghanistan, or something like that?

The basic reason I’m writing about the photograph now is that none of us are likely to have seen it earlier.  Fortunately, Alan Taylor at In Focus apparently thought that August shouldn’t be devoted entirely to forgetting about the rest of the world.  This image is part of his current retrospective on Afghanistan’s Children of War.  Some viewers may find it inappropriate–say, because it might invoke pity, or exploit the child or childhood, or suggest that the US cares for the war’s victims as much as it might harm them.  Those reactions may be worth discussing, but I want to go back a step and ask why the image was not seen previously or regularly and widely in the first place.

More to the point, why has it not played a part in public discussion of the war in Afghanistan, despite its similarities to another photo that continues to be a flash point for debate about the Vietnam War?

HungCongUt_1476682a

You will recognize this iconic image of Kim Phuc and other children running from a napalm attack.  Obviously, the photos are not identical.  The girl in one photo is naked, while in the other she is fully clothed.  One is alone in a safe place, while one is part of a traumatic event whose shock waves are still reverberating through others in her family.  Combat soldiers are bringing up the rear in Vietnam, while we see what appear to be medical personal in Afghanistan.  Oh, and one is burned on her face (at the very least), while the other is burned on her back and arm.  And one was burned in June and the other in May. . . . Very different images, right?

Well, not exactly.  Napalm then, phosphorus now.  The girls were about the same age at the time.  Both had siblings killed in the attack that wounded them.  The attack in each case was by US proxies.  Both attacks were hardly unique, but rather examples of what had become all too common occurrences.  And the wars. . . . .

John Lucaites and I have written a fair amount about this iconic image (see chapter six of No Caption Needed), so let me be very clear that I don’t think one can explain exactly why some photos acquire iconic status and others don’t.  John and I identify many possible factors, but the outcomes can depend on many accidents of history.  That said, it still is fair to raise the question of why a burned girl was major news then and not now.  One very bad answer is that the public is experiencing “compassion fatigue”:  as David Campbell has argued, this is a myth of media influence rather than a real problem of public responsiveness.

I would argue that the first photo both hampers emotional response while also lacking some of the other important features of iconic composition.  To put the matter very simply, her playfulness complicates one’s reaction to her injury, while cues for public significance are missing due to the dominance of the hospital setting.  By contrast, the soldiers, family, and road are important elements for framing the naked girl’s suffering, which is being voiced.  Thus, the difference in uptake may be due to important differences in the photos themselves.

But still.  I have to think that something else is involved.  Something like compassion fatigue, perhaps, although neither merely emotional nor a myth.  Too many people have simply gotten used to not paying attention, to accepting what are essentially colonial wars as business as usual, to not caring in the first place what happens over there.

The military learned a lot from Vietnam.  The American public, not so much.

Photographs by Rafiq Maqbool/Associated Press and Nick Ut/Associated Press.

July 31st, 2013

Seeing Shooting

Posted by Hariman in visualizing war

We usually see the aftermath: the wounded and those tending to them, or the dead and those reacting in shock and grief.  Also people running to escape, or broken windows and overturned trash cans, or blood on the ground, or police tape and investigators, or teddy bears and flowers at the makeshift memorials.  But we don’t often see the shooting.

Riot police fire rubber bullets at demonstrator during clashes near Guanabara Palace in Rio de Janeiro

Tear gas and rubber bullets probably are the most common examples of the shooting that we do see.  Their supposedly non-lethal nature guards against press qualms about violating norms of appropriate public content, while the implication that the state is exercising restraint in its use of force always plays well with the regime.

But sometimes more than the usual amount of truth gets through the screen.  This photo of riot police firing rubber bullets at demonstrators in Rio de Janeiro last week reveals key features of what is standard operating procedure around the globe: The police are having a turkey shoot, they  are in no real danger themselves, and they are enjoying their work.  Why shouldn’t they?  Heavily armed and armored though facing civilians, exempt from criminal prosecution though aiming to harm, finally getting to unload on those privileged scum who would rather whine than work for a living; damn, this is about as good as it gets.

