IF A PICTURE is worth a thousand words, then the millions of pictures of America’s many wars abroad are telling. The images we see, however, should not distract us from imagining what we don’t, from wondering, along with Susan Sontag, “whose cruelties, whose deaths are not being shown.”
A great deal has been written about the photographs that helped stack opinion against America’s bloody misadventure in Vietnam. An iconic one that we all recognise was taken by Huyn Cong Ut. In it, a young girl runs naked and screaming with agony, directly into our consciousness. She is nine years old, and her clothes have been burnt off by napalm. From South Vietnam, she is a victim of Southern Vietnamese “friendly fire,” (as the term would have it) and friendly American napalm. This leaves her permanently disfigured, needing 17 operations to survive at all. She is the haunting child we’ve come to know, who must stand in for the hundreds of thousands of other Vietnamese children whose wounds, whose deformities, whose amputated limbs and charred corpses, have forever disappeared from view, except perhaps in the broken hearts of those who remain to mourn them.
Born in the nineteenth century, perfected in the twentieth, photography has always been, in Edward Steichen’s words, “a major force in explaining man to himself.” Since the American Civil War, it has played a determining role in documenting what men have seen fit to do to each other. Much of what we know about war, atrocity, famine and siege in recent times comes to us from photographs. Pick any human horror story the two World Wars, the Holocaust, Algeria, Hiroshima and Nagasaki, Vietnam, Cambodia, Bangladesh, Sabra and Chatila, Rwanda, Bosnia, Kosova, Chechnya, Gaza, Manhattan, Afghanistan, Iraq, Lebanon – and it will conjure up unforgettable faces, full of fear and suffering, that have come to be as much part of our personal history as those in our family albums. Any person ever exposed to books or to the press and media will have a particular jumble of images inside their head. Like many Arabs, mine have been made increasingly savage and distressing. Among them glows the terrible snuff shot of the twelve-year-old Muhammad al-Durra, killed in Gaza in 2000 by the Israeli Defense Forces, whilst cowering in fear of his life in his father’s helpless arms. This is the image that, for me, sums up the immorality and brutishness of occupation.
Some of us become deeply familiar with certain photographs without ever knowing who took them. Others come to love the revealing work of certain photographers. Two of my heroes (among many) are Don McCullin and Stanley Greene. Don McCullin’s work stands as an excoriation of war, of the price civilians have to pay when caught up in it. (No wonder that Margaret Thatcher refused him permission to photograph her Falklands escapade, not wanting official images she could control to be bypassed in any way). McCullin was one of the first to portray Palestinian suffering in depth, at a time when few Western photojournalists cared or dared to visit this terrible injustice. His photographs of the world’s poor – its unemployed, its dispossessed, its hungry and downtrodden are raw as knuckles dragged across a wall. They succeed in making one feel as angry as he must have felt when taking them, an anger that goes on burning inside even when one turns away.
Stanley Greene spent ten years photographing the Chechen people. His pictures of Grozny (a city he describes as having been made to resemble “The Horrors of War” by Goya) are absolutely terrifying. Here are images that Vladimir Putin would no doubt kill to have suppressed. Here is the story of the martyrdom of a Muslim people at the hands (and booted feet) of thuggish Russian troops and their local hoods and flunkies. Carnage, rape, and blood accost our eyes as we’re made to look with Greene at the Chechen open wound. Carnage, rape and blood. The blooms of occupation.
The American occupiers of Afghanistan and Iraq did all they could to control the images that would reach us from their illegal wars. They “embedded” photographers and film-crews with their militan’. They fed the press thousands of charts, aerial images and computer-generated ones, to render abstract concrete mass killings. They arrested photojournalists, incarcerating one of them – Sami al-Haj – in a cage in the U.S. concentration camp at Guantanamo Bay, where he still remains, and where, according to his British lawyer, this innocent man suffered beatings and sexual assault. They bombed the offices of al-Jazeera in Kabul and in Baghdad, killing its cameraman, Tareq Ayyub. They killed two cameramen from Reuters, one of whom – Mazen Dana – was filming outsióe the Abu Ghraib prison when he was shot point-blank by American soldiers advancing in their tank.
