Friday, August 25, 2006

How press restrictions have backfired in Iraq

Susan Moeller, whose excellent book Shooting War: Photography and the American Experience of Combat is a must-read for anyone interested in the way wars are captured visually, provides a great essay in today's Washington Post. Here she discusses the famous photo of raising the American flag on Iwo Jima:
Countless publications duplicated the image. It was reproduced on a postage stamp, made into a statue, copied on untold numbers of commemorative items and turned into a Hollywood movie plot. Joe Rosenthal's photograph not only gave Americans back home an image of what was happening on the front lines, it persuasively argued that Americans were winning.
What I think Moeller leaves out, however, is the influence of the war's popularity among the American people throughout its span. There were many images which told less positive stories of the war. A Marine Corps photographer's photo published in Look just a month before Rosenthal's shows a nearly nude Marine "crucified to a stretcher by Japanese bullets." Moeller talked about this photo and others in this interview (the numbers discussed correspond to the number in the book):
LAMB: This next photograph is again from World War II, and it's your 26th photograph and it's done by Ralph Morris. What is this?

MOELLER: Well, this is probably the most horrific photograph from the book and it is a photograph from the Guanada Canal of a Japanese skull that's sort of speared on top of a Japanese tank. When I interviewed him about this, he mentioned that he was with a a platoon of soldiers who were walking through the jungle, came out into a clearing and saw this and he took it. Saw this scene and he took the picture of it. It was published in Life and perhaps created the greatest amount of furor of any photograph in the war. It received a lot of support from people as well as a concerted outcry from others.

LAMB: This is photograph number 33.

MOELLER: This is perhaps a photograph that shows the kind of of care, the kind of patriotism symbolism that was still evident and still operating in in World War II. The caption was "Crucified to a stretcher." And here we have a man who was literally crucified in the crucifix position with his arms outstretched but is actually wearing a crucifix. It's actually a good example of how photography could capture the symbolism.

LAMB: And this was in Look Magazine?

MOELLER: This was in Look Magazine.

LAMB: And it was a U.S. Marine Corps photograph?

MOELLER: Yes, that's correct.

LAMB: 35.

MOELLER: Ah, that famous photograph from Robert Cappa that I was telling you about earlier. Of the Normandy D-Day invasion -- you can barley make out there's a man crawling ashore and those sort of spiky things in the background are tank traps.
And I have mentioned before this image of George Strock's from 1943--published over a year before the Iwo Jima photo.

My point in bringing this up is not to argue against the power of Rosenthal's photograph, but only to point out that Americans had many choices of photographs which could be raised to the level of an icon, but, because they believed in the war, Americans chose Rosenthal's.

When we think of the Iraq war, supporters of the administration would like for us to think of the image of the toppling of Saddam's statue as the symbol of the conflict, but, as Moeller points out, the actions depicted in that photo were nothing more than an "elaborate photo op." More than that, it was an act of psychological warfare directed against domestic American targets.

As David Neiwert wrote when it became public the event was staged:
This reality raises a serious concern about the fragility of democracy during wartime. Because under the aegis of a seemingly eternal war, the American government has clearly been involving the public in its psychological combat, and has hijacked the nation's press in the process. The entire meaning of the Iraq war -- and by extension, the "war on terrorism" -- is inextricably bound up in the psychological manipulation of the voting public through a relentless barrage of propaganda.

This is why the both the runup to the war and its subsequent mishandling have been so replete with highly symbolic media events -- many of them played repeatedly on nightly newscasts -- that have proven so hollow at their core, from the declarations of imminent threat from Iraq's supposed weapons of mass destruction, to phony images of Saddam's statue being torn down, to flyboy antics aboard airline carriers, to meaningless "handovers" of power. It also explains why certain important and humanizing symbols of wartime -- civilian casualties, the returning flag-draped coffins -- have been so notably absent from our views of the war.
Yes, Americans have come to realize that it was a war we shouldn't have started managed by an administration lacking the skill to bring about a positive outcome, but I do believe that the reliance on image management has backfired on this administration. I would argue that the staged nature of the statue image and the tight management of media imagery--a management which I, as a public affairs soldier in Afghanistan have seen firsthand and in which I've played a small role--makes it impossible for this photo or any truly positive photo of the Iraq War to be considered as iconic as Rosenthal's. Americans don't like feeling manipulated and the tight reins on the media have, in my view, added to the public disdain of the Iraq War. A free people expect and deserve a free press and images which tell the complicated truth about the conflict in which our county is engaged. The more Americans feel they're being led toward a point of view, the more likely they are to question the direction of the shepherds.


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