Even so, they still are police, and the bullets are rubber, and they are reacting to a civil demonstration rather than a civil war.  To see the difference, take a look at this.

APTOPIX Mideast Egypt

Here we were told only that a man is firing his weapon during clashes between opponents and supporters of Egypt’s ousted President Mohammed Morsi.  As with many captions, that is a bit of an understatement.  One can fire’s one’s weapon at a firing range, but this guy is aiming, and very likely at another human being.  I also have to wonder just what “man” hides, as that looks like a trained firing stance.  He looks a bit old for active service, but the training is still there.  And like the goons above, he isn’t firing in self-defense; the tree is being used for support rather than as a barricade, and the children and other bystanders seem to think they are in no danger.  If that is so, then there also would be little need for a warning shot.  No, this guy probably is a cold-blooded killer.

And you don’t often get to see that.  But there it is, and there is a lot of it going around–in Egypt, Syria, Somalia, you name it.  Worse yet, it seems to have become a part of ordinary life in too many places.  Which may be why we are more likely to see it.  I’d like to think that something else could happen: that by seeing what it is to aim and fire a gun at another person, we would realize exactly how much humanity itself is under siege.

Photographs by Pilar Olivares/Reuters and Hussein Malla/Associated Press.

May 27th, 2013

In Memorium: Dressing the Dead

Posted by Lucaites in no caption needed, visualizing war

 

20130526-DOVER-slide-WXCH-articleLarge

Photo Credit: Ashley Gilbertsen/NYT

 

May 22nd, 2013

War and Representation: Showing the Limits of Comprehension

Posted by Hariman in visualizing war

There’s been a lot of talk lately, including a post at this blog, about accuracy in photojournalism: How much can a photograph be adjusted artistically and still be considered true?  How much detail should the captions provide, and in respect to what questions or values?  Despite strong and often heated disagreements, most commentators across the spectrum seem to assume that the reportage could be thoroughly accurate, specific, relevant, and otherwise up to the task of giving the public what they need to form sound judgments about current events.

Let me now suggest that sometimes we are better off without that assumption.  More to the point, one of the jobs that photojournalism also has is to remind the public how much eludes understanding.  Thus, some of the photos (and their captions) are good journalism because of how they show us the limits of what can be seen.

SYRIA-CONFLICT

The caption at Time said, “May 13, 2013. Syrian army soldiers take control of the village of Western Dumayna, some seven kilometers north of the rebel-held city of Qusayr.”  The “seven kilometers” suggests that we are being given a precise description of what is happening, even though you can’t see any of that fact in the photograph.  Many viewers might feel adequately anchored at that point and so look a moment longer and then move on.  But wait a minute: is this an image of “control”?

Horrific flames and dark, thick smoke billow from the other side of the wall.  The open doorway reveals only blackness, as if a void lies within.  A swatch of fire has dropped on the outside of the wall, near which a lone soldier is about to enter through another doorway into the interior.  The soldier is controlled, disciplined, brave, and probably used to working amid the roiling destructiveness of battle, but he also is a marginal figure in the composition and appears almost furtive as he enters what is effectively the back stage of this set.  Set in diminutive contrast to the powerful flames, he can’t be the locus of control.  Likewise, additional reportage (the full caption not included at Time) tells us that a Syrian advance had gained a strategic advantage and cut supply lines in Qusayr, but that larger sense of command and control also is not evident here.  In fact, this image seems to be very much a picture of something closer to chaos.

And that may be the point.  I’d say this photograph shows just how “control” is an abstraction that is imposed on the material destructiveness of war.  Being abstract doesn’t mean it isn’t real, but it does mean that it depends on a certain distance from the flames.  Likewise, describing the battle in terms of control is of course very much to the point of the fighting, but it also encourages denial of just how terrible life can become on the other side of that wall.

