Our new war of images


Friday, May 14, 2004
The situation in Iraq has mutated into full-blown psychological warfare with the media as the weapon of choice. Pictures of tortured Iraqi prisoners have been joined by the unbearable broadcast of the minutes leading up to the barbaric beheading of Nick Berg in retaliation.
The pictures from Abu Ghraib prison have had a profound impact on Arab, American and Western public opinion. They've made many Westerners more resolved to demand the U.S. leave the quagmire it created by invading Iraq without the support of a strong international force, thus feeding the anti-American sentiment in that part of the world.
The images of Berg's beheading, including the sensationalistic broadcast of the awful sound of his screams by some of our own networks, such as TVA, have made the hawks more determined to root out what they see as those savages who cut people's throats or blow themselves up in suicide attacks.
Real people are dying in Iraq, but this is also a war of images. In the age of digital and Internet technology, it took but a few weeks to turn the invasion of Iraq into a psychological war based on the broadcast of horrific images. It took years in the case of Vietnam.
And like Vietnam, the impact of today's images will matter greatly. They will determine the fate of George W. Bush in the election, the fate of the Iraqi people and perhaps even of terrorism in the Mideast.
Since this is also an age where senseless violence permeates the Western world's visual environment, the acts and the pictures that depict them will become more powerful and gruesome than ever. Even images of the traditional burning of the American flag have been replaced by the burning of American civilians in effigy.
At the same time, we see pictures of Iraqi prisoners stripped, tortured, humiliated and sexually exploited by grinning and sadistic American soldiers, including a woman. Even more horrifying pictures, including of corpses, have been shown to U.S. senators.
In all this, it's impossible to escape the subtext of racism in the dehumanization of Arabs. Forcing people to strip in front of each other is a known way to destroy the prisoners' dignity.
On the other side of this war of images, Iraqis who resist Americans out of patriotism are being lumped in with foreign terrorist organizations such as Al-Qa'ida.
Al-Qa'ida is outdoing the Americans in the war of images. It carefully chooses civilians to be decapitated, hoping to mobilize Arabs and shock Americans into either withdrawal or a final showdown.
As for Bush, this amalgamation of Iraqi resistance and Muslim terrorism helps him brand his bungled invasion as a war on terrorism, the new, post-Communist evil. Bush now even tries to use the broadcast of the images from Abu Ghraib prison as proof of his country's superior democratic fibre. No dictator would show any of this, he says.
Anyway, war is hell, right? The problem with this cliche is when the army that tortures prisoners belongs to a superpower that claims moral superiority over what it calls the incarnation of evil. "War is ugly" no longer suffices to excuse what American soldiers did.
Posing as morally superior to the "enemies of freedom" demanded these acts never be perpetrated in the first place. The report from the Red Cross inspectors who visited Abu Ghraib last year and informed Washington in mid-January should have prompted immediate action.
But now we learn why nothing was done until those pictures were broadcast. The acts by soldiers are now reported as part of a concerted psychological strategy by U.S. intelligence to scare other Iraqi prisoners into submission.
As the debate in the U.S. turns to whether to release more pictures of atrocities, the war of images is sure to escalate. With the knowledge that what happened in those prisons was no freak accident, it's now up to Americans to demand a political solution from Bush, or throw him out.
The horror is, in the meantime, there will be more images of torture and even murder by American soldiers while we're bound to see more American civilians executed in Middle-Age fashion.
But war is hell, right?

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