Iraq Militants' Skillful Video Colors Perception Of the Enemy

By Philip Kennicott
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, June 5, 2007

If it's been a while since you checked in with the videos emerging from insurgent groups in Iraq, the advance of professionalism continues, now to the level of tone, drama and pacing. When a new video showing what appears to be the planning and execution of an attack on American forces surfaced yesterday, most news accounts focused on the final moments, in which the personal effects of two soldiers are shown. Given the video's claims that the two men have been killed, the footage was combed for any evidence about their fate.

But this latest bit of Internet propaganda has disturbing power beyond the immediate concern over the soldiers' well-being. It is a compelling visual document, with an argument to make, and it sets up a stark series of oppositions that transcend linguistic and national barriers: occupation vs. resistance, outsiders vs. locals, dilapidated cities vs. green leafy bowers.

The video, released by the Islamic State of Iraq, an umbrella organization for militant groups, saves for last the details on which the American media focused. In the final 40 seconds, there are grainy, dark images of a credit card, a stack of U.S. currency, a white cross that seems to glow in the dark, and then two military identification cards, showing the faces of Army Pvt. Byron W. Fouty and Spec. Alex R. Jimenez, both missing since an attack on American forces May 12. A U.S. military official said the documents and the video seemed to be authentic.

Like another video that is circulating (showing a series of brash attacks on American vehicles by men throwing devastating grenades), the new piece focuses on what might be called fighters in repose. Recurring throughout both videos are scenes of insurgent forces underneath a canopy of trees. In the newest, there is a man standing over a handful of fighters crouched beneath a tree. With the antenna of his satellite phone or walkie-talkie, he points to a detailed map that seems to be hanging in the branches that surround him.

The scene throws into confusion the deeply ingrained, unconscious sense that terrorism is an urban phenomenon. By moving some of the most lengthy passages of the video into the outdoors -- a particularly inviting, peaceful place -- the video attempts to undermine the notion that what is happening is a terrorist attack. These fighters look more like what we would call partisans, part of a long tradition of men who have taken to the hills, or the forests, or the jungles, to fight an alien enemy.

Partisans, in the literature of war, are connected with the land, which gives them authenticity. They may be on the run, but their lives have been refined to a more simple existence, apart from the comforts and corruption of the organized enemy. Hemingway's vision of the Spanish Civil War was in part an idyll of resistance, as were many Soviet novels of the Russian Revolution and the Second World War, which became patriotic pastorals, celebrating the close-to-the-land status and integrity of Bolshevik heroes.

You needn't go any further than Winston Churchill's famous speech to the House of Commons after Dunkirk. In his peroration, he seems to imagine England occupied by Nazi forces, and Englishmen reduced to partisans.

"We shall defend our Island, whatever the cost may be," he said. "We shall fight on the beaches . . . in the fields and in the streets, we shall fight in the hills; we shall never surrender."

The most recent video emphasizes images of U.S. forces on patrol in urban environments, Americans with guns and helicopters overhead. Unlike the insurgents quietly planning their attack in a bucolic place, the Americans are bristling with tension. There is a nervous, wary energy to their movements.

And then a stunning bit of montage: President Bush is seen directing an orchestra, waving his arms a bit awkwardly, more like a drum major than a conductor (images taken from a presidential visit to Jamestown last month). The intercutting is a devastating bit of message tailoring: Bush, whose conducting is set against a roiling screen of red flames, is presented as remote from the action, not quite real -- dangerous and ridiculous at the same time.

Never mind what it says about the attention with which insurgents and their propagandists are following American media and gathering imagery to use in their own cause. The more discomfiting lesson is the pitch-perfect sense of humor, drama and pacing that these images demonstrate.

After scenes of occupation and Bush as bandleader, after the fighters in the forest poring over plans, comes the attack, a crudely shot nocturnal scene in which the death and devastation happen in an almost abstract play of grainy black-and-white images. The pure terror of beheading videos or the nauseating voyeurism of sniper videos that have littered the Internet is replaced by attack footage that follows the same, almost prim code of decorum that the U.S. media use when showing war imagery.

Perhaps if they had more gruesome video, they would have used it. But the effect is to dilute the moral outrage of violence and focus the attention on the more palatable before-and-after scenes. It is a canny bit of editing.

The final images, the ones that will haunt Americans because they show two young men who are at best in grave peril, and quite possibly dead, play more than a forensic or trophy function in the context of the whole video. American soldiers are identified by money, credit cards and a cross. The bar codes -- so objectifying and so industrial -- on their military identification cards stand in stark contrast to the masked fighters seen earlier. This is the final iteration of the attacker as corrupt (materialist, living on credit) or alien (Christian).

We may see these objects as chilling markers of lives that could be ours, talismans of men who had in their pockets at the time of the ambush the same things we have in our pockets. But that's not the meaning in the world of this video.

The Things They Carried With Them aren't personal, but the generic markers of a far-away, modern, capitalist, Christian land, and for many people in the world, that is something self-evidently worth fighting against.

© 2007 The Washington Post Company