Seen in this light, the wall now assumes a double meaning.  It is still a structure about seven kilometers north of Qusayr, but it also can be a symbol of how the truth of the matter on the ground might lie forever behind a barrier.  Walls stop vision, and here it seems that the action that really counts lies on the other side of that thick, stony, silent wall.  This is not just a blockage, however, but a reminder of how vision and with that understanding is always partially blocked.  This wall now speaks eloquently of the limits of our understanding: we no more understand the battle than we did when we were told that it was about “control,” but now we have a visual emblem of that limit on our comprehension.

In marking how war can exceed representation, the image also can say something about this war.  Readers of a certain age will recall the infamous statement that “we had to destroy the village in order to save it.”  One can’t help but wonder if the same holds for Syria, which is being laid waste.  If we can’t see a reason for the destructiveness, it could be because one no longer is there.  As Suzy Linfield has said, violence today too often becomes untethered from any ideological rationale and political administration.  The result is not something that later can be honored as justified sacrifice for the nation or the cause, but only awful cycles of violence that burn through civilians like firewood.

Thus, by recognizing how this war exceeds our understanding, we also can consider how that is not merely a failure of perception.  War itself may lie hidden behind that wall.  Raging destructiveness without purpose or limit, fueled by ignorance and protected by abstraction, it can lure anyone to cross that threshold, only to devour them in the darkness.

That compact with oblivion is all the more reason to supply as many photographs and words as one can to show what must be shown.  But it is equally important to remember that none of us can fully know the truth, and how war can count on that.  That is no reason for despair, however.  Even when at the limits of comprehension, the ideal of peace is always on the horizon, waiting for those who will start walking in that direction.

Photograph by Joseph Eid/AFP-Getty Images.

April 17th, 2013

When the Boston Bombing Happens in Iraq

Posted by Hariman in visualizing war

Nothing that I’m about to say is intended to make light of the terrible bombing in Boston on Monday.  Nothing.  And I’m not really going to talk about Boston; after all, what needs to be said that hasn’t been said?  Neither words nor pictures are needed to depict the carnage, the splendid response by both first responders and ordinary citizens, or the sorrow, anger, and other emotions still swirling through the city and the country.

There is need, however, to learn what one can and to share it with others.  This may not be the best time to say it, but it’s the time I’ve got.  My point is simple: what was a unique, unexpected, unjustified, traumatic event in the US is something that is happening all the time in Iraq, and as a direct consequence of the American invasion and occupation.

The New York Times reported in 2011 that suicide bombings had by that time killed over 12,000 civilians in Iraq, while over 30,000 had been wounded.  Imagine, if you can, more than 12,000 dead.  That is the three deaths from Monday multiplied by 4000, as if you had a Boston Marathon bombing every day for 11 years, and all that in a country with a smaller population than the US.   And it didn’t stop n 2011.  On the same day as the marathon, the Times reported that bombings were increasing again, including “more than 20 attacks around the country on Monday” that “killed close to 50 people and wounded nearly 200.”

That’s bad, but it’s also just another day in the news for most readers of the Times.  To really get a sense of the difference that I’m talking about, take a look at the photo that accompanied the Times story.

IRAQ-2-popup

Compare this inert photo of car bombing in Baghdad with any of the images from Boston being circulated through the US papers.  Two burned out cars are the center of the inaction, while kids and adults stand around as if wondering how to salvage a part of two. The image has all the emotional urgency of a junkyard, and no wonder: there is no trace of the dead and wounded, while those in the scene appear to be bored rather than acting as if they were in any danger.

The casualness and indifference of those standing around the metal carcasses suggests that this scene is merely a waning curiosity.  It is a portrait of past violence, but violence that is unexceptional.  Cars get blown up, just like they get into other accidents.  Showing only damage to property, lacking pain, suffering, or any other emotional intensity, and suggesting that those at the scene are without any risk of being harmed themselves, this is what happens when a disaster is coded as an event that is not an emergency.

