We Are Losing the War Over Pictures

News Abroad

Mr. Cole is Professor of Modern Middle Eastern and South Asian History at the University of Michigan. His website is http://www.juancole.com/.

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The war of guns is only part of any great military enterprise. It is always supplemented by a war of words and, in the modern world, a war of images. The Bush administration, despite the savvy of its spinmeisters and Hollywood-trained publicists, has lost the war of images abroad. Although it has had more success in managing war images at home, cracks have increasingly opened up on the domestic front as well.

The graphic photos of abused Iraqi prisoners released on CBS's "60 Minutes II" news show on April 28 have been reproduced as stills and transmitted all over the Internet, showing up, as well, on Arab satellite television and in the Arabic press. The footage shows U.S. military personnel forcing nude Iraqi prisoners to simulate sex acts. In others they are made to form a human pyramid. One photo now circulating shows a man badly beaten. Another shows a corpse. Sexual humiliation may be the least of the indignities inflicted on some of the prisoners.

Several of the scenes show an American woman in uniform, gesturing lewdly and prancing before the hooded, nude Iraqi prisoners. One wonders if she is playing out her insecurities as a woman in the U.S. Army, looked down on by some of her male colleagues, by lording it over Iraqi prisoners of war. Was she compensating by playing dominatrix to Muslim men she imagined to be the ultimate male chauvinists? Although the main purpose of the abuse was to soften up the prisoners for interrogation, the precise forms of humiliation appear to have been shaped by the insecurities and prejudices of the reservists, who had been given no training in the Geneva Conventions.

The reaction to the photographs in the Arab world was, predictably, fury and humiliation. Samia Nakhoul of Reuters reported that Abdel-Bari Atwan, editor of the pan-Arabist London newspaper, al-Quds al-Arabi, said,"The liberators are worse than the dictators. This is the straw that broke the camel's back for America . . . That really, really is the worst atrocity. It affects the honour and pride of Muslim people. It is better to kill them than sexually abuse them." She also reported the sentiments of Daud al-Shiryan of Saudi Arabia:"This will increase the hatred of America, not just in Iraq but abroad. Even those who sympathised with the Americans before will stop. It is not just a picture of torture, it is degrading. It touches on morals and religion . . . Abu Ghraib prison was used for torture in Saddam's time. People will ask now what's the difference between Saddam and Bush. Nothing!"

Recently, the administration has fared no better in the image wars at home. The decision of the Sinclair Broadcast Group not to carry the April 30 broadcast of the late-night television news show from ABC, "Nightline," anchored by Ted Koppel, because it was devoted to reading out the names and showing photographs of fallen U.S. military personnel, typifies the politicization of images. Koppel's show inevitably humanized the U.S. casualties in Iraq, putting faces and names with the shadowy statistics reported in most U.S. newspapers and television news shows daily.

Sinclair, headed by rightwing media mogul David Smith, issued a statement that the Nightline program"The Fallen,""appears to be motivated by a political agenda designed to undermine the efforts of the United States in Iraq." Democratic members of congress immediately called for a Federal Communications Commission investigation as to whether Smith was censoring the public airwaves for the sake of his own private political convictions. Senator John McCain, a former POW in North Vietnam, then weighed in with a letter to Smith:"Your decision to deny your viewers an opportunity to be reminded of war's terrible costs, in all their heartbreaking detail, is a gross disservice to the public, and to the men and women of the United States Armed Forces. It is, in short, sir, unpatriotic. I hope it meets with the public opprobrium it most certainly deserves."

Koppel's program was the height of minimalism. The anchor simply read out the names of servicemen and servicewomen killed in Iraq from the onset of the war to the present. The names had been printed in the newspapers all along. The controversy clearly lay in the presentation of over 700 images of real human faces, belonging to the deceased. Although Koppel was accused of deliberately damaging the war effort, it is not clear that the troops he is memorializing would have wished to remain anonymous. Not being, or letting others be, a mere statistic is important to the persons serving in the military in Iraq. My late friend, naval reserve Lieutenant Kylan Huffman-Jones (whose picture Koppel showed), observed to me two months before he was shot dead at Hilla that he had to keep reminding himself that each fatal casualty statistic he saw in U.S. military intelligence reports was a human being.

