Cover Story

THE IMAGE WAR

"THE IMAGE WAR" Continued...

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

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?

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