Cover Story


Only in tandem with words can images tell the truth

Issue: "Iraq: The image war," May 22, 2004

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.

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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.

Losing Vietnam

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.


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