The Bush administration, despite the savvy of its spinmeisters and Hollywood-trained publicists, is losing the war on images, from the graphic photos shown on CBS's 60 Minutes II of abused Iraqi prisoners to the controversy over Nightline. The decision of the Sinclair Broadcast Group not to carry the April 30 broadcast of the late-night ABC television news show, 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 photos.
Although Koppel was accused of deliberately damaging the war effort, the troops he is memorializing would probably not have wished to remain anonymous. Not being, or letting others be, a mere statistic is important to those serving in the military in Iraq.
My late friend naval reserve Lieutenant Kylan Huffman-Jones (whose picture Koppel showed), said 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 can't seem to remember how many U.S. soldiers have been killed. In congressional testimony April 29, Deputy Secretary of Defense Paul Wolfowitz said he thought "approximately 500" troops had been killed since the start of the war. In fact, as of that day 724 U.S. soldiers had died in Iraq.
His office later said that he "misspoke." But this error is indicative of the way the hawks in Washington have assiduously hidden the costs of their Iraq adventure from the public.
The Bush administration and the Pentagon recognize the power of images, 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 have been many such incidents of harassment of cameramen in Iraq, and some have even been killed out of carelessness. The U.S. military has often 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 contributed to public disillusionment with Bush's handling of the issue.
One of the more dramatic setbacks for 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 panic in the White House and Pentagon over these images helps explain the disproportionate response. The Marines besieged and bombarded the entire city, killing hundreds, some unknown percentage of whom were civilians. Many young tribesmen in Fallujah who had earlier declined to do so now picked up guns 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 backfired badly.
The footage of American warplanes bombarding civilian neighbourhoods 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 to thunder, "It was not right to punish all the people of Fallujah, and we consider these operations by the Americans unacceptable and illegal."
The problem of war images from Iraq alienating the Iraqi and Arab public has dogged the Bush administration from the time it launched the war in March 2003. Arab newspapers published 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 photos, 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 encroachment. For them, Rumsfeld's photograph is not so much incriminating as it is a matter of pride.
Images of the war have come out despite the best efforts of Rumsfeld and Karl Rove, Bush's campaign manager. Burning Humvees, bomb craters and collapsed buildings have punctuated the evening news. The pictures directly touching on Americans have had a more gut-wrenching impact. Photographs of the dead fresh-faced 20-somethings were highlighted last week by Koppel and by major newspapers like the Washington Post.
But the most fateful pictures of all have been the footage of the Americans' aerial bombardment 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. These images are undermining both. That is what the manipulators of the media who favour perpetual war are so afraid of.