I don’t fault the coverage of the Boston bombing for doing everything differently: for showing suffering, action, anguish, and much more.  And earlier in the war in Iraq there were photos, including some award winners, that did communicate the violence and terror that was brought down hard on the people living there.  That’s what should be happening.  But what also has happened is that the US has from the start abandoned large civilian populations to the horrors of war, and now too often the coverage of the continuing violence presents it not as a dramatic disaster requiring an extraordinary response, but rather as just another day in the life for those accustomed to living in a war zone.

The photos from Boston all scream EMERGENCY.  They insist that this event is unique, exceptional, and deserving an immediate and comprehensive response.  Like the pronouncements by the President and other public officials, they all demand justice for the innocent citizens cut down by a brutal terrorist attack.  As Ariella Azoulay would say in The Civil Contract of Photography, they have made the suffering of those citizens into a political object: that is, an object of collective concern that mandates state action.

The photo from Baghdad, by contrast, says that nothing happening is that much out of the ordinary.  There is no emergency claim.  Any suffering is offstage or abstract and it falls short of meriting a specific political response.  The fact of violence is being shown, yet the moral and political context remains largely invisible.

Thus, the photo inadvertently captures the real condition of those living amidst the violence in Iraq: they have been relegated to the condition (again, in Azoulay’s terms) of living on the verge of catastrophe.  Neither being systematically sacrificed nor adequately protected, they are abandoned to a bare life of continuing, “low-level” violence.

It shouldn’t be surprising that one response of those trapped there is to treat bombed cars as a part of life.  But the rest of us might take a moment to realize that all the horror experienced in Boston really is happening elsewhere, and much, much more often.  Perhaps we can take a moment while our own hearts are torn to better understand how much others have to endure.  And to recognize that the insanity will stop only when there is more solidarity among those who are suffering.

Photograph by Mohammed Ameen/Reuters.

March 27th, 2013

War’s Bricolage

Posted by Hariman in visualizing war

Reuters selected this photograph as its best of the day, and it is indeed striking.  But why?

Syrian rebel fighter in house

The caption said, “A Free Syrian Army fighter takes position inside a room as he points his weapon through a hole in Aleppo’s Saif al-Dawla district March 20, 2013.”  And that is what he is doing: positioning himself.  Hardly a dramatic action, and it is occurring in a still, spare, beige room, hardly a dramatic setting.

The room is no longer being used for its intended purpose, and a prior time of disruption is evident in the disordered decor: curtains down, furnishings strewn about, a hole punched in the wall.  It hardly seems fitted to its new use, however, for that delicate, foofoo lamp will never qualify as military hardware.  Yet “irony” seems too easy a label, as it can’t account for the way the soldier dominates the room.  Something important is happening, but what?

The sense of stasis is one clue: he is being posed for us, so that we can slow down and look carefully.  This is the opposite of an action photo, for the point of his positioning and aiming and firing that enormous weapon is still to come, involving an event that will occur outside the frame.  Instead, the point of the photograph is reflection, as if he has gathered into that space an equal and opposite concentration of energy to balance the impending gunfire.

The next clue is the way that he has repurposed the furniture.  Arranging the chairs and stacking the pillows to create his makeshift pillbox, he has given the room the same degree of thoughtfulness that went into its original decoration.  And he could do it with the same degree of cool concentration, perhaps taking his time to try out different configurations of the pillows, because he already is thoroughly at home in the business of war.

Which gets to the third clue: the natty self-possession in the way he is dressed.  You can expect to see that sweater and coveralls in next year’s fashion shows, and the beret could belong on any craftsman as he was making a cabinet or a musical instrument or a book.  Forget the camouflage, and a whole life could be surmised from his clothing and concentration; he’s even wearing a wedding ring.

Which brings us back to the room: it, too, represented a way of life, but one that now is being destroyed.  And so the deep intelligence of the photo emerges: it is documenting nothing less than how war not only destroys people and things, but also remakes the world in its own image.  This is the genius of war: it captures and rechannels the same skills, energies, and capabilities that otherwise are used to sustain peaceful, civil societies.

