article first appeared in The
New York Times.
All of life seems
to be about denial--the denial of death, the denial of reality,
the denial of everything that is convenient for us to deny.
Photography, because of its causal relationship to the world,
seems to give us the truth or something close to the truth.
I am skeptical about this for many reasons. But even if photography
doesn't give us truth on a silver platter, it does make it harder
for us to deny reality. It puts a leach on fantasy, confabulation
and self-deception. It provides constraints and borders. It
circumscribes our ability to lie-to ourselves and to others.
We can imagine, in the privacy of our thoughts, that war is
heroic and honorable-even noble. Photography can make it difficult
for us to maintain these illusions. Take the recent videotape
of the Iraqi insurgent in Falluja being shot and killed by a
US marine. It does not tell us everything we need to know about
what happened. It does not tell us what the marine was thinking
or what his prisoner was thinking--that is, what he was thinking
before he was shot dead. But it does tell us that something
happened. And, as a result, it makes the shooting, the killing,
much harder to deny.
No doubt, there will be an investigation--an attempt to provide
context--to fill in the details: why the prisoner was there
and who he was; whether the marine was acting on instructions
from his superiors and what those might have been; or whether
he acted in self-defense. One central question remains: What
are we looking at? And that question will not go away. No more
so than the pictures of Abu Ghraib went away. Pictures are physical
evidence, and as such, they are part of an effort to understand
what really happened.
Pictures force us to collect our thoughts. They make us think
about motivation, intent-they make us think about how we interpret
our experiences, how we think about the world, how we try to
understand the motives of others. (Maybe it's in our DNA. We
look at pictures of other people and we want to know: what were
they thinking?) And when it's a photograph of a crime or of
violence, we think even harder.
Such images make us care because they make us part of the mystery
of what happened. We are not merely spectators; we are investigators.
We are involved. What do the images mean? What do they show?
What led up to these events? Are there mitigating circumstances?
Is it a bad as it looks?
Pictures provide a point around which other pieces of evidence
collect. They are part of, but not a substitute for, an investigation.
There are real questions to be answered. That's why we have
international law, rules of engagement and codes of military
There is a fact of the matter to be determined; whether this
was done in cold blood and therefore constitutes a war crime
and who, if anyone, should be held responsible. The Abu Ghraib
photographs turned out (following an investigation) to be what
they seemed to be-pictures of torture and abuse. They were as
bad as they looked-even worse.
Some of the soldiers involved were held accountable. But accountability
did not proceed very far up the chain of command. And, of course,
there were those who felt that the torture and abuse were justified.
Unhappily, an unerring fact of human nature is that we habitually
reject the evidence of our own senses. If we want to believe
something, then we often find a way to do so regardless of evidence
to the contrary. Believing is seeing and not the other way around.
For many people, the interpretation of this videotape will devolve
into general questions about Iraq. People will interpret this
videotape according to their ideological dispositions. Are we
looking at the face of freedom on the march, or at the footprint
of an our-of-control behemoth leaving a trail of bodies in its
wake? For the true believers in the war in Iraq, these images
will make little impression. For them, the ends of which this
war is being fought justify the means. War is bloody, brutal;
the enemy is vicious. But the objective of extending freedom
redeems what has to be done to achieve it. In this view the
war is unfortunate but necessary.
For people, like myself, who are deeply skeptical about this
war, it is not clear what the "ends" of this was might
be. It doesn't seem as if Iraq is freer or will be freer in
the near future. Call me a naysayer or a skeptic, but what I
see in the newspapers all seems evidence of mayhem. And with
no end of the war in sight, the terrible means-the manner in
which this war is being fought-seem, at best, misguided and
at worst, deeply wrong.
John Keegan, in The Face of Battle,writes about the Battle
of Agincourt. Henry V has invaded France out of political ambition.
He would like to be more than just king of England. (Shakespeare
gives Henry the line: "The signs of war advance, no king
of England if not king of France.") At a point of crisis
in the battle, Henry orders the killing of his French prisoners.
There are too many of them. And if the tide should turn against
the English, the French prisoners represent an unacceptable
threat. Keegan writes about Henry's decision: "Comprehensible
in harsh tactical logic; in ethical, practical and human terms,
much more difficult to understand."
In many ways, we haven't progressed very far in six centuries.
Presumably, shooting an unarmed, wounded prisoner is not an
example of humane treatment afforded under the protections of
the Geneva Conventions. And so, I find myself thrown back on
my ideological predispositions. I have worried for some time
that we are going down a rabbit hole in Iraq, much like the
rabbit hole we went down in Vietnam. It's not that Vietnam is
Iraq. The geopolitical situations are completely different.
And yet, there is a common element-our capacity for self-deception,
for denial and for evasion.
Videotape or no videotape, that still remains.
a filmmaker and director, won an Academy Award this year for
the documentary "The Fog of War: Eleven Lessons From the
Life of Robert S. McNamara."