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Feb 09, 2008

The Futility Of The Iraq War Picture (Or: Bombs Away, Far Away)


The more I look at and think about this image, accompanying a NYT war update a little over a week ago, the more questions it raises.  For example:

>> If the photo was taken in Arab Jabour, south of Baghdad, what is it doing illustrating a story about Mosul, to the north?

>> The caption names the location, but the scene has more a sense of the outskirts than a specific town.

>> With the U.S. soldiers apparently departing a conflict zone - and, given the wounded Iraqi is "split in half" -- the image more than leaves hanging exactly "what went on back there?"

The question of what is or isn't happening, however -- just like the disconnection between the setting of the photo and the setting of the article -- does, in fact, fill us in on something very important about the war.  What it shows us is how little connection exists between the war news and the war pictures, and how little continuity carries over from one war report to the next.

Picking up on this quality, a post a week ago at AfterDowningStreet looked at how recent media reports from Iraq have been not just highly selective, but myopic in detail.  David Swanson's post called out two recent MSM stories, one from the LA Times, the other from the NY Times, dealing with particular suicide bombings or IED attacks.  Although either buried or just casually noted, the common denominator Swanson found was the matter-of-fact reference to intense American bombing.

Through these two "routine" stories, Swanson shines a light on the fact that American forces, between January 11 and 21, dropped 100,000 pounds of explosives on Arab Jabour, this farming town south of Baghdad, in the hopes of destroying weapons caches and IED's.  Quoting the ADS post (regarding the two newspaper pieces):

Neither paper has (as far as I know) returned to the subject [of bombing], though this is undoubtedly the most extensive use of air power in Iraq since the Bush administration's invasion of 2003 and probably represents a genuine shifting of American military strategy in that country. Despite a few humdrum wire service pieces, no place else in the mainstream has bothered to cover the story adequately either.

Which leads me back to the image and the NYT article that accompanied it -- the photo taken one week after this bombing stretch.  Out of 18 paragraphs, the first 12 refer to fierce fighting in Mosul between insurgents and out-manned U.S. forces, and the last six deal with an arson fire in Baghdad.  Beyond the caption, however, nowhere is there mention of Arab Jabour.

Beyond this pretty and heroic picture, taken at dusk (or in dawn's early light), there lie themes much more complicated than rescue.  What emerges, as I mention, is the significance of what isn't or can't be see.  And, along those lines, I'm wondering just how much the U.S. bombings here might be the elephant in the room.

Consider a report from Presscue, for example (also compiled by piecing together stray news reports), indicating that Americans invited families to return to Arab Jabour before beginning the bombing campaign, insisting that American and Awakening forces had succeeded in rooting out the insurgents.  Contradicting military claims that no casualties were suffered, Sunni politicians claimed 500 casualties, mostly women and children.

"Try dropping 100,000 pounds bombs on Syracuse, New York, which has a similar population, and see if you get no casualties," a Sunni politician, who wished to remain anonymous on the grounds that US-trained death-squads target politicians who criticize American military action, said. "This is a return to the indiscriminate bombing we witnessed at the beginning of the invasion in 2003. They are happy to kill as many civilians as it takes to minimize risks for the US soldiers."

Operating in this same sketchy, piecemeal, blind-man-and-the-elephant environment for information, the best I can do with a shot like this is to remember to ask what is "back there."  Beyond that, it is worthwhile to note how much these random, exclusionary photos and news reports actually indictment themselves.

Whoever and however many are getting pulverized outside this viewing window, what this visual offers is a horrible snapshot of meaning, itself, being blown to bits.

5 G.I.’s Die in Ambush in Mosul (NYT)
Looking Up: Normalizing Air War from Guernica to Arab Jabour (
U.S. forces invite families back to Arab Jabour before bombing them (Presscue)

(Maya Alleruzzo/A.P. Arab Jabour. January 28, 2008.


A CBS report from Arab Jabour a couple of weeks back, quoting Lt Col Mark Odom; no PR happy-talk —

"Ninety to 100 percent of the area's residents either actively or passively support the insurgency," estimates Odom, who calls them well-armed and well-trained.

On a scale of one to 10, he gives them the highest mark as worthy opponents.

"Clearly, many of them have been in the military, based on the engagements we have had. Their tactics, their employment of indirect fire systems, indicates something beyond just paramilitary training," Odom says.

