Many of the most resonant images from the Iraq War are as deceptive as the Bush administration’s rationales for starting the war in the first place. Consider the toppling of the statue of Saddam Hussein on April 8, 2003. Photos of the event show what seems to be a crowd of Iraqis pulling down the 40-foot monument in Paradise Square with the help of U.S. Marines. The press compared the event to the fall of the Berlin Wall. In fact, the event was carefully staged by the U.S. military, which had sealed off the area with tanks. The fall of the Wall it was not.
Then there’s the famous shot of President Bush below a “Mission Accomplished” banner announcing on May 2, 2003 that the Iraq War was “one victory in a war on terror that began on September 11, 2001.” But the Iraq War was far from over. In response to criticisms of the banner, the president tried to shift responsibility to the Navy. But the Navy then turned around and said that the banner was made by the White House.
Even the picture that most famously exposed U.S. misconduct in the war is not quite what it seems. The picture of a hooded man standing on a box with wires running from his fingers has become iconic of how the U.S. military tortured Iraqis—and by extension transformed a putative liberation into an actual occupation. As Philip Gourevitch and Errol Morris write in The New Yorker, the photographer was not celebrating but documenting the cruelties of Abu Ghraib. And the photo of the hooded man was in many ways as staged as the felling of Saddam and the declaring of victory. “The mock electrocution,” they report, “had not lasted more than ten or fifteen minutes—just long enough for a photo session.”
This crucifixion-like image from Abu Ghraib derives its power as much from what it depicts as what it suggests, argue Gourevitch and Morris. “It does not show the human form laid bare and reduced to raw matter but creates instead an original image of inhumanity that admits no immediately self-evident reading,” they write. And like the other staged photos from the Iraq War, the Abu Ghraib image effectively conveys the power behind the camera—the attempt to control bodies, visuals, and information. Even without the help of PhotoShop, pictures can be shaped as readily as words.
This week, Foreign Policy In Focus takes two different looks at the visual framing of the Iraq War. FPIF contributor Mark Vallen looks at a recent New York exhibit of graphic art entitled Artists Against The War. One of the drawings in the exhibit, by Edward Koren, is entitled “Mission Accomplished,” after the aforementioned photo-op. “Drawn in Koren’s characteristically jangly and nervous style, the picture of shell-shocked soldiers on a muddy battlefield strewn with the carnage and ruin of war recalls images from the trenches of World War I,” Vallen writes in Illustrating War. “Koren’s nightmarish sketch offers no rationale for the conflict. This inability to grasp the reasons behind the hostilities links the artwork to the incomprehensible brutalities of wars past and present.”
Another incomprehensible brutality of the Iraq War has been the Iraqi civilian casualties. Joseph DeLappe has put out a call to artists and architects for a memorial to these deaths. He recognizes that such a monument will not likely be built, but he wants to create a website that showcases the many somber and elegiac proposals. “A monument in itself, the website reveals what is so often hidden and so little memorialized: the people who have been obliterated twice over, first by bombs and then by indifference,” I write in Memorializing Iraq.
When historians look back on the wars of the new millennium, they may well see the Iraq War as one continuous conflict that started with the first Gulf War in 1991, continued through the 12 years of no-fly zone enforcement by coalition planes, and re-ignited with the introduction of ground forces in 2003. It’s been 17 years of the United States declaring victory after victory, and Iraqis suffering the lion’s share of the pain of these victories.
Last week, on the fifth anniversary of the U.S. invasion, President George W. Bush gave a speech at the Pentagon. While a far cry from declaring “mission accomplished,” the Bush speech nevertheless sounded a defiant note in its characterization of the Iraq War as noble, necessary, just, and, still within reach of victory. “Even the most casual review of the past five years substantiates the opinion of the majority of Americans that Bush administration claims of victory in Iraq are false,” writes FPIF military affairs analyst Dan Smith in Annotate This: Bush at the Pentagon. “They don’t pass the sight, sound, or scent tests—which is to say they don’t look like a duck, quack like a duck, or smell like a duck. So why is the president still calling it a duck by giving victory speeches?”
Our coverage of the fifth anniversary continues with FPIF contributor Dahr Jamail’s analysis of the military and political situation inside Iraq. “The various U.S. military and political strategies in Iraq are the primary cause of the continuing sectarianism,” he writes in Rule, Not Reconciliation. “The occupation forces and their methods are dividing Iraqi groups, and rather than promoting reconciliation, are encouraging increases in violence, power struggles, and strife. Thus, the military strategy is actually making the political process more difficult by failing to provide the actors the space needed for any progression towards reconciliation.”