Force alone can do a lot of damage and thus can account for much of war’s power, but that still is the least of it.  As Chris Hedges observed, “war is a force that gives us meaning.”  What the photograph above reveals is just how thorough and nuanced that makeover can be, not least because of how it is accomplished by giving ordinary people practical tasks.

Kenneth Burke once observed that war motivates extreme levels of cooperation, albeit on behalf of the worst forms of competition.  (That is irony, and more than that.)  War also can motivate rearranging a living room on behalf of killing.  As the war “progresses,” the fighters can find themselves wholly occupied, engaged, and fulfilled by the work of destruction.  Why not: it rewards their resourcefulness.

This is the challenge that peace has to meet.

Photograph by Giath Taha/Reuters.

March 20th, 2013

Iraq, Cheney, and the Lessons of History

Posted by Hariman in visualizing war

There are a number of slide shows (including here, here, here, here, and here) commemorating the tenth anniversary of the US invasion of Iraq.  They will drag you back into that lost decade and tear at your heart.  All the wasted lives and treasure, and for what?  The expressed war aims were all lies, and even the neoconservatives’ real reasons for the war are in tatters: the country is not a stable ally in the region and Israel is not more secure.  But don’t tell it to this guy.

matthews-leno-cheney

Photographs of Dick Cheney are not being featured this week, and that is a serious oversight.  You can see Colin Powell holding up a vial of faux anthrax at the UN, but he was a stooge and visual media played almost no part in the government’s campaign of deception.  Those who like to lay the blame for bad judgment on visual media ought to take a long look at this sorry episode in US history: an unnecessary and stupid war was sold almost entirely with words, thank you, whereas images helped considerably in exposing the truth of the matter–for example, at Abu Ghraib.

But I digress.  Even if there is blame aplenty to spread around, Cheney, more than anyone else, is the reason the US went to war.

And his words are in the news this week, as CBS has aired an interview in which he says–really–that “If I had to do it over again, I’d do it in a minute.”

One might think that this is to be expected, and democracies naturally have highly partisan true believers on all sides.  He gets to speak his mind, and so do we.  Most of us won’t have artfully crafted interviews played on major media outlets, but in principle it’s the same, right?

Even if the playing field were level, the lack of reflection evident in this former high-ranking government official should be seen as very disturbing.  He is modeling not simply a difference of opinion, but a refusal to learn from history.

The remark I quoted is being repeated widely across the media this week, but the trailer for the show includes another statement that I find even more revealing.  The clip begins with the interviewer asking Cheney stock questions: What is your favorite virtue?  What do you appreciate most in your friends?  What is your idea of happiness?  These questions are hardly surprising, and Cheney provides stock answers: “Integrity.”  “Honesty.”  Etc.  And then another standard question is posed: What do you consider your main fault?  Whereas he had answered crisply before, here Cheney puts his head down and ponders the question: “My main fault. . . . Um, well, I don’t spend a lot of time thinking about my faults, I guess would be my answer.”

And there you have it.  Perhaps that’s not the mark of a criminal mind, but it sure could help.  If you don’t reflect on your faults, you can’t ever really go wrong.

Cheney need not ever think otherwise, but fortunately a significant majority of Americans now see that the war should never have happened.  That’s not enough, however.  If the nation is to have a conscience, it can’t think like Dick Cheney.   We should look at the photographs again, and consider the many, many mistakes that were made: by the government, by the press, by opinion leaders, and by ordinary citizens. The country was played for a fool, and by someone who would do it again in a minute.  If you don’t believe it, just ask him.

February 25th, 2013

The Visibility of the Everydayness of War

Posted by Lucaites in visualizing war

Allepo Catapult 2

With sequestration staring us in the face and all of the teeth gnashing concerning the possibility that the Department of Defense will be confronted with $500 billion dollars in budget cuts over the next ten years—no small chunk of change, but nevertheless a relatively small part of the overall DOD budget—I was intrigued by the photographs, such as the one above, coming out of Syria that show the primitive and makeshift weaponry employed by the Free Syrian Army.

The slingshot or catapult can be traced to ancient and medieval times, but in the contemporary era it is usually associated with rebel or guerilla warriors (think of all of the images we regularly see of Palestinian youth using slingshots to hurl rocks at Israelis), in large measure because it requires so little in resources to make it work. State sponsored armies have budgets that can be cut, rebels and guerillas … not so much.  And so the later cobble together whatever is available, converting the objects of ordinary life into weapons of war.

It is this last fact that bears some attention.  Elsewhere we have talked about how war has been normalized by being made more or less invisible in the United States, such that the accouterments of warfare have been converted into everyday objects that appear to have no connection to war (think of Jeeps and Humvees, or the way in which camouflage  has become something of a fashion statement, not to mention the AKC-47 assault rifle cast as a hunting rifle), but here we see everyday objects employed to the ends of death and destruction.  This too is an act of normalization, but one that runs in the opposite direction, putting war on display as quotidian, making it visible as a normal part of the everyday experience.

I’m not entirely sure what to make of this inversion, but I am reminded of Elaine Scarry’s characterization of torture as “world unmaking,” converting the objects of everyday life into instruments of pain.  Doctors become administrators of pain, refrigerators and filing cabinets become bludgeons, bathtubs becomes miniature torture chambers, etc.  Watching someone creating weapons out of everyday objects for their own use is not exactly the same thing, since there is no clear identification of torturer and tortured; then again it is arguably all the more torturous inasmuch as those producing and using such weapons seem to have little real choice in the matter as they become the active agents in unmaking the world around them.  It is, in its way, the most perfect and efficient form of torture; a perversion of a perversion in which the torturer and the tortured are one in the same person.

I was struck by the broad implications of this thought when looking at the picture below:

Phone Bombs

Once again the photograph is of members of the Free Syrian Army.  And once again the soldiers we see are involved in producing a homemade weapon of war.  Here, however, there is no pretense of primitive weaponry; characterized in the caption as an “anti-aircraft weapon,” it is thoroughly modern, even if it does not display the most sophisticated and up-to-the-minute technology.  Indeed the bright colors of this image suggest a degree of contemporaneity that is muted by the drab shadows and colors of the photograph of the catapult.  But what is most striking is the use of a smart phone to arm and guide the missile.  Here we have an everyday object—and an item that virtually everyone reading this post has in their pocket—that has made it possible to create community across time and space, allowing us, as Ma Bell used to say, “to reach out and touch someone.”  It does that here as well, of course, but only after perverting the normal and ordinary usage of an otherwise salutary and everyday instrument of communication.

The United States is a far distance from Syria in just about everyway that one can imagine, economically, politically, culturally, and so on.  And yet, looking at these images—almost as if through Alice’s looking glass— has to give us pause as we recognize our own pretenses and patterns of  acclimating ourselves to the visual everdayness of a culture of war.

Credits:  Asmaa Wagulh/ Reuters; Mahmoud Hassano/Reuters.  Elaine Scarry’s provocative  discussion of the relationship between torture and war appears in The Body in Pain: The Making and Unmaking of the World.  New York: Oxford UP, 1985.

« Previous PageNext Page »
FAIR USE NOTICE: This site contains images and excerpts the use of which have not been pre-authorized. This material is made available for the purpose of analysis and critique, as well as to advance the understanding of rhetoric, politics, and visual culture.

The ‘fair use’ of such material is provided for under U.S. Copyright Law. In accordance with U.S. Code Title 17, Section 107, material on this site (along with credit links and attributions to original sources) is viewable for educational and intellectual purposes. If you are interested in using any copyrighted material from this site for any reason that goes beyond ‘fair use,’ you must first obtain permission from the copyright owner.