Monday, May 31, 2004

Fred and Bart Go Deep, Drown; Part One

The past two Sundays have featured articles by Frederic Koeppel and Bartholomew Sullivan which try to make parallels between the Iraqi War and the Vietnam War, Koeppel through photographs and Sullivan through similarities. Both tell more about the writers than they instruct the reader. Both strive for a profundity of tone that will impress the reader into buying their point. Let's take a look.

Koeppel's piece, "History in focus: Photographs capture unyielding images", compares "iconic" photos from Vietnam and Iraq. His choice of photos is a mixed bag. Nearly everyone would agree the Vietnam pic of the naked young girl running down the dirt path, covered in napalm and screaming, is immediately recognisable with profound associations attached to it. Same for the photo of John Kennedy, Jr. saluting as his father's casket passed by, the photo of Ruby killing Oswald, and the photo of the South Vietnamese offical executing a peasant for the camera. They are clear distillations of a moment (amplified into a cultural moment) that still carry impact and meaning today.

But his choice of armored vehicles passing "I Am A Man" protestors during the sanitation strikes of 1968 in Memphis isn't. That period has other photos that are more culturally embedded with deeper resonance. I suspect it was the presence of military vehicles and troops in an American city that motivated the choice, to bolster Koeppel's thesis, and his equating of Iraq and Vietnam.

Same for a picture in the print edition not online of the evacuation of Saigon. Their photo is a poor substitute for the famous shot of a line of people crossing the roof of the US embassy to board a floating chopper.
But the image that will stay in the consciousness of the world for years to come displays Pfc. Lynndie England, 21, a petite woman in army fatigues, her face somber under a cap of dark hair, holding one end of a leash the other end of which is fastened around the neck of a naked Iraqi man cowering on the floor of the prison at Abu Ghraib in Baghdad.

It's a horrible perversion of "Beauty and the Beast," of all our notions of decency and sovereignty.

Such a photograph can pierce hearts and change minds, lodge in memories. Such a photograph can bring consternation and conflict to an entire country and its government, as the images of physical and sexual humiliation and abuse from Abu Ghraib have done recently in America.
I think it's the "change minds" remark that is foremost on Koeppel's mind.

And then there is the Lynndie England picture of her holding a leash on an Abu Ghraib prisoner. I've seen this one, but the one I've seen more is the picture of England looking two sheets to the wind, cigarette dangling from her mouth, pointing to a naked Iraqi's digitised genitals and laughing for the camera. That is the iconic photo of that incident.

But is this picture emblematic of something important in the Iraq war? It is if you buy in to leftist beliefs that everything to do with the war is illegitimate. It says to them, "This is what America's all about: abusive master leading their dog around." Is the issue of prisoner mistreatment a prism of wider wrongs in Iraq?

Again, if you already think America has and continues to screw up, it is. But it's only some of the people, and those mostly in the media and the Democratic left, who do. What you see over and over from Iraq is pictures of failure and destruction. What I can find online but rarely see in papers or on the news is pictures of grateful Iraqis and happy soldiers rebuilding a nation. Lots of those pictures out there if you look, just not on the media menu.

Which is the point. The Abu Ghraib pictures needed to come out and be seen, but they point out the self-correcting processes and open nature of American democratic-republic law. Unlike the government of Saddam, we showed the pictures, recognised and condemned the wrong, arrested and tried the perpetrators and will punish them. We will try to make amends to the prisoners. Did Saddam do anything like that?
"The icons," said David McCarthy, associate professor of art history and director of the American Studies program at Rhodes College, "are the images of people in moments of the most intense vulnerability and frailty. They're the images that reveal humanity's anger and resentment, shame and humiliation and a very powerful response to another human being's moment of suffering and revelation. It's the image that says, irrevocably, for good or ill, 'This is real.'"
Another, and I think truly iconic, picture came out about the same time, of an Islamofascist terrorist holding the decapitated head of Nick Berg up for the camera. If Abu Ghraib shocked, then this stunned. It gave us a clear image of what we were fighting, of the beliefs and tactics of those who would see our nation-building fail. It sickened because it reminded. So I wonder why we don't see it any more, though we still see the Abu Ghraib pictures often.

Weeks after the beheading, I still get regular visitors to the site looking for the Nick Berg video. I cannot recall ever seeing searches for "Abu Ghraib" in my referrer logs.

Absent the amplifying and distorted repetitions of the media, the paticular Lynndie England photo Koeppel picks out will not impress itself into history the way the other England picture will. And I suspect years from now people will be able to clearly recall the Berg video images with a sharp emotional stab that no Abu Ghraib picture will similarly have.
Of course the brutal images emanating from Abu Ghraib (or from the gruesome death chamber of the anonymous beheaders of Nicholas Berg) weren't taken by objective photojournalists who happened upon the scene; they were taken by the participants.
This is a bit specious, since even "objective" photographers will still try to massage their shots. Did the guy who took the John-John shot just happen to be there, or did he position himself across from the family for maximum advantage? Did the photographer who took the sanitation strike picture just happen to be up above the street, or did he spot the parallelism of the pacing protestors and the line of armored vehicles? It's not widely known, but in fact the Viet execution photo was partially staged for the benefit of the photographer. Of Koeppel's examples, only the Ruby pic was truly spontaneous.

I think Koeppel's true point is where his article wanders into examining the psychology of the soldiers at Abu Ghraib. It's only those folks as "photojournalists" he wonders about, not any of the others. He ends up with some paragraphs about "power." Everything that came before seems only to have been a setup for accusing the soldiers at Abu Ghraib of abusing power and control.

In other words, Koeppel set up an argument for the "iconic" power of photographs, using photographs from the anti-war, protesting, Vietnam era as his sole selection pool, conveniently skipping over Iraq I, Kosovo, and Afghanistan. He then falsely equates the Abu Ghraib photos with them. Then he makes arguments about the circumstances of the taking of the pictures he doesn't apply to the Vietnam pictures. He whips up some stuff about the photographer "controlling" his subject and doing so out of some misguided "power" issue. Yet he doesn't apply that dialectic to the Vietnam pictures. Is it because he would have to implicate the photographers of the napalmed child and murdered peasant with their killers?

It's all about the Vietnam-era nostalgia so much of the media and press seem consumed with, and not an honest analysis.

Sorry, Fred. Bad argument.


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