April 2007

Colleen Mondor

features

A Good War is Hard to Find: The Power of Images from the War in Iraq

"We have no choice but to win. If we fail in Iraq, you'll see the rise even further and faster of radical terrorism all around the world.”  -- House Republican leader John Boehner, March 2007

“We will bankrupt ourselves in the vain search for absolute security.”  -- Dwight D. Eisenhower

In the midst of an enormous amount of discussion from politicians, military leaders and academics about what to do about Iraq, the average American has been accused more than once of shutting down on the subject. Everyone is tired of this war, it seems, on all sides, and yet it relentlessly goes on because enough people have a stake in being the winners. It takes a couple of speeches and a single vote to start chaos, but countless discussions, studies, and plans to begin to end it. It’s so much easier to not read those sections of the newspaper.

That is what most of us do and how most of us live in the strange new world of wars that doesn’t raise taxes, draft soldiers, or ration national resources. It’s media war we are living in. War in two-minute soundbites or an easily ignored magazine article. War that prompts a song or two, all of which feature the same stories: support the soldiers, reward the soldiers, remember the soldiers. And yet no one knows how Walter Reed Medical Center came to be in such disrepair. “I bought my yellow ribbon and I turned up Toby Keith,” you say, “so how could this be? How did this happen?”

I read David Griffith’s A Good War is Hard to Find because I wanted to understand how cheap yellow ribbon stickers (a symbol I remember being for the Iran Hostages) came to mean patriotism and how thoughtful dissent from academics sparked cries of high treason. What intrigued me is that Griffith does not profess to be anything other than who he is: a writer and teacher who was outraged by the Abu Ghraib photographs and wondered how on earth such a horrible abuse of human rights could have occurred. He quotes from a broad range of pop and literary cultural references in the essays within his book -- everyone from Susan Sontag, Hunter S. Thompson, Quentin Tarantino, Captain Kirk and the poor bastards from Deliverance are here -- as he ruminates on all things American and violent. Mostly Griffith is curious about why violence seems to be so accepted in American culture, and where the cues may be that predicted the sort of casual attitude towards violence and humiliation evident at Abu Ghraib.

He begins A Good War with an essay about studying the Dresden bombing when he was in high school, an event he considered in sharp contrast to the First Gulf War, which was happening in real time. “Dresden was different, I told myself. Dresden was butchery, barbarity. The bombing of Iraq, as I saw on television every night for a few months, was clean, efficient, just.” That was how he felt, then. The rest of the book is a series of essays that focus on Griffith’s exploration of what should have changed, both for him and the rest of country, after Abu Ghraib.

“A Good War is Hard to Find: Flannery O’Conner, Abu Ghraib, and the Problem of American Innocence” is the first essay Griffith wrote on the subject. He writes, “The photos from Abu Ghraib have catalyzed a new generation of politically-motivated Iraqi artists. A large-scale mural on a wall in Baghdad’s Sadr City reproduces the image of the naked and hooded detainee, standing atop a box, electrical wires attached to his fingers. Next to him stands the Statue of Liberty, dressed in a white robe and hood reminiscent of the Klan’s famous disguises, poised to throw the switch that will send electricity singing through the wires.”

“Americans tend to be very persuasive when it comes to using and endorsing violence as a means of conflict resolution,” he wrote me recently. “Iraq and the War on Terror are examples of this, but I also see it reflected in what passes for entertainment and culture in America. As Flannery O’Conner said, there’s a kind of obscene sentimentality that arises when a person or people argues for their own innocence when it’s clear that they are anything but innocent. O’Conner’s work illustrates this again and again and it can be seen as a comment on the post-WWII culture she was living in, a culture that believed it was beyond the pale because it had rid the world of fascism and through the economic boom created a nearly classless society. I don’t deny that the U.S. did a necessary thing by taking down the Nazis, but to then allow that victory to overshadow the social reform desperately needed in America, especially in terms of race, is the height of hubris. I think we’re in similar times as far as sentimentality and hubris goes, although it seems with each American soldier’s death more and more people are seeing that such sentimentality is the path to annihilation.”

After this essay, which was written originally for the site Godspy, Griffith knew he was on the path to something, but wasn’t certain how to proceed. He did not want to write a scholarly book and felt drawn to the work of writers such as Joan Didion, Susan Sontag and David Hickey, essayists who, “are able to weave the personal and the critical together in a masterful and compelling way, a way that subjects their experiences and perceptions to deep scrutiny.”