Even high Bush administration officials cannot seem to remember how many dead U.S. soldiers there have been at any one time as a result of the war. In congressional testimony on April 29, Deputy Secretary of Defense Paul Wolfowitz said he thought there had been"approximately 500" troops killed since the beginning of the war, of which"350" were combat deaths. In fact, as of that day 724 U.S. troops had died in Iraq, of which 522 were combat deaths. His office later said that he"misspoke." But this error is instructive of the way in which the hawks in Washington have hidden the costs of their Iraq adventure from the public so assiduously that they have even begun hiding it from themselves.

The over 700 U.S. servicemen and servicewomen killed in Iraq have largely been denied the commemoration that should have been accorded to them on the national stage. The White House has forbidden television coverage of the return of their coffins to Dover Air Force Base, much less coverage of their military funerals. When an enterprising journalist requested the photos of returning coffins under the Freedom of Information Act, a military bureaucrat accidentally granted the request (or perhaps it was not so much an accident as insubordination). Newspapers all over the country carried the photographs of the dozens of flag-draped coffins, despite White House reluctance to see them published.

The power of images is recognized by the Bush administration and the Pentagon, which helps explain the sometimes punitive way they have treated cameramen in Iraq. In mid-October last year, U.S. soldiers detained for several hours an Agence France-Presse photographer and a Reuters cameraman who were trying to cover the aftermath of a guerrilla attack on U.S. military vehicles there. There have been many such incidents of the harassment by the U.S. military of cameramen in Iraq, and some have even been killed out of carelessness. The U.S. military often has seemed convinced that photographers are giving aid and comfort to the enemy, and it is certainly true that the images coming out of Iraq have greatly contributed to public disillusionment with Bush's handling of the issue.

Fallujah would not go away, either. Among the more dramatic setbacks to the Bush administration in the image wars came in Fallujah on March 31, when guerrillas killed four American private commandos working for Blackwater Security Consulting, some of whom had previously been Navy Seals. Angry crowds desecrated and burned the bodies, then hung some from a bridge, and were filmed doing so. The infuriated mob employed a monstrous politics of theater to give voice to a growing Iraqi insistence that U.S. troops get out of the country. The depth of that sentiment was later confirmed by a USA Today/Gallup poll that showed that fully 56 percent of Iraqis wanted U.S. forces out of their country in late March (the percentage can only have increased subsequently).

The images of the desecrated former Navy Seals that ran on many U.S. television news programs posed a severe danger to the Bush administration. Everyone in the press remembered how the U.S. had been forced out of Somalia under President Clinton after the images ran of Mogadishu crowds dragging dead Marines through the streets. Bush strategists feared that the American public might lose heart, and that the Iraqi guerrillas might be emboldened. Given that the military is short-handed in Iraq, and depends on an estimated 20,000 private commandos (which some observers have termed"mercenaries"), there was also a danger that it would be harder to maintain or grow this civilian contingent if they feared they could be killed with impunity.

The panic in the White House and the Pentagon over the images of what Fallujah crowds did to the American commandos helps explain the disproportionate response. The Marines besieged and bombarded the entire city, killing hundreds of persons, some unknown percentage of whom were civilians. Many Fallujan young tribesmen, who had earlier declined to do so, now picked up a gun and joined the insurgents.

Ironically, the Bush administration's attempt to erase the images of American humiliation and replace them with images of Iraqi submission badly backfired. The footage of American war planes bombarding civilian neighborhoods shocked Iraqis, other Arabs, and the world. Even Adnan Pachachi, an Iraqi nationalist politician who had cooperated with the U.S. and served on its appointed Interim Governing Council, went on al-Arabiya satellite television and thundered,"It was not right to punish all the people of Fallujah, and we consider these operations by the Americans unacceptable and illegal." Given Bush administration enmity toward the Arab satellite stations, Pachachi calculated both the statement and where it was made as a strong rebuke.

