A picture is worth a thousand swords.
If anyone doubts that, they should ask Vice President Dick Cheney, Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld, National Security Advisor Condoleezza Rice, and Chairman of the Joint Chiefs Gen. Richard Myers. All were summoned to the Pentagon on May 10 to review with President Bush a sampling of hundreds of amateur photos from Abu Ghraib prison-images, the president admitted later to the cameras, with "harm that goes beyond the walls of a prison."
At least that is true in contemporary warfare, when pictures can inspire or disillusion the people back home, either rallying them behind a cause or convincing them that the cause is not worth it. The public's support is essential when modern democracies go to war, and without that, it doesn't matter how dominant their military is on the battlefield. A picture can unify a nation, or it can turn victory into defeat.
Mr. Rumsfeld admitted the power of the Abu Ghraib images in May 7 Senate testimony: "Words don't do it. The words that there were abuses, that it was cruel, that it was inhumane, all of which is true, that it was blatant, you read that and it's one thing. You see the photographs, and you get a sense of it, and you cannot help but be outraged."
The War against Terrorism and its theaters in Afghanistan and Iraq have been seared into our imaginations with a series of unforgettable visual images: Those planes crashing into the World Trade Center. The firefighters raising the Stars and Stripes over the rubble. Shots of precision-guided weaponry finding their targets in Afghanistan. Women in their burqas rejoicing at the fall of the Taliban. Footage from embedded reporters putting us with the troops in Iraq. Iraqis celebrating in the streets. Iraqis looting in the streets. A dirty, bedraggled Saddam just pulled out of his hole. Burned bodies of Americans dragged in the streets and hung on a bridge.
And now, naked Iraqis with hoods on their heads being tormented and abused by American guards.
Visual images have an emotional impact that goes beyond mere words, but words are necessary to think about what the images mean. This is especially true when war is photographed. A photograph gives us truth, but it is not always the whole truth and nothing but the truth. Visual images have an emotional impact that goes beyond mere words, but words are necessary to think about what the images mean. This is especially true when war is photographed.
The Vietnam War was started as an idealistic venture, saving a defenseless land from invasion by the communists. It was a Democratic war, the brainchild of John F. Kennedy, with his James Bond novels and his Green Berets. It was a liberal war, waged by Lyndon Johnson, architect of the Great Society.
But it was the first televised war, and pictures from the war wore the country down: That photograph of the little girl, napalmed, naked, and running in panic. What ideals were worth that? The photograph of the South Vietnam officer executing a Viet Cong captive, shooting him in the head as the young guerrilla grimaced at the moment of his death. Why were we defending people like this?
And then there was the relentless TV coverage, night after night of enemy body counts and American casualties, all brought into our living rooms. Then the Vietnam Veterans Against the War came out with stories of atrocities. The story of the My Lai massacre broke. Our young people didn't want to go. Many protested, some dodged the draft. We felt ashamed. Even our troops' victories seemed futile, in light of the pictures from the front. The "silent majority" turned against a war that the politicians refused to win. Republicans Nixon and Ford promised to end it. The final picture was of helicopters flying off the embassy roof, as crowds of panicked Americans struggled to climb aboard, as the North Vietnamese overran Saigon.
Then we felt better. No pictures came through of what the North Vietnamese did to the people we left to their mercy. The television networks stopped covering the dominos as they fell: the communists' killing fields in Cambodia, the Laotian refugee camps, the boat people desperately trying to escape. We knew about these things, in general, but what we didn't see couldn't hurt us.
The Abu Ghraib photos
At first the pictures from Iraq helped the war effort. TV worked in favor of the troops, unlike in Vietnam, as the embedded reporters showed the point of view of those who fought and performed magnificently. Not only did they defeat the enemy; they were seen as benevolent in victory-helping the enemy wounded, playing with Iraqi children, fixing up schools and hospitals. What fine young people. They volunteered for this-they weren't draftees-and they behaved with professionalism, patriotism, and honor.
Then these pictures came out from a prison camp. If TV cameras thwarted the war in Vietnam, this war might be lost because of the digital camera. Naked men, hooded and bound, piled on top of each other and posed in sexual ways, as women guards smirked and vogued. Yes, it's likely these were terrorists. And yes, we had to "break them" for interrogation. But these pictures-illustrating other accounts of prisoners sodomized and even killed-were shameful.