Despite such morbid attempts at image control and censorship, photographs and films continue to reach the outside world. They show the reality of what is going on in America’s newest bases. American television networks, however, largely owned by corporations with vested interests in government, seek to make sure that little gruesome stuff about Iraq makes it on to the small screen. In this, they are unlike their European or Arab or Asian counterparts. This has turned the American war on Iraq into two completely different wars: one for American consumption, artificially-coloured and sweetened like Pepsi; the other, for the world – acrid and nauseating like the deadly fumes over Baghdad.
If the now notorious photographs of Abu Ghraib had not come out, would the scandal have ever broken? Even when it did, we know the torture and the ritual humiliation of Iraqi men and women and children continued to take place in American’s prisons in Iraq, where some fifteen thousand people are incarcerated without trial.
There are many deeply disturbing things about the Abu Ghraib photographs – their military-porn genre, the obscene racism they illustrate, as well as the depravity and cretinism of America’s soldiers as they run amok. No “bad apples” these, but highly representative examples of the present-day ethos of the United States, with its ignorant fool for president, its corrupt cabals for government, its thieving corporations and sinister ideologues.
What is most disturbing, however, is not what we manage to see, but what remains hidden from our eyes, from our knowledge. The cruelties, the interrogations, the torture with drills, the rapes, the filth, the blindfolds, the tied hands and feet, the exposure to extremes of cold and heat, to rats and violent dogs, to blaring, punishing din, that takes place in America’s newfangled prisons in Iraq. Prisons that resemble nothing more precisely than they do the jails of Saddam Hussein.
In his magisterial book, The Twilight of American Culture, Morris Berman argues that the social and economic inequalities of society in America (in terms of wealth disparity, the US leads the world!), the lack of investment in socio-economic problems, the rapidly growing illiteracy (millions of Americans can now hardly read or write), the ever-expanding prison population (which is largely Afro-American), have made it so that “rather than providing a model for the third world, the United States appears to be imitating it.” This is frighteninglv obvious in the wearing away of hard-won civil liberties, in a political atmosphere that Norman Mailer has called “pre-fascistic.”
A generation is presently growing up in the world that equates America with torture, with corruption, exploitation, mendacity, cupidity, stupidity, with brazen waste – to the tune of billions – of other peoples’ money, with racism, with secret and illegal flights, with far-flung gulags, crass colonialism and wanton war. A generation that sees America as one massive and malignant base – as Base America.
Go to any capital city – to London, Amman, Djakarta, Paris, Tunis, Warsaw, or most spectacularly, to Baghdad – and you will see roads cut off, pedestrians thwarted, traffic redirected at a certain spot: at the bunker housing America’s place of representation. Make no mistake: these “Green Zones,” as they should now be dubbed – absolutely all of them! – are places worthy of your rarest pity. Only the weak require such impregnable fortifications. Only hated dictators do, who live in fear of violent retribution for their crimes.
Thanks to today’s America, I am left with this significant photograph. An Iraqi man – one of the many thousands rounded up in the first phase of occupation, perhaps for failing to throw flowers! – sits in the burning sun, and a black hood suffocating him, blindfolding him, imprisoning him. A black hood drenched in urine, another little tactic of this war, which makes him love his captors better, as he smells their stench. The hood resembles those beloved of Spanish Inquisitors, or members of the Ku Klux Klan, re-designed with him in mind. This hood is now his world. This hood is America.
He cannot see his little boy, who has somehow crept through barbed wires and found him. He can barely hear his questions or his sobs. His fingers move to touch his small son’s hair, which he feels is hot, too hot, from baking in this sun.