And it's not just the military training that makes them so deadly, it's an engrained ideology. Odom says a 14-year-old boy was caught recently laying an improvised explosive device. One alleged sniper was just 16.

90% of locals united against us. Teenagers planting IEDs, shouldering sniper rifles. It's kill or be killed, even if your adversary is a kid.

That picture looks like dirt Vietnam.

Perhaps BAGNotes should start its own newspaper, which would correct all the faults of the rest of the world's newspapers, unless of course you're only critical of the so-called MSM.

Right, there's no mention in the text of Arab Jabour. Of course, while the text mentions Mosul and Baghdad, there are no photos of either with the story. What on earth does this mean? Cover-up, misrepresentation, exclusionary...Let's get excited.

Also, if you had taken the trouble to look it up, the Times ran a piece about the bombing of Arab Jabour on the first day of the attack, saying that 40,000 pounds of bombs had been dropped (before you get worked up, that's the first day of ten) and also described it as "extraordinary amount of firepower."

Finally, I didn't realize that you'd spent enough time in Iraq to be able to judge the "outskirts (rather) than a specific town." If you go to Kansas, for instance, you'll find farms miles from the nearest town center that still are located in the town.

There's only so much space in the paper. That's life, you buy a copy and you're stuck with its contents. Rather than whine in a venue the editors will never see, send them a letter and point out the error of their ways.

Tomorrow it will be a whole new paper.

As Juan Cole has been pointing out repeatedly bombing a country that you occupy and tolerating civilian casualties is in clear violation of the Geneva convention. Just another one of these pesky war crimes that media is happy to ignore.

Arty, unless we can all go to Iraq and see for ourselves, we must turn to pictures and information such as this. While the press did indeed report the initial bombing of Arab Jabour, there has been no consistent coverage of the ongoing bombardment or of its effects. This is true for most of the aerial campaigns in this war. Furthermore, what little we do see of the injuries suffered by Iraqis is like the recent story in the WaPo, which, to the paper's credit, did include close up photos of some of the terrible wounds these people are suffering but which does not seem able to address the causes of these injuries with anything like complete honesty.

Although I sometimes think the Bag goes a bit beyond in his studies of particular photos, I don't think that is happening here. I think your disparagement is misplaced in this case. Perhaps you were simply being satirical.

The tire treads looked like furrows to me. What have we sown?

perhaps even more egregious than the paucity of NEWS = reality is the media's tendency not to report, but to illustrate the present (more apparent in news show ‘video segments’) with cobbled-together archival images, with a conceit implicit that: "this is the current event".

say, for example, American forces attack an al Qaeda ‘training camp’ with ground forces and air power... so you just grab archival footage of guerrillas apparent working out on monkey bars, running through an obstacle course of old tires, etc., and splice that with images of B-52's bombing something, and a column of armoured vehicles driving through some rubble-ized village. The voice-over narrator is talking about The Operation = current event, and you're looking at images of soldiers dressed as RoboCops, kicking down doors, somewhere.

none of this is really happening, now.

there is no FCC regulation, much less law, that requires a 11-FEB-2008/13:34, Baghdad = DATE:TIME, PLACE stamp on news apparent imagery. As the media fills more and more of its empty content space with idealized illustration rather than real documentaion, we are confronted with the dilemma of How do we value these derivative products of cobbled-together artifacts? indeed, as BAGman so correctly brings to our attention here, the imagery may be entirely irrelevant and immaterial to its text-context or video voice-over.

too often we quite literally see The War today as a mashup of yesterday's news : this is not conveyance, it is convenience; or worse, a connivance to engineer consent.

killing civilians is a war crime, one more in the long list of US atrocities in Iraq. As Chomsky said, every US president could be sentenced in Nuremberg trials. The US attacked Iraq on invented motives, they lied to the entire world community in order to coverthe invasion. They they destroyed civilians infrastructure, the same destructions they've done back in 1991. They they bombed villages and town, tortured prisoners, and killed wounded on the battleground. All those crimes are documented and available even on internet.

Iraq didn't attack the US, and if civilans are against the US, that is mainly because the US illegally occupy their country with armed forces. A gvt elected under military occupation is not a legitimate gvt, and nothing could ensure the US they have the "right" to be here.

Clearly, the US officials since 2002 should be trialed by some kind if Nuremberg court, the very court the US refused to recognize, because they know they should be prosecuted first.

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