The problem of war images from Iraq alienating the Iraqi and Arab publics dogged the Bush administration right from the time it launched the war in March of 2003. Arab newspapers put graphic pictures of injured and maimed Iraqi children, innocent victims of the fighting, on their front pages and the enormously popular satellite television stations also displayed them. U.S. news networks and newspapers chose not to print such photographs, with the result that Arabs have been seeing a different war than Americans all along.

The Americans have never known enough about Iraqi or Arab culture to play the game in reverse, and their attempts to do so have often backfired. On April 28, Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld triumphantly held up at a news conference a photograph of armed young men inside the shrine of Imam Ali in the Shiite holy city of Najaf. He wanted to prove that the shrine did not deserve to be a sanctuary, since it was being used for military purposes.

But there are no circumstances under which the Muslim world would accept a U.S. military assault on downtown Najaf that involved firefights in or damage to the shrine of Ali, the cousin and son-in-law of the Prophet Muhammad. An Iraqi public might wince at the sight of AK-47 machine guns in a holy place, but many would also see the image as one of dedicated young Muslims willing to fight a holy war to protect their sacred space against infidel encroachments. For them, Rumsfeld's photograph is not so much incriminating as it is a matter of pride.

The images of the war have stubbornly come out despite the best efforts of Donald Rumsfeld and Karl Rove, Bush's campaign manager. True, the wounded U.S. soldiers and the wounded Iraqi children have gotten relatively little news coverage. But burning Humvees, bomb craters, and collapsed buildings, have all along punctuated the evening news. The intimate pictures directly touching on Americans have had a more gut-wrenching impact. The photographs of the dead fresh-faced twenty-somethings were highlighted this week by Koppel, and by major newspapers like the Washington Post. The pictures of flag-draped coffins coming into Dover have already become iconic of the Iraq war, despite earlier attempt to suppress them.

But the most fateful pictures of all have been the footage of the aerial bombardment by Americans of Fallujah, a densely inhabited city, and of American soldiers torturing and humiliating Arab prisoners. The success of the American war effort depends crucially on retaining public support in the U.S. and winning hearts and minds in Iraq and the Arab world. The images seeping out of Iraq are undermining both, because aggression, wrong-headed policies and incompetence have left a trail in photos. That is what the manipulators of the media who favor perpetual war are so afraid of.

This article first appeared on www.tomdispatch.com, a weblog of the Nation Institute, which offers a steady flow of alternate sources, news and opinion from Tom Engelhardt, a long time editor in publishing, the author of The End of Victory Culture, and a fellow of the Nation Institute.

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Jerry West - 5/11/2004

If I recall this happened in Guam too, and maybe elsewhere. Whether the Japanese Army or the US made the civillains jump might be questionable. They may have done it out of a sense of duty to the emperor or some other reason. I haven't dug into this but if Professor Dresser is still monitoring this thread he might have something more definitive to say on the matter.

The issue of racism, though valid, is probably far more complex than the simple charges that are so easily flung about. Certainly every race is capable of and guilty of gross inhuman activities. Well read historians would know this.

Ben H. Severance - 5/10/2004

Mr. Tellis:

I think the incident where Japanese civilians jumped off the cliffs happened at Okinawa. Regardless, I am astonished that you would accept the word of a single Imperial Army veteran as conclusive proof that a U.S. atrocity occurred.

And your assertion that only Americans (presumably white ones) along with the Nazi Herrenvolk are the only people capable of brutality begs to be ripped to shreds, but what's the point? We all seem to believe what we want to believe.

