Now You See It, Now You Don"t


A picture is worth a thousand words. Never is this old adage proved truer than in the throes of war. From Matthew Brady's photographs of the War Between the States to William Randolph Hearst's (possibly apocryphal) 'You furnish the pictures, and I'll furnish the war,' to the famous photo of the Marines raising the flag at Iwo Jima'the most reproduced photograph in history'to the television footage of the Vietnam War, pictures, whether still or moving, have shaped our opinions of the wisdom of both going to war and remaining at war.

Over time, governments have learned this lesson well and have done their best to ensure that the images that provide support for their drives for war are broadcast far and wide, while images that would do harm to their desire for legalized mass murder are kept from public view. While, in general, the U.S. government has been quite adept at the former, the latter goal has always been a bit more elusive. After all, it is easy to produce propaganda pictures, which can quite readily be fabricated from whole cloth if necessary; it is much harder to keep pictures of the truth of war from making their way into the public eye.

Sometimes, too, the images that most need to be seen by the public are those that were never captured in the first place. For example, how would public opinion about World War II have changed had there been footage of FDR discussing with his advisers how best to maneuver the Japanese into firing the first shot so as to drag the U.S. into not just the Pacific theater but the European theater as well? Similarly, would Americans have been so gung ho for the Gulf War or even the current Iraq war if they had seen on their television screens videotape of the U.S. ambassador to Iraq telling Saddam Hussein that the United States has 'no opinion on your Arab-Arab conflicts,' in effect giving him a green light to invade Kuwait? There is ample documentation to prove both these contentions, but since it is all on boring old paper rather than exciting film, it has failed to interest the public sufficiently to warrant a reevaluation of the foreign policies of either the Franklin D. Roosevelt or George H. W. Bush administration.

The George W. Bush administration, following in the footsteps of its (ahem) illustrious predecessors, has done its level best to see to it that pro-war images are put on the front page of every newspaper in the country and at the top of every network news broadcast while also seeing to it that antiwar images are kept from as many people as possible.

When it comes to pro-Iraq war images, none is more famous than the toppling of the statue of Saddam Hussein after U.S. troops marched into Baghdad . More than any other picture, this was supposed to symbolize to all peoples of the world that the world's 'indispensable nation' had freed yet another country from the clutches of an evil dictator. Never mind that the same U.S. government, run by many of the same people now in charge (not least among them Donald Rumsfeld), had helped bring Saddam Hussein to power and had provided him with the weaponry, including the dreaded weapons of mass destruction, to stay there, regardless of the consequences for the Iranians or Saddam's 'own people.' Never mind, too, that the famous statue-toppling footage was of a clearly staged event taking place in an area of Baghdad devoid of real Iraqis but populated by Ahmed Chalabi's gang of 'heroes in error,' who are now on the run from the same U.S. government that replaced a former client with these new clients, who in turn also made the mistake of thinking that the U.S. meant it when it claimed the Iraqi government was free to do as it pleased. What matters is that a majority of Americans'and let's face it: foreigners don't matter because they can't vote in American elections'saw the joyous celebration of the liberation of Iraq and still believe that the celebration was a spontaneous demonstration of Iraqis' love for the U.S. military, subsequent events to the contrary notwithstanding. From a public relations standpoint, it was clearly a victory for Bush and his cheerleaders.

The photographs of the captured and bearded Saddam probably run a close second to the statue-toppling footage when it comes to pro-war images. Jingoistic Americans got a kick out of seeing the 'butcher of Baghdad' looking for all the world like a wino, just picked up off the streets of New York, being given a thorough medical and dental exam before being admitted to jail. Even among more skeptical Americans, few were inclined to be too concerned for the well-being of the man they had been told was the next Hitler, especially since almost everyone agreed that both Iraqis and Americans were better off now that he had been captured. This was, in fact, just the P.R. boost the administration needed last December as its floundering post-'Mission Accomplished' occupation was becoming more deadly for Americans than the official combat phase of the war had been.

When it came to suppressing potentially damaging images, the administration got off to a good start.

To begin with, the younger Bush had his father's policy prohibiting photographs of flag-draped coffins arriving at Dover Air Force Base to help him out of the jam of having the American people take note of the number of dead bodies arriving daily'always a good thing when one wants one's citizenry to 'stay the course.' When the policy was tested, the person who snapped and released the offending photograph quickly found herself'and her husband'in line at the unemployment office.

