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Nov 01, 2009

Out of Sight, Out of Mind

This past week the Washington Post published a four part series in its “special reports” on “America at War” titled “Left of Boom: The Struggle to Defeat Roadside Bombs.” The series is a super-saturated, multi-mediated cornucopia of maps, graphs, slideshows, videos, and transcripts, including a glossary of terms for the uninitiated (if you don’t know the difference between “Left of Boom” and “Right of Boom” go here). Part II is titled “There Was a Two Year Learning Curve … and a lot people died in those two years.” The past tense here is telling, and a not so subtle reminder of the WP‘s long standing support for administration policy in Iraq. The report includes a slide show narrated by WP photographer Andrea Bruce who, “recounts an encounter with a roadside bomb while embedded in Baquabah, Iraq. The June 2004 attack seriously injured two soldiers who were traveling in an unarmored Humvee.” Before you can get to the slide show, however, you have to click the word “continue” on the screen below:


I clicked. The story is about two Humvees—one armored, one not—attacked by an IED. There were no fatalities. No one lost any limbs. Those in the unarmored vehicle suffered severe head trauma. Some of the images are hard to look at, and the injuries are surely serious, but we have seen far worse from previous wars, as well as the current one, if not always in the mainstream U.S. press, then at least in the foreign press and at readily available websites such as here and here. So why the warning? Why the dark shroud to veil the images? What propriety—what interest—is being protected and preserved?

The answer might be in part a function of how normalized—or plain inconvenient—the war has become, at least for those of us sitting safely and comfortably back in the States. Now longer than any other war the U.S. has participated in (with the exceptions of the Revolutionary War and the Vietnam “police action”), Operation Iraqi Freedom has become something of a fact of life. Sure, it’s a campaign issue in this political season and the “conduct of the war” is identified as the top concern in public opinion polls, but only for 28% of the projected population. In other words, for the vast majority of American people the war has become just another issue, like the economy or health care or immigration. The ordinariness of all of this is accented by the graphic design of the WP website.


“America at War” is part of the “Special Reports” section of the website. It is buried in the left hand column and deep below the hard news; indeed, it sits directly beneath the section labeled “Entertainment News.” If one finds the special reports and clicks on “America at War”—one of several such reports—they get the screen above. On the left side we find a densely packed frame full of textual information, assorted hyperlinks, and a picture of soldiers doing something at night—it is not quite clear what is happening in the picture, but oddly enough the photograph is from the slide show that is veiled by the warning of disturbing images. On the far right, in its own frame, is a space alien advertising cheaper mortgage rates. The choice here is simple: You can read about one of the longest wars fought in the name of the “American People,” as well as the effects of the continuing occupation of a foreign land that has resulted in the deaths of thousands of U.S. men and women and countless Iraqis, or you can save a few hundred bucks each month. You can be a citizen and exercise civic responsibility, or you can be a consumer looking out for your own private interests. And should a sense of civic responsibility get the better of you, but you don’t want to be “disturbed” by the “violence and graphic nature” of what you will see, well, hey, just don’t bother clicking on the slide show. Out of sight, out of mind.

The problem, of course, is that those who are living the war in Iraq don’t have quite the same luxury. The photographer, who narrates the veiled slide show, reflects, “One thing that strikes me about this one incident now looking back is how normal it is, how this happens everyday …” For those in Iraq the war is not a slide show that can be erased with a simple click of the mouse, or ignored with a turn of the head, no matter how “disturbing” it might be. It is, rather, an event that “happens everyday.” The tragedy for us at home is that we harbor the illusion that the war is just another issue that we can choose to attend to or not depending upon how it comports with our sense of decorum and propriety—or perhaps our own private interests. Out of sight, out of mind … indeed.

Credit: Andrea Bruce/Washington Post



Out of Sight, Out of Mind


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