Matthew Dennis: The Government's Lost Control of the Battle Over Pictures

Roundup: Historians' Take

Matthew Dennis, professor of history at the University of Oregon, in the Register-Guard (May 16, 2004):

... The Bush administration has generally exploited every opportunity to shore up support for its war policy through images - both by supplying favorable ones and by denying access to those deemed unfavorable, or limiting photography altogether. But even the most secretive and image-conscious administration in recent U.S. history has proved unable to control our view of the Iraq war as it lost its grip on the nation's Viewmaster.

Since the Civil War, photography has played a significant role in American warfare and public life, bringing war home in powerful and disturbing ways. The immediacy of the photographic image - its ability to expose the gruesomeness of battlefield - made it increasingly impossible to shield those on the home front from the horrific realities of war. Sharply dressed troops in splendid regalia marched off in glorious nobility, but images of those same men, their bodies lifeless and mangled on bloody fields, returned to haunt their families and communities, changing how Americans would understand war.

Lofty, poetic language justifying war wilted in the face of pictures displayed in "The Dead at Antietem," a landmark exhibition opening in October 1862 at Mathew Brady's New York studio. The Union had "won" the Battle of Antietem a month earlier, and for the first time, American photographers had documented the carnage of victory before the dead were buried. Sept. 17, 1862, was the bloodiest single day of the war, with a toll of 24,000 casualties.

Death was omnipresent in the 19th century, as mortality rates actually rose and life expectancy fell, from an average of 56 years for adult males in 1790 to 48 by the time of the Civil War.

Americans typically performed the task of preparing the dead for burial in their own homes, and they oversaw funeral and interment ceremonies themselves.

Desperate to maintain connections with those who died, surviving relatives kept mementos of their departed loved ones - mementos mori - locks of hair, treasured objects or pictures. Some sought to remember the dead through posthumous mourning images - paintings of loved ones shown as in life, or peacefully reposing in domestic settings, sleeping an endless sleep.

The technological innovation of photography in the 1840s improved, simplified and ultimately democratized efforts to conserve images of the dead and sustain their presence among the living. But the catastrophic impact of the Civil War overwhelmed the United States with 620,000 deaths, and the photographs of those killed in places such as Antietam Creek mocked the wishes of Americans to see their sons, husbands and fathers depicted in peaceful slumber or to inter them on family homesteads. These pictures did not console and revitalize the living.

The great jurist Oliver Wendell Holmes wrote, "Let him who wishes to know what war is look at this series of illustrations." Yet Holmes, who had seen the Antietam battlefield himself (as he searched for his missing son), wanted only to bury the pictures: They, like the painful death of his son and others, were too vivid.

Averting his eyes, Holmes found refuge in abstract, romantic and patriotic themes - martyrdom and national redemption. He preferred to focus on the "sublime whole" rather than the real mutilated corpses of actual soldiers. But others rejected such avoidance and believed it critical to confront the hell of war, to calculate its full price, as a means of honestly assessing its impact and necessity.

In the century following the Civil War, Americans increasingly pushed death away. They gradually began to live longer and healthier lives, and the business of death itself became the work of professionals. Undertakers became funeral directors, graveyards became cemeteries and eventually memorial parks, and even grave markers were set horizontally into the landscape, as if to prevent the intrusion of the dead into the world of the living.

But war challenged Americans' preference for death as sanitized, generic and distant. And photography was a chief vehicle for such intrusion. As such, it was banned or sharply controlled in war zones. Thousands and thousands died grim deaths in the muddy trenches of World War I, but we have no iconic images of that fact. Pictures of Pearl Harbor showed no dead. Only two years into World War II did the U.S. government permit photography of battle, and even then it was carefully controlled and designed to promote the war effort.

More recently, Vietnam produced a flood of less restrained and more disturbing pictures - film as well as still images - that documented the war, bringing it into American living rooms, and making it more difficult to sustain illusions that things were going well, that the cause was noble, or the price was worth paying.

President Bush insists that Iraq is no Vietnam. And in at least one respect, he has acted to insure that it is not - if vivid images of body bags or coffins containing the multiplying war dead testify to the costs of war, the Bush administration has done its best to keep such picture from American view. Only the granting of a Freedom of Information request (apparently in error) allowed Americans to see the dignified reception of some war dead at Dover Air Force Base last month.

No president has been more committed to controlling his message, particularly through the use and misuse of images, than George W. Bush. That message seems to be that the war in Iraq is a noble cause, inspired only by the imminent threat of U.S. destruction by the Iraqi deployment of weapons of mass destruction, in just retribution for the events of Sept. 11, 2001, and dedicated to world peace and security through the construction of democracy and human rights in Iraq.

If only all this were true. President Bush's now infamous "Top Gun" photo-op and speech proclaiming "Mission Accomplished" aboard the U.S.S. Lincoln last May were mere propaganda. This glorious Hollywood ending was designed to distract Americans from the war's problematic beginnings and troubled denouement (the futile search for WMDs, looting of antiquities and looming reconstruction challenges), and to solidify the president's position as the American Idol. Yet, since the war's "end," U.S. casualties in the Iraq have more than doubled, and little progress has been made in establishing order, political stability, democracy or economic reconstruction.

Some months later, at Thanksgiving, the president made a secret trip to Baghdad, largely to stage another photo-op and take command of the front page in newspapers across the United States. As the Washington Post later reported, though, the famous picture of Mr. Bush serving turkey to the troops was faked. The smiling president held a prop, "a decoration, not a serving plate."

If the May Day and Thanksgiving pictures were fakes, others were all too real - the revolting images of torture and humiliation emanating from Abu Ghraib prison, where Americans perpetuated the atrocities of the previous regime. Not only death, but fates worse than death, stare us in the face.

These pictures have angered President Bush, but it is disheartening to hear the president's ire directed as much at the fact of the photographs, and the fact of their release to public view, as the fact that such criminal acts were carried out by the U.S. government at all.

Had they not been leaked, would these war crimes have come to light? Would the U.S. have taken responsibility for them?

These pictures did not merely document abuse, they inflicted it. Taking such photographs of Iraqi prisoners was itself designed to magnify the shame they suffered by potentially publicizing their degradation to their own communities and the world. Their torment was thus enlarged by the "blackmailing" images of their victimization.

As the scholar W.J.T. Mitchell recently observed about another set of gruesome war pictures - of the charred bodies of American victims at Fallujah - these images are like photos of lynchings. "Part of the horror comes from the expressions of delight on the faces of the men (and) women ... in the crowd." In Abu Ghraib, they are American faces.

In a campaign stop at Prairie du Chien, Wis., last week, President Bush called the Abu Ghraib pictures an "untrue portrait of America." But seeing is believing. We must look carefully and distinguish muckraking images from just plain muck. The administration's contrived photo-ops themselves present an "untrue portrait" of the Iraq war....

comments powered by Disqus