It wasn't just that we pitied these abused prisoners. These pictures showed a dark side of our own culture. We had convinced ourselves that we were the good guys, and yet look how some of us acted. Here was the pornographic imagination, the sexual perversion that our culture has come to tolerate and even approve. One of the women in the photos reportedly was sent home because she got pregnant and a captain was reprimanded for sneaking pictures of the female troops taking showers. Some who apparently know about such things are saying that the very poses the prisoners were forced into were modeled after pornographic films, the ones featuring sado-masochism and homosexual fantasies.
And what are these women doing there? Even our military is kowtowing to the feminists, assigning men and women equally as prison guards over men? Women were not supposed to be assigned to combat, but in a guerrilla war, everyone is in a combat zone. Women have been dying, no less than men, and while we honor their sacrifice, it seems wrong. Now in these pictures we see women as equal-opportunity sadists.
Is this the culture, the liberation, we want to give the Iraqis? The radical Muslims, of course, see us as godless. We have no morals. Could they be right?
The limits of pictures
Of course, those pictures prove no such thing. They show some men and women doing shameful things. But they show nothing about the hundreds of thousands of other troops in Iraq who have behaved honorably. They show nothing about context or purpose or meaning.
Although these pictures are being used to demonize our military and its chain of command up to Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld, they don't show that it was the military itself that uncovered this wrongdoing. It was the military that first learned about some guards abusing prisoners. It was the military that investigated the abuses and initiated action against the perpetrators. This was not uncovered by investigative reporters or dissidents smuggling photos to al-Jazeera, but by the very military now being criticized.
The late media scholar Neil Postman has said that visual images are irrefutable. They are not something that you can prove wrong or even argue with. You can only do that with ideas, and ideas can only be conveyed by language. Visual images, he says, appeal not to the mind (the realm of ideas and language) but to the emotions. They create an immediate visceral, nonreflective response.
And, although they are irrefutable, seemingly showing something tangible and real, this is not always the case. Images can be selected, posed, even-especially with today's technology-faked. In fact, there is good unbiased evidence that the corresponding pictures of British troops abusing their prisoners were faked (the uniforms, weapons, and vehicles shown are not the ones used in Iraq). And yet, visual images are powerful manipulators, especially of people who have conditioned themselves with a nonstop diet of visual images and in a culture that has come to minimize language and, thus, thinking.
There is no reason to doubt what these pictures show. Christians, in particular, should never be surprised to see examples of human depravity. They are just more evidence to prove that what the Bible says about sin is true. And Christians are well aware of the dark side of American culture-sexual permissiveness and perversion, cruelty as entertainment-having denounced for years the very trends that the rest of the culture now sees as so horrible in these photos.
But they are not the whole story. In that very prison camp, Saddam Hussein tortured prisoners to death. When he and his sons had their critics tossed into plastic shredders, though, there were no pictures.
Now, many Americans are so shocked at these photographs -taken by the very people doing the abusing-that they think we should leave Iraq. And what do they think will happen then? Whatever Saddam sympathizers do to his people, whatever the Sunnis and Shiites will do to each other, will it bother us if at least we don't have to see it?
All of this is by way of introduction to some more pictures.* What follows, though, are not only pictures. This is the fruit of genuine photojournalism. It is a photo-essay, with images and words working together.
They were taken by a Christian freelance journalist and photographer, Sherrlyn Borkgren. She is embedded with the 91st Engineers, stationed just northeast of Baghdad.
Here are some powerful photographs-of soldiers going into the homes of insurgents and interrogating their families; of troops in battle; of soldiers caring for their wounded; of troops interacting with ordinary Iraqis-but along with them is language: not only the captions, but Ms. Borkgren's own words from the front. Some of these photos in isolation-for example, the woman with her hands up-could be used to show American brutality and more reason to pull out of Iraq. But the words tell a different story. And the photos taken together as a whole illustrate that story, told most vividly in Ms. Borkgren's dispatches.
Writing doesn't get much better than this. She describes what it feels like to be in combat-what she felt as she was being shot at-depicting the war in Iraq from the inside. She also describes the bravery and nobility of the soldiers she is with, who are nothing like those prison guards. Her pictures are powerful, but her dispatches show what it took to get those pictures, as well as a sense of the bigger reality, of which these are only snapshots.
*View these photographs in the print edition of WORLD.