E. Simon - 5/9/2004

Regarding the last paragraph:

Not only "non-condemnation," Dr. Dresner, but *mere* condemnation (i.e. unaccompanied by a credible judicial/legal process and punitive future disincentives).

E. Simon - 5/9/2004

Regarding the last paragraph:

Not only "non-condemnation," Dr. Dresner, but *mere* condemnation (i.e. unaccompanied by a credible judicial/legal process and punitive future disincentives).

Kenneth T. Tellis - 5/9/2004

US credibility has not been in serious jeopardy, just now, but during history. Oh, if we only had pictures of World War I, II, Korea, Vietnam and Afghanistan. We might not think that the pictures of Abu Ghraib prison showing the violations of the Geneva Conventions and the UN Human Rights Declaration was bad at all. We are just seeing the tip of the iceberg. Atrocities were being committed everyday in Vietnam by US forces. Remember Thanh Phong, My Lai, Son My and Son Thang? The have so easily been forgotten and passed away because of US racism. They were just a bunch of Gooks (Vietnamese), they are not considered human. I always believed that Hitler's Herrenvolk were the only people that could be like that, but I guess that I was wrong. Afrer interviewing an NCO of the Japanese Imoperial Army that served in Iwo Jima. I got a different view. Those bodies of Japanese women and children that the US forces said were maid to jump over the cliffs by the Japanese army were actually made to jump iver the cliffs by the nice GI's. How long does anyone think that propaganda will rule the roost? The truth like it or not will always out.

chris l pettit - 5/7/2004

I love it!

I always hated the fact that Vanilla Ice absolutely cheapened him by ripping off the tune from "Under Pressure"...one of Queen and Bowie's classics...speaking of Rip Van Winkle or whatever his real name was...if they want to end the siege in Najaf, cant't they just send him over there to play a concert?

By the way...Labyrinth is one of the underrated movies of our time "Magic Dance"...a young Jennifer Connelley (rowr)...nevermind, I digress as usual...haha


Jerry West - 5/7/2004

We have our areas of agreement, Ben. But, balancing off our many good points against the bad ones does not factor out to benign in my book. I would be looking for a different term.

We must also be careful not to allow past good actions to excuse or deflect criticism from current bad ones. Engaging in a balancing act can lead to the acceptance of some pretty rotten things.

It is precisely because we are rich and powerful that we have an obligation and the luxury to be virtuous. In the end I believe that it will be our failure to be virtuous as the richest and most powerful country, one that offered so much promise, that will bring us down. It doesn't have to be that way, but it seems that the choices being made are taking us in that direction.

Ben H. Severance - 5/7/2004

Kill me with kindness will ya? But honestly, thanks for the compliment, Chris.

Ben H. Severance - 5/7/2004

First, an apology. I hate myself when I let emotion govern my HNN postings. Sorry for the mean-spirited sarcasm.

Second, a clarification. Citing comparisons of worse forms of tyranny and torture is disingenuous if it is done to minimize one's own unethical behavior. I do think we should all keep such comparisons in mind, however, lest our criticism become overly extreme in its rhetoric.

Three, a reaffirmation. I am appalled by such incidents as Abu Ghraib, and want just punishment. And I think it is important that past abuses be discussed and analyzed. But I stand by my "benign" description of America. One certainly can produce a laundry list of terrible deeds, but can we not produce a similar list of good deeds, deeds that demonstrate real progress: Bill of Rights, universal suffrage, emancipation, Progressive Ear reform, New Deal, Great Society, civil rights movement. Granted, these are domestic improvements, but America has been generous and protective internationally too: Marshal Plan, Korean Police Action, Peace Corps. I hate the image of America that Bush is presenting to the world--"This is not America" (David Bowie), but I insist that this country is mostly a force for good order in the world; and the world since WWII has come to expect that from us. This country is too big, rich, and powerful to remove itself into a virtuous corner like Scandinavia and avoid all the evil that active involvement entails. Nevertheless, as you rightly argue, we must stop abuse and corruption when we encounter it. But enough, my train of thought has derailed.

