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Jul 26, 2008

4,000 U.S. Combat Deaths, and Just a Handful of Images


Why do I think this image from Thursday's NYT is so profound?

It's because the military has been so overwhelmingly effective in muting the war, and the war photographer, that -- practically without notice -- many of our best shooters have found themselves turning, in a disproportionate way, to the technique of irony.

For example, Cristoph Bangert has been masterful in articulating the surreal nature of a long incoherent strategy in an alien land.  And now, photographer Ashley Gilbertson -- whose work I've shown and discussed a number of times at BAGnewsNotes -- is back "in country," and again "firing wit-tipped darts" attempting to wake us up.

Of course, if we weren't so anesthetized, we might actually sit forward and wonder about the outlandish contrast in this photo, or more particularly, to consider what an all-too-stealth-like picture might have to do with still one more headline confirming the latest non-development concerning Iraq's Babel-ish, seemingly permanent stalemate-for-a-government.

The agrarian scene, confounding associations of Iraq as a mostly arid, desert-like place, uses the really hilarious device of cows grazing to mirror how we in the U.S. have become so thoroughly pacified (or, dare I saw, "cowed?") by the pictorial censorship and fundamental lack of context in the war reporting as to basically reduce the whole subject -- despite the shadowy war machine still silently screaming overhead -- to the significance of, well, grazing.

If you've been following this site, you're aware of a few humble efforts here to poke pin holes in the blackout.

Although I'm still not certain of the claim, I believe the Nov 09, 2005 post "Beyond Dover: MSM's First Published U.S. War Fatality?" ("thirty-two months and 2,000+ American deaths into the campaign," as I wrote at the time), shows one of the first (and only) published U.S. fatalities of the war in the traditional media.  And then the post "Have We Just Seen The Last Combat Injury In Iraq?," co-authored with the incomparable war photographer Michael Kamber a year ago June, calls out the military for a procedural power play, effectively precluding any more pictures of injured U.S. service people from hitting the presses.

However, the visual blackout and all the ironic carom shots were punctured today -- at least for one day -- by a story in the New York Times.  In a courageous piece, Kamber penned a concise exposé not only outlining the pervasive, hypocritical and ever-more manipulative visual censorship being practiced by the U.S. military, but also specifically detailed the castigation and persecution of embedded photographer Zoriah Miller for documenting -- without any blinders -- a June 26th suicide attack outside of Fallujah.


If Zoriah captured and, ultimately, posted the images of U.S. and Iraqi fatalities on his website, incurred the terrifying wrath of the military for it, it wasn't for any lack of professionalism and commitment to journalistic practices, or subjugation of military rules of embedding, or any disregard or disrespect for the soldiers and their families.  No, it was merely in service of truth and of seeing (and separating the wheat from the helicopters).

If I have earned any credit at all as an advocate of visual politics, I urge you to read these two piece, first Michael Kamber's story, "4,000 U.S. Combat Deaths, and Just a Handful of Images."  (As mentioned, I pay respect to The Times for running with the feature, although I think it's slightly chickenshit they chose to land it on a Saturday.)  And, as soon as you've finished, go immediately to Zoriah's blog and read/look at Suicide Bombing in Anbar - Eye Witness Account, the post documenting the suicide bombing that put Zoriah at deep odds with the man.  (You might also be interested in his July 3rd and July 7th follow up.)

To the extent this war has been about what hasn't and can't be seen -- including the casualties on all sides; the caskets; the literally millions of Iraqi refugees; the intense American bombing; the permanent U.S. bases; and most recently, the U.S. military running invisible interference for the Iraqi government assaults on the Mahdi -- thank God for Zoriah.  Because, as much as Ashley's "cattle prod" calls out our myopia, more than a handful would likely take it for Iowa.

(image 1: Ashley Gilbertson for the New York Times. July 2008, Diyala Province, Iraq.  image 2: © Zoriah/ All rights reserved.  June 26, 2008.  Anbar Province)


"If I have earned any credit at all as an advocate of visual politics"

That you have without a doubt. Thank you for the continued great work you do here.



Doonesbury: Meat Grinder.

If a majority of Americans were forced to view the carnage that has resulted from the unnecessary invasion of Iraq, there would be an overwhelming consensus that the leaders responsible are war criminals and should be treated as such. The human ability to rationalize evil appears to be a defining characteristic, the term homo sapiens a bitter irony.

An American public that is intentionally and purposefully uninformed about the costs, processes, even the rationale of our occupation of Iraq still thinks it is a bad idea. The news and reporting these policies suppress isn't likely to convince anyone of the wisdom of our continued occupation. Quite the opposite.

From the Times article:

For many in the military, a legal or philosophical debate over press freedom misses the point. Capt. Esteban T. Vickers of the First Regimental Combat Team, who knew two of the marines killed at Garma, said photos of his dead comrades, displayed on the Internet for all to see, desecrated their memory and their sacrifice.

“Mr. Miller’s complete lack of respect to these marines, their friends, and families is shameful,” Captain Vickers said. “How do we explain to their children or families these disturbing pictures just days after it happened?”

If a truthful account of the real consequences of our actions in Iraq brings shame to the families and desecrates the memory of the fallen, as Capt Vickers suggests, then we shouldn't be over there. Plain and simple. The solders in those pictures are identifiable as American military, not as individuals. If Capt Vickers is making an honest argument, he condemns us all for choosing to hide from our shame.