The current civil war in Iraq, argues FPIF contributor Raed Jarrar, pits separatists versus nationalists. “This Iraqi-Iraqi conflict is in many ways similar to the U.S. civil war,” he writes in Iraq’s “Hidden” Conflict. “Iraqis who are for keeping a central government are fighting against other Iraqis who want to secede. But the major difference is that the United States was not under a foreign occupation that was destroying nationalists and funding and training separatists. Numerous polls that were conducted over the past few years in Iraq show that a majority of Iraqis from all different backgrounds tend to be more nationalist than separatist. A majority of the population are for a complete U.S. withdrawal, for keeping a strong central government in Baghdad, and against privatizing and decentralizing Iraq’s natural resources.”
Increasingly, the media and politicians are focusing on the domestic costs of the Iraq War. FPIF contributor Stacy Bannerman has chronicled the costs of the war on the lives of returning soldiers and their spouses. “Anxious, depressed, and alone, we attempt to cope by drinking more, eating less, taking Xanax or Prozac to make it through,” she describes in our excerpt from her testimony before the House Veterans Affairs Subcommittee on Health. “We close the curtains so we can’t see the black sedan with government plates pulling into our drive. We cautiously circle the block when we come home, our personal perimeter check to make sure there are no Casualty Notification Officers around. Every time the phone rings, our hearts skip a beat.”
And still the war goes on. FPIF contributor Erica Bouris, like so many of us, can’t quite believe that it’s already been half a decade. She writes in The Arab Abstraction, “Despite my own voting records, and the records of countless people like me, as we try to strip the funding from this ill-conceived war, as we try to see that some semblance of justice is upheld for the contractors who commit human rights violations, as we try to insist upon just a few more visas for destitute Iraqis, many of whom work for us, it is the place of this war in the minutiae of most of our lives that has caused some of our ears to prick in some surprise when we hear five years. Five years.”
From NATO to Quito
With NATO troops still bogged down in Afghanistan, the collective security organization is attempting to rethink its mission. Some military honchos want NATO to expand its mandate and hold on to a nuclear first-strike option. Some pundits envision a global NATO open to countries outside of Europe. FPIF contributor Ian Davis recommends that the United States and Europe should instead focus on reaching consensus on some key priorities. He writes in NATO at a Crossroads, “One of those priorities must be to re-shape the NATO Rapid Reaction Force (NRF) for peacekeeping and disaster response capabilities, with separate limited counter-insurgency and counter-intelligence capabilities being developed with clear rules of deployment. NATO should also strengthen its cooperative threat reduction, weapons collection and destruction, and counter-proliferation capabilities, with a special emphasis on maritime interdiction under the Proliferation Security Initiative.”
In Latin America, meanwhile, FPIF columnist Laura Carlsen takes a look at the recent conflict between Colombia and Ecuador. On March 1, Colombia conducted a cross border raid on a suspected FARC guerrilla encampment in Ecuador and killed a member of the FARC secretariat Raul Reyes.
“The cross-border attack of March 1 weakened the guerrillas but also further entrenched the conflict and threatened to spread it to neighboring nations,” Carlsen writes in The Andean Crisis. “In the short term, it scuttled hopes of obtaining the release of FARC prisoners. Under mediation efforts led by Venezuela’s President Hugo Chavez, several had been liberated over recent months, and negotiations seemed close to obtaining the release of the guerrilla’s most high-profile hostage, former congresswoman Ingrid Betancourt. France’s Foreign Minister Bernard Kouchner revealed shortly after the attack that Reyes had been the contact for negotiating her release.”
While the generals strategize in Europe, Africa, and Latin America, activists are trying to keep one step ahead. As FPIF contributor Joseph Gerson writes in Resisting the Empire, “a growing alliance among anti-bases movements in countries around the world, including the United States, is preventing the creation of new foreign military bases, restricting the expansion of others, and in some cases may win the withdrawal of the military bases, installations and troops that are essential to U.S. wars of intervention and its preparations for first-strike nuclear attacks.” Gerson provides a round-up of potential points of leverage for anti-bases activists in Iraq, Diego Garcia, Okinawa, Guam, Europe, and Africa.
The Vietnam quagmire provided activists with opportunities to challenge U.S. foreign policy in the 1970s. The Iraq quagmire may well help activists shrink the U.S. military footprint from size 29 to the smallest baby shoe possible.
FPIF, March 24, 2008