Jerry West - 5/7/2004

Yep, its pretty sarcastic Ben. Of course I read your whole post, but that statement in the first sentence just oozes an innoncence quite removed from reality unless one considers a lesser or less well reported history of brutality as benign.

And America, more specifically the US, doesn't suck, at least not its people. As we may be seeing from the reaction to the Iraq photos I think that most US residents would be appalled by some of the things that their government has done were they to receive the same amount of publicity as the prisoner issue has.

Why those events do not get the widespread and critical coverage in the US media is a topic worthy to pursue.

And, holding up the Soviet Union et al as examples to counter criticisms of the US, whether done as sarcasm or not, is just a smokescreen to avoid the issue of US conduct. What is the point? Are we going to say it is OK to be bad just as long as we are not quite as bad as our adversaries? That could lead us to some pretty horrible places.

Churchill was wrong. It doesn't matter if what we have is better than anything else, it matters if what we have is what our principles and ideals say it should be.

Doing the things that I listed and that we are both well aware of are not things that should have happened or should be tolerated.

chris l pettit - 5/6/2004

And much more eloquent than I am on most occasions. I have the utmost respect for you as a scholar and would be honored to be able to state that I was a member of any faculty where you were on board...adjunct or otherwise.



Ben H. Severance - 5/6/2004

I agree, "War Without Mercy" is a great study. And thanks for your analysis of truthful propaganda. An important distinction worth keeping in mind.

Of course, you were referring to Chris Pettit when you spoke of Human Rights Lawyer. I'm just a struggling assistant editor and adjunct faculty member.

Ben H. Severance - 5/6/2004

Where have I been Jerry? Let's see, well I wasn't in the Soviet Union under Stalin and Breshnev. I wasn't in China during the Cultural Revolution. I wasn't in Cambodia under during the days of Pol Pot. Oh, now I remember, I have been living in that evil, fiendish nation known as the United States, a country whose democracy is a facade and where capitalistic prosperity is channeled toward a great bread-and-circus act, one designed to pacify a stupid citizenry.

Sarcasm aside, I am fully aware of your points of fact, but I prefer to view western/American politics the way Churchill did--its not the best but its better than anything else. But then Churchill was just another imperialist, so we can't learn anything from him. Sorry, more sarcasm, but its only fair given the heavy dose of condescension you dished out.

Next time, try reading past the first sentence of a comment. You may find that I'm presently quite discouraged by events in Iraq; and I've always had misgivings about how the Bush Administration conducts itself.

Name Removed at Poster's Request - 5/6/2004

Are you really saying that Juan Cole supports the Iraq War?

And why should he focus way from the middle east when he is a professional expert on it?
- Josh

Jerry West - 5/5/2004

Thought that some might find these articles relevant to the discussion:

Jerry West - 5/5/2004

Ben Severance wrote:

I believe America is a benign power....


Where have you been all these years Ben? Most Americans might believe this and given their druthers most Americans might act in accordance. Most Americans, however, are not the US Government which expresses the power of the US.

Check out the doings of our intelligence agencies, military and corporations around the world during the past 100 years in places like Iran and Guatemala in the 50's, Chile in the 70's, and many other spots. Check out the career of USMC General Smedley D. Butler and what he had to say.

Creating, empowering and supporting people like Osama, Saddam, Pinochet, and others is hardly benign. Training the troops of dictators and supplying instruments of repression is hardly benign.

The realities of our country's policies and actions do not match its professed principles and propaganda. If it did there would not have been a revolt in the 60s nor nearly as much opposition now.

The conduct of the troops in the Iraqi prison may not be representative of the majority of American troops. Having been one for a number of years I know most are decent folks. But those troops are representative of our upper echelon of leadership, though not as sophisticated in disguising their activities.

One has to ask what kind of training do we have that allows such incidents to happen. And, what kind of example is being set for the troops by the mercenaries and by our own special ops forces.