The Pentagon also did its best to keep less-than-stellar footage from Arab news sources, notably Al-Jazeera, from showing up on American TV screens. Soon after the war had begun, Rumsfeld carped about how the Al-Jazeera footage of American prisoners of war was a grave violation of the Geneva Convention'and we all know how concerned this administration is with following the Geneva Convention to the letter'which helped to keep American news outlets from taking the risk of rebroadcasting any of the footage. Later Al-Jazeera's Baghdad office was bombed (by accident, of course), and the station was temporarily banned from Iraqi Governing Council meetings.

After these initial successes, the administration, which was already losing the video battle abroad, began to lose it at home as well. The advent of the Internet, in particular, meant that Americans could gain access to news coverage, including video and photos, from all over the world, and thus could see what was really happening instead of just the fluff photos and footage provided by the Pentagon's handpicked 'embedded' reporters. Still, with a relatively insignificant number of Americans who can be bothered to take the time to scour the Internet for the truth, especially when that truth conflicts with their established America-the-righteous world view, most of the bad news from Iraq that reached the average American's brain got there via the printed or spoken word with no accompanying photos or footage of the disaster that Iraq was becoming.

Then it happened. That which all of the body counts and picture-less news reports could not bring to pass suddenly took hold. The U.S. government, which had long been considered far from a good neighbor by much of the rest of the world, was now to Americans shown to be a purveyor of precisely the same kinds of prison torture that our government had supposedly gone to Iraq to banish once and for all.

What brought about this sea change in American public opinion with regard to both the war and the commander-in-chief? Why, it was pictures, of course! And were there ever pictures'new ones seemingly every day, with video footage to boot. Finally the horrors of war were brought into the living rooms of ordinary Americans, and they didn't like it'and all it took was a visual representation of the truth.

Suppose for a moment there had been no photographs and no videos of the Abu Ghraib S&M parlor. Does anyone doubt that the administration would to this day be denying that any such thing took place? At best they would say that an investigation was ongoing and that they could not comment any further. More likely, they would blame these 'baseless allegations' on people who 'hate freedom' and who are 'with the terrorists.' Even if CBS, which broke the story, had had definite proof of the allegations in written documents, the government would have denied and obfuscated, hoping that a story with no pictures would disappear in a day or two, as it quite likely would have. After all, the prisoner abuse allegations are nothing new; the Red Cross says they've been telling the U.S. government about these and similar abuses for two years now, and yet nothing was done until there were pictures.

In fact, the latest order from Rumsfeld seems to confirm that the administration's real concern is not that the prisoner abuse took place but that the news'and pictures'got out. ''Mobile phones fitted with digital cameras have been banned in United States Army installations on orders from Defence Secretary Donald Rumsfeld,' The Business newspaper reported on Sunday.' Bingo! No pictures, no scandal, no problem.

Another confirmation of the administration's strategy of denying everything unless there are images to prove it was demonstrated this past week. When reports that a U.S. air strike had massacred an Iraqi wedding party first surfaced, the government's response was that it was not a wedding in the least but a 'suspected safehouse for foreign fighters from Syria,' which presumably justified the murder of everyone in the vicinity, including women and children. Later, as it became harder and harder to deny that a wedding had taken place, the excuse became, in the words of Brig. Gen. Mark Kimmitt, 'Bad people have celebrations, too.' Finally, when the Associated Press was able to match up video footage of the wedding to photos of the slain, the jig was up. One could be forgiven for believing the Daily Farce's report that Rumsfeld was now banning camcorders from all celebrations in Iraq .

Truly, a picture is worth a thousand words, especially in wartime. Unfortunately for the War Party, but fortunately for all of us, the world is becoming increasingly photographable, with digital cameras, those infamous cell phone cameras, camcorders, and the like popping up in the hands of peasants as well as presidents. In addition, those images are also becoming increasingly transmittable to millions of people instantly and at practically no cost.

The day is coming when wars will literally be brought into our homes as they happen, not in government-approved 'embedded' reports but in all their gory detail. Perhaps then Americans will once and for all become fed up with the lies, abuses, and murders their government foists upon them in the name of wars for 'freedom and democracy.' Perhaps then the U.S. can once again become a beacon of freedom and peace for the rest of the world. Now there's an image worth contemplating!

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Michael Tennant's picture
Columns on STR: 30

Michael Tennant is a software developer in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania.