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Image is Hell



Since the time Matthew Brady made his first photographs of the Civil War, Americans have hungered for images of the conflicts into which they have sent their sons, and lately daughters. The 1860s-era photos—of bloated corpses on not-so-distant battlefields—were no less gruesome than those available today from Iraq.

Today, the images are immediate and they move. Technological advances have been made concurrent with our ability to inflict carnage, and yet the angry voices of those who object to those images being shown would like to pretend that there is no connection. The fact is, modern communications live alongside modern war-fighting capability and make ignoring the reality of war impossible.

How, then, to explain the squeamishness, even among members of the media, about showing images of Americans in the many circumstances of war—Americans fighting, Americans taken captive, and, yes, Americans dead?

Part of the explanation is the Bush administration’s failed public relations strategy. This war was sold to the American public on its painlessness. Shocked and awed, the Iraqi regime would collapse. Operation Iraqi Freedom? From here, the Iraqis look like they’re fighting back against “coalition”—which are 90 percent American—forces.

But no matter what the Pentagon may have led us to believe before this all began, this is not playing out like the last Gulf War, the ground assault of which famously lasted 100 hours. Nor is it the Panama of 1989, which was even shorter. And what if this were Antietam in 1862, which had over 22,000 casualties in the space of 12 hours? How soon might that war have been brought to a conclusion had video been available?

What’s at stake here is, literally, image. How is this war to be seen, not merely portrayed? Will the American public see the unvarnished nastiness and cruelty? And if so, will support for the war be sustained?

The idea of trying to manage image has, thankfully, been rendered ludicrous by the democratizing force of the Internet. It is not as easy to dehumanize the foe as it once was., which has come in for the brunt of criticism over war imagery, reports that its Website has been overwhelmed by over 1 million hits in the last week—80 percent of which have come from North America.

And yet anger against frank portrayal of the war resulted in a hack attack against the Website of the independent Arab television network, Al-Jazeera. Just wait until the corpse of a young American fighting woman is dragged through the streets of Baghdad, a la Mogadishu.

The media is not to blame for showing the reality of war. The fact that Americans are so unprepared for that reality is the more disturbing fact. This kind of savagery is more easily inflicted when you are unaccustomed to it—and Americans are notorious in their disengagement from the brutal realities of life elsewhere in the world. This war—thanks to the availability of the awful images—may sober us for future conflict.

So look at the horror, and try not to flinch. This is what your sons and daughters are seeing. This is war. This is what your government signed you up for. With any luck, this reality TV will discourage further wasteful, jingoistic nonsense.