Chris is right, we need to have a stronger international organization. This current fiasco is an good example of why the US withdrew from the International Criminal Court. Being held accountable for this kind of stuff is what they want to avoid. From that we can assume that the current government is prepared to intentionally engage in violations of human rights.

Thomas M. Ricks - 5/5/2004

Hi Prof. Cole,

You need to use your creditable skills in looking hard at the reflection of the eagle in the national mirror to get at some of the issues that you are raising. Let's begin with racism and nearly weekly cardboard stereotyping of Arab peoples on talk shows, Letterman-Leno-Seinfeld, Hollywood films, etc. and you will see the images that is part of the national consciousness. These are NOT photos on the internet or Ted Koppel's simple reading of names with faces flashed on the TV. These are images that are part of our national culture about "them".

Let's face it. Those rural Pennsylvania and West Virginia boys and girls learned their impressions about the "Arab" long ago before being assigned to those detention centers in Baghdad, Guantanamo Bay, etc. Certain people have a real interest in perpetuating the terrible "Arab" images in our visual, virtual US reality. Address the historical context, Prof. Cole, within which our forefathers in the US handled racism and the empire by checking out that nasty, dirty little war of 10 years in the Philippines (1901-1911) following the so-called "liberation" of Filipino independence; that is, the US occupation of the Philippines. 200,000 dead Filipinos and 4,000+ dead US service men were only part of the casualties in that far-off island. Our national honor, sense of fairness and respect towards others, etc. also died in the Philippines. The sanguinary story is repeated in Guam, Puerto Rico, and especially in Cuba in that fateful year of 1898.

Wringing our hands won't change much. Active engagement with the real issues in our daily US lives beginning with racism and poverty will help wake us up nationally. I sure hope that you are having second thoughts about your wholehearted support for this American war, and begin to see that Michael Klare's title of one of his works probably makes a lot of sense, ie, "wars without end". Like charity, honesty also begins at home so forget those photos and TV stuff and focus your uncommonly astute analytical skills on our homegrown problems which we visit once more on Iraqi peoples. God help us!



Jonathan Dresner - 5/5/2004

I do tend to formality, unless there's a good reason not to, though I've never insisted on honorifics outside the classroom. But I also tend not to mind as much when I'm being agreed with.... Really. I take the personalization of the argument much less well when someone is attacking me. It's a reflex reaction which I haven't given much thought.

And blogging has significantly eroded my sense of concern over terms of address: it's a much less formal structure, sort of a cross between punditry and diary, that it's hard to maintain strict rules, much less impose them on others.

I haven't given up the idea that formality is a virtue, but I admit that I don't take offense as easily either. Yes, I noticed; no, I wasn't offended. Thanks for remembering, though.

chris l pettit - 5/5/2004

I remember a post when you stated your preference to avoid informalities unless you are on a personal basis with someone. I fear I may have offended you with my informality. Please forgive me if I have. Also...being a large fan of informality and not feeling important nor intelligent enough to go as Dr or Mr, please, Chris will be fine.

respect and admiration sir


Jonathan Dresner - 5/4/2004

I think we need to pay more attention to the fact that there were not just soldiers involved but intelligence agencies. This doesn't excuse it, but it does suggest two things: first, that such abuses are probably more common than we realize as it seems to be S.O.P. for those intelligence agencies (and their private contractors). Second, that those abuses are probably NOT happening elsewhere in Iraq in situations where soldiers are not being prodded and cheered by mind-killer interrogators (there are, it seems, other problems, mostly related to the use of full-scale military for policing and civil functions).

I agree that the soldiers involved need to be punished. So do the officers and the intelligence operatives and "civilian" contractors involved. But I think we need to make the case (and hope the evidence remains on our side) that this was a specific combination of functions which produced this result and the vast majority of the US military and civil society stands against it.

Maybe that could be a model for Islamic societies that can't seem to figure out why non-condemnation of terrorists and suicide killings is so troubling to the rest of us.

