I believe that the greatest truth that's available to the world about what's going on is found in the pictures that come from the front lines where the war is being fought. I believe that every step we remove ourselves from the fact of the picture, we become less precise in our description of what's happening." - General Tommy Franks in an interview on Fox News Sunday
General Franks talks with pride of his soldiers and Marines whose duty at the front speaks eloquently in the words and images on the front pages and on the television screens. No doubt, there is a needle for the armchair generals "embedded in television studios" (as Donald Rumsfeld put it). They got the war all wrong nearly all the time.
Tommy Franks is right, of course. The power of the pictures is awesome, but the eyes of the beholders sometimes are afflicted with cataracts.
So lopsided was the initial antiwar analysis at MSNBC, for example, that the third-ranked cable news channel brought in conservative commentators "to add political equilibrium." MSNBC added patriotic emblems for good measure. A picture of the commander in chief decorates the studio set and the wall flourishes with photographs of "America's Bravest," the fighting men and women in Iraq.
The American Marine who climbed to the top of the statue of Saddam Hussein and draped an American flag about its head expressed the nation's jubilation and pride in having freed the Iraqi people of a monster, but some commentators back home were scandalized. The spontaneous gesture of a fighting man made us look like a colonialist power in the eyes of the couch potatoes in the studio. The rest of us saw it differently. We understood the Marine's heady excitement. He's the one who put his life on the line.
Susan Sontag, the intellectual darling of the left, published a book in 1977 in which she argued that repeated photographs of war numb the spirit and diminish the horror of death and destruction, that they appeal merely to sentiment, "knowledge at bargain prices," making us tourists in the reality of others. That's nonsense, but her condescending interpretation influenced a generation of intellectuals. For the rest of us the images deepened our awareness of the sacrifice the soldiers make on behalf of the values they defend. Can anyone doubt that? Can there be anyone who doesn't think that "war is hell"?
Miss Sontag has changed her mind in a new book, Regarding the Pain of Others, where she discovers that photographs provoke thought and compel action. This was written before the war in Iraq, but surely the image of the 12-year-old Iraqi boy whose arms were blown off by a missile illustrates this point. The tragedy of Ali Ismail Abbas has elicited donations for medical treatment from all over the West, and last week the Americans finally moved him to safety in a modern hospital in Kuwait.
As we cheer the happy faces of heroes liberating Baghdad, we're haunted by the deaths of those soldiers and journalists who died before the allied soldiers got there. We can't bear to have them to have died in vain. But how we help Iraq take steps toward a democracy is a puzzling as well as enormous responsibility compelling honest reporting in both words and pictures.
The most troubling images from Iraq are those we did not see. Eason Jordan, Iraqi bureau chief for CNN, confessed in an op-ed essay in the New York Times that he withheld news of Saddam's evil in exchange for keeping access to his sources. The devil is always in the details. Snapshots can lie. Repeated photographs of the antiwar protesters suggested they were much more prominent than they were. Polls continue to show that a large majority of Americans support the president and American war aims.
Those who did oppose the war are shopping around now for fresh arguments because it's impossible not to see the liberation of Iraq as a good thing. "Not to feel relief at the prospect of a world without (Saddam Hussein) is to be possessed of a grudging heart," writes David Remick in the New Yorker, a magazine that had predicted a much messier campaign. A week earlier, Hendrik Hertzberg, a zealous antiwar writer, had conceded in the magazine that it was too late to argue against the war, "and it's too late to accept any outcome that does not involve the fall of Saddam."
So Tommy Franks wins the argument: "If we believe in the First Amendment to our Constitution, and if we believe in the power of having our country know the truth," Tommy Franks said, "then the embeds have carried us a long ways in the direction of making that happen."
A picture can be worth a thousand words, but we need truthful words, too.