It all came together at a Halloween party, of all things, where Griffith, dressed as Captain Kirk, ran into a former classmate he sort of recognized who was dressed as U.S. Army Reserve Specialist Charles Graner, the man credited with organizing the Abu Ghraib atrocities and who was later convicted on multiple charges including assault, indecency, cruelty and maltreatment. First, Griffith notes the irony that Kirk and Graner could be side by side at any event. But then, oddly, they pulled another partygoer into the scene, put a bag over his head, and posed for a picture mocking the Abu Ghraib photos. He includes the picture in the book, both of them blissfully smiling, getting the joke, their thumbs up in salute to, or revulsion over, what happened in Iraq. Griffith doesn’t know why he did it, and then wonders why Graner or any of the others committed their crimes. “Have we come to expect nothing more from people like Graner and [Lynndie] England, who we imagine to be from tacky trailer parks in dead-end hollers? Don’t we rest assured that these are the kinds of people who join the army because they are easily manipulated by promises of cars, money for college, patriotism, and simply getting the hell out of Nowheresville, USA?”

But as much as “Prime Directive” is about what Graner, England and the others did in Iraq, it is also about what Griffith did, initially as a lark, at that Halloween party.

“I don’t really recall having a thought one way or the other at the moment he asked me take a picture,” Griffith wrote to me. “I know that I felt a strange exhilaration -- say as much in the chapter -- that I guess came from the fact that what I was doing was so contrary; it was something ugly and antisocial and rebellious that would make me feel better, somehow. I didn’t suspect that it would have any ‘larger meaning’ other than to communicate to others that I was in on the joke -- that I understood Abu Ghraib on a deeper level than anyone else. In fact, I think moments like this are often about someone feeling they are exceptional or deserve special consideration. And I feel that this is part and parcel of what Graner and England and the others were thinking when they tortured and humiliated the detainees. ‘We’re not cold-blooded killers like you. We’re actually liberators. You deserve this.’ I don’t want to speculate too deeply on why someone wouldn’t feel guilt or shame because we don’t know for sure if they did or didn’t. What we do know is that Sabrina Harman... says she questioned the treatment of the detainees but said nothing. This sort of behavior is common especially in the military, an organization whose foundation is a command chain that rewards loyalty. So, for me, writing this book breaks the silence that otherwise exists around moments like Abu Ghraib and the incident at the party.”

Griffith does far more than shine the spotlight on the prison scandal and his own party indiscretion; in succeeding essays he also offers up a plethora of references and historical events which call into play the issue of American reaction to violence. In “Some Proximity to Darkness,” he refers to Blue Velvet, A Clockwork Orange, Eraserhead, The Godfather, Pulp Fiction and more. In recalling Quentin Tarantino’s blockbuster, he draws specifically on the rape scene of the character Marsellus Wallace, a scene of incalculable violence that is set to the loud, booming sound of The Revels performing “Comanche.” “Raping someone to a soundtrack, as Tarantino does,” writes Griffith, “is the ultimate aestheticization of violence.”

Over the years, the author has seen the movie numerous times and is no longer shocked by the rape. But then, watching Pulp Fiction on cable with his father one night, he begins to wonder if the music is what makes the scene less horrifying. “What if Marcellus Wallace was not gagged during his rape? What would come out of his mouth? What if someone turned down the blaring chainsaw sax solo so we could hear what was going on in that room? Would we hear him curse Zed and Maynard? Would he yell ‘stop’? Would he call for help? Would we see his rape differently now that we could hear him scream? The drowning out of the human voice creates complicity in us -- because Marcellus can’t cry out in anguish and pain, the consequences seem lessened -- and we, like [the character] Butch, are sworn to the same vow of secrecy, to pretend this never happened.”

We never heard them scream in Abu Ghraib either. Our soundtrack was the voices of newscasters and political pundits long after the fact, telling us what they thought about the pictures, how they felt about the ramifications of these acts caught on film. But we never heard from the victims. “We don’t see the actual suffering,” Griffith wrote me, “and this allows us to discount their pain and anger.” In his essays he refers several times to the work of Elaine Scarry, author of The Body in Pain. Scarry writes, “The very content of pain is itself negation.” Griffith continues, “Pain destroys language, such that the person is negated and the world surrounding them is slowly ‘unmade,’ discounted. If we think of the photos and images of the violated and tortured in this way, as memorializing the negation of humanity and the incremental undoing of the world, then we are closer to understanding the stakes of bearing witness. There is not closure when we look away, only unremitting pain and anguish.”

If we get too close to their pain we might burn; so we distance ourselves until we feel nothing at all and it’s just, for us, a moment of dinnertime conversation. I can’t help but think this is the part where Rome burned, when pictures of imprisoned men, “pantomiming sex acts or stacked in pyramids,” are the sort of degrading entertainment we collectively abhor, but still have come to expect. As Griffith later recalls the lynching photos in the Without Sanctuary exhibit at the Andy Warhol Museum, photos taken between the 1890s and 1930s across America and then often made into postcards and saved as souvenirs, he quotes Sontag: “More than a few show grinning spectators, good churchgoing citizens as most of them had to be, posing for a camera with the backdrop of a naked, charred, mutilated body hanging from a tree. The display of these photos makes us spectators, too.”