Jonathan Dresner - 5/4/2004

I suspect that Pipes/Huntington would put you in the first group just because you're a Human Rights Lawyer.... I'm not big on category schemes, myself, but it seems to me that you fit sort of between Cosmopolitan and Nationalist. But I think that a lot of people do, which is my problem with the scheme: the number of people whose ideas actually fit into one of these categories without major spillage into another one are quite rare, I suspect. It's a highly artificial division, useful perhaps for discussing and classifying options, but not particularly helpful when applied to people.

You're right, of course, that propoganda can (and usually is) a distortion through selectivity, and sometimes is just pure fabrication. The important difference, though between propoganda as lie and propoganda as selective truth hit me when I read John Dower's WWII propoganda history "War Without Mercy" in which he describes and analyzes the propoganda of the Pacific war, but never really addresses the fundamental facts behind the propoganda: the failure to realize that the propoganda was largely truthful, if selective, and that's what gave it its power, is a significant flaw in an otherwise fantastic study.

Pyrrhic.... yes, there's a word we should be using more these days.

Ben H. Severance - 5/4/2004

I feel like I've been deluding myself for the last few months. When you spoke of showing the corpses, it reminded me of a speechless moment in February 1991 when I looked out from my track along a roadway (Highway 8 to Basra) littered with mangled Iraqi dead, victims of a cluster bomb strike. Until then, I had not really seen the hard hand of war. Radio chatter soon snapped me out of my stupor, but the moment remains a vivid memory. I still believe American soldiers are doing their best, certainly as fighters but also as promoters of peace and goodwill (I always felt that way about my unit). Nevertheless, with what happened at Abu Ghraib, among other places, I wonder if the term "Pyrrhic" isn't becoming appropriate.

Ben H. Severance - 5/4/2004

For some time now I have been defending U.S. occupation and nation-building in Iraq, not for the reasons Bush put forward in 2003, but because I believe America is a benign power that fights its wars (right or wrong) in a professional and just manner, and as such is able to salvage a good ending from a bad beginning. Now these damnable pictures of prisoner abuse surface. These photos of U.S. soldiers proudly posing over naked Iraqis are despicable. And these are the photos that worry me and bring into question my perceptions of American goodwill. In combat or on patrol, I can expect and tolerate a certain amount of rough treatment of civilians and enemy soldiers, but the incidents at Abu Ghraib were pre-meditated and malicious, even sadistic. My prayer is that it truly is an isolated event, but as more reports come in and more soldiers are reprimanded, my optimism fade. Maybe I'm overreacting, but the Army high command must punish these individuals severely--court martial, followed by labor detail, followed by dishonorable discharge--lest the U.S. forfeit its fragile reputation entirely and undermine completely any hope for a meaningful reconstruction. Senator Joe Biden is right; this is the worst and most damaging scandal of the war.

chris l pettit - 5/4/2004

I realise that you were not suggesting just focusing on the good...and I know what side of this you are on.

I was just thinking out loud I guess. How do we build up what has been torn down? It took 400 years, millions of lives, and two world wars to get to a point where the international system had at least some legitimacy...and that has been thrown away in the past decade. The US has many fine people and things to offer and I know I don't accent that as often as I should.

I just think that much of the good being done is being done by those other than the occupation authorities. I think when Iraqis...the whole world even...sees the atrocities committed, it sticks in their minds more than getting basic survival levels back to where they were under Saddam...still a violation of international law. What we need is not to become nationalistic...not to isolate ourselves, but to really step up and take responsibility for what we have done. I am of the opinion that the best idea would be to allow the UN total power...withdraw...allocate at least what we spent on the war to truly reconstruct Iraq with most of the work going to Iraqi firms or those nations who did not take part in the slaughter and raping of the Iraqi economy...and let US NGOs be the first ones to go in and take part in trying to reconstruct our image. how else will we be able to claim any credibility and demonstrate that we are willing to work as part of the human community instead of dominate it. This will never end...the cycle of "might makes right" until we abandon this ridiculous idea of over the top nationalistic pride (one should always have some pride in ones upbringing...but for the right reasons).

