In the war of ideas, there is a visual front.
In that theater, we’re losing — everywhere you look. There has been no escaping the images. A young American in an orange jumpsuit getting his throat cut and other young Americans, MPs, throttling back their attack dogs from a shivering prisoner.
What a difference a year makes.
Last March, images from the most photographed war in history showed an American military machine racing across the Iraqi desert with lightning speed.
In a breathtaking mural of success, Saddam Hussein’s statue fell, a metaphor for his swift fall from power. In relatively short order, the future represented by his sons also splattered under American firepower, and photographs of their corpses were displayed on television to convince disbelieving Iraqis. A flight-suited President Bush took a conqueror’s bow aboard the aircraft carrier USS Lincoln and, later, he slipped into the war zone to share Thanksgiving dinner with elated American troops. This visual phase of the war in Iraq culminated in portraits of a defeated and disoriented Saddam appearing to pick lice from his matted hair.
It was vital for these proofs of success to be followed quickly and aggressively by more pictures. Instead, the image of American control slipped beneath the quicksand of religious fanaticism and tribal feuds.
Now the eyes of the world lock onto ambushed convoys belching fire and smoke, or long lines of flag-draped coffins. Every day, fresh photographic evidence of what appears to be a shocking military and political reversal arrives — and it’s not a pretty picture.
Again and again over the past year, the world has watched American troops breaking down the doors of Iraqi homes, rousting families, upending beds. While this may strike many Americans as no different from a cop show on reality TV, Muslims in every corner of the world feel vicariously stripped of all their dignity.
To accept their new future, Iraqis need to see pictures of their honor restored, of the rewards of liberty and of their own hands set upon rebuilding. Instead, they have seen America digging in, taking over and occupying the old palaces, their tan boots replacing the black ones of Saddam’s forces.
Pictures pack the wallop of emotion, turning every viewer into an original witness. Words, which can be turned one way, then another and spun all around, remain cool and pale by comparison.
In the public mind, pictures of isolated events become the landmarks of modern war. Context becomes irrelevant. It doesn’t matter if they appear on the crest of an actual military turning point. Powerful pictures simply become the defining memories of struggle.
In the past, military handlers worried too much about the press, when all that was needed was access. Pentagon spokeswoman Victoria Clark wisely opted to embed cameras into Operation Iraqi Freedom, which satisfied many needs with one stroke.
It turns out, however, that the most troublesome pictures are coming from the point-and-shoot cameras of soldiers and amateurs. Images come from all kinds of sources, and it is folly in the Internet age to try to stop them. The only recourse is to compete, to steer the public eye toward other ways of seeing.
With or without the press, military planners must include pictures as part of their tactical arsenal. Failing to use them can disastrously compound one of the greatest battlefield mistakes possible — namely, when a winner stops short of final success. Victory can be secured only when the enemy sees its own defeat and succumbs in spirit.
An earlier Bush administration worried about the “vision thing.” Now there is a new, literal version of the problem. In the face of so many nightmarish pictures, it would be a grave mistake to become camera shy, to fear the power of pictures. That would leave American soldiers bruised and battered by each depiction the enemy throws out, every new lynching or suicide bombing aftermath.
In the war in Iraq, perhaps more than in any other war, photography has proved itself a highly explosive weapon, best used with the utmost precision. It is vital for strategic planners to know what pictures are needed to bring about the desired result.
Between now and the coalition’s departure from Iraq, Secretary of Defense Donald H. Rumsfeld must develop genuine photographic foresight. By treating photography as an afterthought, by waiting to react rather than seizing the initiative and becoming authors of the war they would prefer, Pentagon officials risk forfeiting what earlier looked like victory.