Looking on from the outside and shaking our heads in disbelief is an old American tradition, and Graner and the others are merely continuing our history of recorded atrocity, simply living up the culture of horror that we move from postcards to movie screens with an ease that is truly grotesque, and a historical amnesia that shames us all.

“After I wrote that [first] chapter, which took only a few days, I realized that my whole life I have been drawn to violence and violent images,” Griffith wrote me, “and I wondered what effect it has had on me. The Hiroshima essay came then not just as the result of the anniversary of the bombing but because I was now seeing the bombing and my attraction to [John] Hersey’s book through the lens of this larger project, which I came to understand as an interrogation of my own visual education.”

When it comes to Iraq, there have been many important photographs of soldiers taken by photojournalists, but it is only recently that those of the Iraqi people have earned equal time. With Griffith’s thoughts on visual education fresh in my mind, I poured over the images within Iraq: A War, a new collection from the Associated Press with an introduction by war journalist Chris Hedges. Images of shock and awe are throughout this book, with soldiers running in the streets, oil pipelines up in flames, and anti-tank missiles caught in mid-flight by a shutter snap. What’s less common is the absurd irony found in images of soldiers wrapping rosaries around their hands as they hold their rifles or gripping government-issued Bibles as they kneel in the sand beside their weapons. Iraqis kneel at prayer in Sadr City on one page and Italian soldiers are blessed by Bishop Angelo Bagnasco during mass on the next. Killing and prayers are everywhere, Western god, Middle Eastern god, does it really matter when you see them all together; when you see how, in those moments, everyone truly does look alike? And then you turn the page and see a baby, 18-month-old Mohammed Saleem, dressed in red shorts, sandals and matching t-shirt, lying in his coffin, blood still smeared on his arm and face. The description reads simply, “He was killed, along with four other family members, when U.S. forces opened fire on their car.”

The next page is Samah Hussein crying over the body of her son, “killed by a suicide car bombing outside a U.S. military camp.” And then like a cascade, the images are one after another:

David Griffith would say this book is too real for the American people; it demands too much from those who would much rather give little attention to this war and its complicated classes of victims. Pity the dead child, but you wonder, too, why his family didn’t stop that car, why they were on that road, what they were driving at all. You shake your head, you turn the page; you rationalize even this death. I think maybe I have reached a personal tipping point in this war because of that little boy.

In his introduction to Iraq: A War, Hedges writes, “The experience of war overpowers the alienation many left behind. They become accustomed to killing, carrying out acts of slaughter with no more forethought than they take to relieve themselves. And the abuses committed against the helpless prisoners in Abu Ghraib or Guantanamo are not aberrations, but the true face of war. In wartime all human beings become objects, objects either to gratify or destroy or both. And almost no one is immune. The contagion of the crowd sees to that.” And that is how little Mohammed Saleem ends up a casualty. We shot first, they shot first, we were wrong, they were wrong. Who really gives a damn when they see him lying in that box?

“If we do not confront the lies and hubris told to justify the killing and mask the destruction carried out in our name in Iraq,” writes Hedges, “if we do not grasp the moral corrosiveness of empire and occupation, if we continue to allow force and violence to be our primary form of communication, if we do not remove from power our flag-waving, cross-bearing versions of the Taliban, we will not so much defeat dictators such as Saddam Hussein as become them.” Harsh words, but they simply echo Thomas Jefferson from long ago: “I hope our wisdom will grow with our power, and teach us, that the less we use our power the greater it will be.”

But too late for Mohammed Saleem, too late for more than 3,000 dead American soldiers, too late even for Lynndie England and Sabrina Harman. A slim volume of essays, another 150 pages of photographs; is it too much to ask that we walk away from the inanity of our own lives for the time it takes to consider the big picture they each present? Griffith and Hedges and the AP photographers have done all the hard work; it’s just left to us to give their work an hour or two out of our day. And quite frankly, I think it is long past due that we give this war our time.

“At the very least,” David Griffith wrote me, “I would like this book to help people think more personally about their own perception of violence as a means of entertainment and conflict resolution. The power of personal conscience is often underestimated, and I hope my book gets folks thinking in terms of their personal ethic -- what they’ll stand for and what they won’t and why.”

A Good War is Hard to Find: The Art of Violence in America by David Griffith
Soft Skull Press
ISBN 1933368128
187 pages

Iraq: A War Photographs by the Associated Press
Introduction by Chris Hedges
Olive Branch Press
ISBN 1566566487
158 pages