All parties in this conflict are guilty of something negative...but it is up to the strongest party in the conflict and the one in the best position to demonstrate how to do things to take the lead.

We have a choice...perpetual war and domination attempts...or forming a coherent international community in which those who would stray from human rights and fundamental freedoms could be dealt with in a constructive manner not motivated by nationalistic concerns and narrow self interest. unfortunately...I am afraid that we may have to wait for a nuclear war or total annihilation of a few more groups before we can achieve it.

I was very impressed by what you said in response to the Pipes article and agree wholeheartedly. I wonder if you would place me in the first group? I ask because I do not believe I would fit there because I do not advocate the surrender of everything American and the total remaking of US identity, but rather think that we need to recognise the good in all systems and the fact that we cannot assume that "one size fits all" regarding democracy, capitalism, and many other "freedoms" we try to bring to others by the point of a bayonet.

We are also in total agreement on propaganda...although I would say that sometimes it can be based in lies...or at least wild spinning or exagerration of a fact...or taking something totally out of context.


Jonathan Dresner - 5/4/2004

Mr. Pettit,

Actually, I wasn't suggesting focusing on the good, but rather I was trying to insinuate slyly that we have to do a lot more good and a lot less harm in order to regain some of the propoganda edge.

What a lot of people forget, what the term propaganda obscures with its current connotations, is that the best propaganda is based on fact. The negative portrayal of the occupation succeeds because it isn't making anything up: it's just showing (some of) the dumb, violent and vicious things we do.

It takes a lot of goodwill to recover from a single atrocity: we have a lot of real work to do to lay the foundation for the recovery of a net positive image.

chris l pettit - 5/4/2004

Where are the pictures of coffins?

Of the tens of thosands of dead Iraqi civilians?

Of the thousands of dead Iraqi soldiers?

Of what really takes place during a brutal war and occupation?

I agree with you Jonathan...if we want to propagandize better and promote our good image...we need to show more of the positive things taking place on the ground. But how much of that is being done by NGOs and other charity groups who aren't getting a piecce of the reconstruction pie? The Arab stations definitely show only the atrocities...while the US stations only accent the good being done and gloss over the awful stuff...try and sanatize it. i can't believe there is debate over whether the pictures should be shown. There should be pictures of corpses...mutilations of bodies...the whole lot. War is awful and should never be engaged in except in the most dire of circumstances...like the UN Charter states.

Simply showing the "good things" is not going to change the fact that this is an illegal and terrible operation that has slaughtered thousands of people for no valid reason, destroyed the international framework (whatever was left of it), and imposed an occupation and reconstruction that will take decades to recover. How do "good things" possibly compete with that?

Not to be critical in any way...I just wonder if showing everything is maybe a better idea than concentrating on the good.


Ken Melvin - 5/3/2004

The war is long since lost. It was lost, I suspect, long before either the revenge of the four contractors began, or the newspaper was closed, . It was lost when the decision was made to go war knowing that they could never get the support of the American people if they told them the truth about their reasons. It was lost when they decided to go in with insufficient forces because they knew the American public would never support a force of 400K. It was lost again when they allowed the looting, again when they dismissed the army, and yet again when they went around kicking in doors at all hours of the night. It was lost when the neocons first made a deal with Chalabi.

Jonathan Dresner - 5/3/2004

The question this brings to my mind is: to what extent are the images a reasonable reflection of reality, or would a different mix of images produce better results, regarding Iraqi and Arab public response?

In other words, is the problem what we are doing, or is the problem that we are not succeeding in articulating what we're going right in images that attract attention and balance negatives. I suspect the answer is a little of both: exceptional and extreme events are depicted, but that we're not doing enough of the right things to balance those.