I think Capt Vickers is following orders, a good soldier. If his orders are to prevent photographers from taking pictures that the chain of command doesn't want to see then that is what Capt Vickers does. How he rationalizes his actions should be read in that light — he doesn't get to choose the position he supports. But his contribution to this debate is contrived, a rationalization of a mandate. Zoriah Miller's contribution is to let us see what happened, the consequences, the price we pay.

formers of our shadow selves

A large black military helicopter flew over our farm yesterday; I have never seen one before. I don't know why it was here. You could have taken this same picture using our Midwestern field as the backdrop.

Black and White cows (Holsteins) grazing in a field is a typical U.S. pastoral scene. This top picture is not Iraq but us, America, ten years from now or whenever martial law is declared.

What strikes me is the disproportionate size of the military shadow to the cattle, perhaps a reflection that militarization is way out of proportion to domestic concerns as well.

The picture is also a disturbing reminder that many Americans probably see no reason for the Iraqis to reclaim self-governance; to many they are "dumb cattle," needing herding into American democratic practices.

It is appalling that American irresponsibility should lead to so many horrific deaths, and we never feel any guilt or change our ways because we cannot see the results of our decisions. The photographs and images of the casualties must be shown so that we appreciate the weight of our choices.

More drunk driving accident photos NOW!
More crane-accident photos NOW!
More autoerotic asphyxiation photos NOW!

As Tina suggests, part of the reason why this photograph has the effect that it does is that it could just as easily have been taken in America. We can identify with the cows, not because they're stupid, but because they're familiar. When we look at this picture, we see America, and the shadow that has fallen over it, that so many of us are so ignorant of.

Also, cows grazing in a field holds strong associations with tranquility. The picture displays a peaceful, pastoral scene, and yet something is very, very wrong. The contrast of grazing bovine and helicopter gunship is a large part of what gives this image its power.

Most cows are curious creatures. The cows in the above picture don't seem be noticing our helicopter as it flies over them. Very interesting. Have even the cows become bored with us? Could be.

the image asks us: Where is this "War" ?

Many Americans feel that they are "at War"... "Why?" is answered with "Because THEY attacked US on 9/11."

"At War"... "Where?" is interpreted by the Americans as being "everywhere". "Against what or whom," they cannot really say. But in the minds of most Americans, "US versus THEM??" the THEM includes not only anyone who vaguely looks or dresses MidEastern or SouthAsian, but also anyone (including "white" = European Americans) who do not accept the generalized delusion = folie à deux identity that we are a State of War, apparent. Thus: nous sommes celui qui nous feignons pour être.

Not only Senator Obama (in that peculiar ~ to the European ear ~ speech in Berlin), but almost all American political leaders and intellectuals appear to accept l'idée fixe, implicit that there exists "a War, apparent" ...despite all evidence (such as this image) to the contrary.

That it is America, herself who feels, perhaps perversely so but this is the Americans' reality nonetheless ~ that it is they who believe that their country is "under seige", is imho necessary to understand what weird things American politicians and pundits, including progressives, say.

imho, The big question today for the Americans is not so much, "What will happen Over There if, or after we Withdraw or Redeploy our troops, etc." And I say this because ‘The Mission’ and ‘Victory’ (both in IRAQ and in Afghanistan, et al) is, for all intents and purposes indecipherable : “Asked what President Bush's foreign policy legacy will be to his successor, Mr. Buckley says "There will be no legacy for Mr. Bush. I don't believe his successor would re-enunciate the words he used in his second inaugural address because they were too ambitious. … So therefore I think his legacy is indecipherable".

Rather, the big question for the Americans is "What will happen Over Here when we Withdraw or Re-Deploy our kapital?"

Because imho the greatest and most mind-bending delusion that the American people have about their "War, apparent" is that they, themselves are not a culture that lives in and works for a giant WAR ECONOMY. So you see Mr. Obama, or any American, really ~ must tread lightly, literally ~ to avoid that horror of awakening the Americans too abruptly from this, the nightmare of their own invention; to see themselves in that pitiless mirror of their own true history writ: what WAR ?

Though much has been made of the "black helicopter crowd," it is sometimes startling just how often this sight occurs to the local population in my area. Not only do noisy flights of military choppers regularly fly back and forth along ther foothils from/to parts unknown here in SoCal, but a short while back I saw what I considered a somewhat unusual sight during my afternoon commute home. An Apache attack heleicopter with a grey camo paint scheme flew eastbound along the 10 Fwy in much the same way as a traffic copter then smartly turned due south around Monterey Park. Not sure what the "mission" was but I had read that several local high schools were getting visits from recruiters who would bring in choppers to ramp up the excitement.

This all ties into the visual cues that are represented/omitted depending on whose meesage is being put forth. Military recruiters will emphasize the proud tradition of the citezen soldier while ignoring/downplaying the death and destruction wreaked at the behest of US political leadership. At some point I'm expecting the focus to morph into keeping unruly US citizens in line as our "freedoms" will be a threat to those who wish to maintain their power. As painful as it is to view, I wish we were more exposed to the carnage that our policies engender as it might make us somewhat less likely to use brute force so readily.

One can hope.

(Bienvenue M Gonzo. Or is it bienrevenue? Will l'Academie revoke my license to parle franglais?)

You actually understate the magnitude of the self deception we've spun for ourselves. Yes, we've been busy shockin' and awe-in' and transporting our national wealth and honor over to the MidEast and blowing it up. Bad policy. Yes. Bad decisions. Yes. An object lesson for the consequence of installing leaders that aren't smart enough or strong enough to say "I don't know" when the need arises.

But worse than picking fights with figments of our imagination, with paranoid delusions, is picking those fights and then losing them. "What will happen Over Here when we Withdraw or Re-Deploy our kapital?" — isn't the right question. "What will happen Over Here when we find out we're broke?" more accurately states the monster we go to such extremes to deny.

the "secret" cow level in Diablo II

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