The surge is working! Or so President Bush intimated in his recent State of the Union Address when he indicated that “the American and Iraqi surges have achieved results few of us could have imagined one year ago.” Imagined by the numbers, what this means is that American and allied military deaths are now down to just slightly above pre-surge levels, amounting to 2.47 deaths per day (a “mere” 901 deaths in the preceding twelve months). Of course, this number does not take into account the 16.6 injuries per day to military personnel or the incalculable psychic damage resulting in PTSD. But most of all, it doesn’t take into account the nearly 25,000 deaths to Iraqi civilians in the past year, a conservative estimate which more than doubles pre-surge numbers in this category. Such statistics are hard to find, as they are typically not featured in the mainstream press, but even at that they are abstractions that operate in the aggregate and make it hard to identify the real human and social costs and implications of such of policies as they are lived and experienced.
To understand the larger impact of the surge requires more than numbers. It also requires vision and imagination.
Less than a week after President Bush lauded the “results” of the surge, Baghdad experienced its “Worst Attack … in Months” as two suicide bombers unleashed carnage in a popular pet market and bazaar. No Americans died or were injured, but 65 Iraqis were killed and at least twice that many were wounded, including many children and teenagers. The NYT depicted the attack in a slideshow that generally followed the realist conventions of documentary photography, focusing on the particular event with landscape portraits of the after effects of the explosions, as well as medium and close shots of injured individuals, family members mourning the deaths of relatives, and coffins housing the dead. However, the photograph above, appearing near the middle of the slide show, broke with these conventions in ways that invites a more capacious, allegorical understanding of the attacks and their implication for interpreting the otherwise unimaginable results of the year long surge.
What we see here is a young boy standing in the middle of the street. It could be anywhere, of course, lending universal appeal to the image, but the slide show locates us in Baghdad. Cast in a shadow and shot in a subtle but noticeable soft focus, it is hard to recognize the boy as an individual. Nor does his individuality seem to matter, for he is identified in the caption as a type, “a young boy,” and it is the assumption of his youthful innocence and potential for the future that seems to matter the most. While he occupies nearly half the frame of the image, and thus his presence looms large, it is not the boy to which our attention is drawn, at least not exclusively and except insofar as the caption notes that he is “examin[ing] dead doves at Ghazil market, which has been a regular bombing target.” No, it is the doves, laying prostate and framed in the foreground by a wide angle that casts them in sharp focus, that invites our most immediate and direct identification and consideration.
Just as the child is a symbol of innocence and hope for the future, so the dove is the symbol of peace and harmony. One would hope that the two would go hand in hand. But here they have been sundered, their separation from one another – and from the viewer – emphasized by the low angle, debris, and blood that marks their distance from one another. The significance of this is once again underscored by the caption which, goes on, “Ghazil market … has been a regular bombing target. It was struck a year ago in January, when 15 people died, but after months of increased American troop presence, it regained some of its vitality.” The tilt of the boy’s head (is he “examining the doves” or mourning a loss) suggests that the “return to vitality” was a false hope. The veil of innocence has been shattered (perhaps, once and for all), and with it the future is placed in question.
The photograph would thus seem to be an allegory for much more than this one explosion. And as such, perhaps it helps to make the results of the surge a bit more imaginable.
Photo Credit: Eros Hoagland/New York Times