Unblinking Observer
Photographs Show a War Beyond Investigations

By Philip Kennicott
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, June 6, 2006

The Iraq war is the first major conflict fought in what might be called the age of the new Panopticon. The English philosopher Jeremy Bentham coined the term in the late 18th century to describe a prison in which the guard tower was in the center of concentric rings of cells, allowing authorities to exercise an "invisible omniscience." Although the word emerged in the context of prison reform, it has become more suggestive over the years, capturing something essential about power and authority, from Big Brother's pervasive surveillance to the more benign notion that government is always "looking into" things. But the new Panopticon is a digital phenomenon, a world of instant cameras, cellphone snapshots, e-mailed photographs, a world that produces a nonstop, immediate and ubiquitous visual record of itself -- and it is breaking the government's monopoly on omniscience.

Again and again throughout this war, amateur photographs have exposed the flaws of the military's carefully constructed image of discipline. Photographs made Abu Ghraib a symbol of shame throughout the world. And photographs and video images are again undermining the military's cherished reputation for calm under fire and heroic self-restraint.

The most horrifying images are not published or shown on TV, though they're easy to find on the Web. But the ones we are confronted with are bad enough: A small child, a victim of a devastating and controversial U.S. airstrike in Ishaqi, is dressed in baby-blue, his eyes are closed, and his tiny, gently clenched hand rests by his side. He might be asleep, except that the photograph, which ran in Newsweek, shows a mangled, bloody arm next to him. The unidentified, shredded limb (does it belong to yet another child?) reaching into the center of the image might well stand for all the rest of these photographs that prick the conscience: They seem to come from the margins of our attention, they reach in and put their bloody imprint on a war that we wish had more innocence and calm to it.

The military has concluded that there was no U.S. wrongdoing in the March 15 Ishaqi attack that left the child dead.

They are not so certain about two other incidents, the killing of a disabled Iraqi man in Hamdaniyah on April 26 and the deaths of 24 Iraqis in Haditha on Nov. 19. Both are under investigation, and photographs and video from both have begun to circulate. In the Hamdaniyah case, we know there are graphic images of a man wrapped in plastic sheeting -- a see-through shroud that has become a grisly visual marker of the ongoing conflict. Neighbors and family say the man, who has four bullet holes in his face, was dragged from his house and shot by U.S. soldiers. Eight American servicemen are under investigation.

In Haditha, the range of images is wider: bodies wrapped in rugs; bodies bundled in white cloth and tied into neat, ghostly packages; and bloody, bloated faces emerging from stiff folds of transparent plastic, rather like Rodin's deathly Balzac looks out from his small cave of draping metal.

Hands and feet of the living -- bystanders, onlookers, witnesses to the silence of the dead -- often frame the images. These strange, anonymous additions to the picture -- disembodied appendages -- suggest humanity at a standstill. They suggest an impotence among Iraqi civilians that is heartbreaking.

The U.S. military is still looking into the Haditha killings. It's also looking into the possibility of a military coverup, which kept the killings under wraps for half a year.

Photographs are immediate. Investigations are by necessity methodical and often slow. These two different senses of time -- the immediate and the methodical -- are now in troubling conflict. A dead child cries out for immediate response; the military investigates. We see photographs of men doubled over with grief, tear-stained faces, mouths contorted in pain, and the pang is instant; the military investigates. A boy standing next to the bodies of his family or friends looks up at his elders with a blank stare on his face, an image that puts death and childhood in excruciating proximity; the military investigates.

Photographs may play an important role in some of these investigations. But it is the degree to which the photographs exist in a world of their own, apart from the military's cautiously worded statements, that is increasingly perplexing. Throughout the war, the notion of two realities has dogged the warmakers. Is the president living in a world of good news and progress and missions accomplished, while our soldiers and the Iraqi population live in a world of chaos and death and uncertainty? Are the media presenting a world of antiseptic images, bloodless and vague, mere suggestions of a carnage they know all too well but dare not make explicit to the public?

Investigations are meant to create closure. But photographs, which can circulate forever, keep death and destruction open. Investigations are also meant to assure us that the war waged in our name is being fought with some measure of precision and dignity, but as photographs (and incidents) accumulate, and as investigations linger and overlap one another, they begin to lose their moral force. Investigation, a word meant to reassure us that the government is always "looking into" itself, is itself now subject to the blur that makes the nightly news coverage of Iraq seem like a tape loop.

And the only image that fades, as the war grinds on, is the one with which we prepared for battle: the fantasy, so beloved of Americans, of a clean, surgical, decent war.

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