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Choose Your Weapons

By Frank Van Riper
Special to Camera Works

A canny reader will quickly see that I am using the cover of a photography column to make a worried case for war.

But what parallels I bring from my own background and line of work are not here to amuse, only to make a point.

I am scared witless over the prospect of war with Iraq.

But I am even more terrified of inaction in the face of what I believe to be a clear, present and growing danger, not only to our country, but to the civilized world.

For all that, though, what scares me most is going to war with Iraq while other countries stand on the sidelines and jeer, either out of hatred or their own self-interest.

Sometimes being right is not enough. Being smart can be just as important. Smart enough to maintain coalitions that make up in political and global influence – and dispersed responsibility–what they may lack in actual firepower and personnel.

Coalitions that might forestall, if not actually prevent, a world of hurt in the future.

I am reminded of the plight of editorial photographers, the men and woman who shoot news, many of whom are right now preparing to go to war. Their inability or unwillingness to stick together for better money and working conditions has virtually destroyed the craft. Grant them their courage to be at the front lines. Pity them for not realizing that their only strength is their strength in numbers.

It works that way for nations as well.

Since the murderous outrage of September 11th, 2001, when the concept of "asymmetrical war" was brought home to us with stunning and heartbreaking clarity, the playing field on which nations conduct their business has been changed irrevocably. We ignore this sad fact at our terrible peril.

The prospect that people who hate us will try to kill us en masse no longer is the stuff of right-wing or left-wing paranoid fantasies. Nor is applicable the 1950s doomsday scenario of one superpower blowing away another pre-emptively with nuclear warheads. Today any fanatic with a suitcase and a "dirty bomb"–any fool with a direct line to God or Allah and a teacup-full of sarin or anthrax–can wreak nation-shaking havoc.

And God help us when those fanatics can buy weapons-grade biologicals or chemicals or nukes from Saddam Hussein or Kim Jong Il, as surely they will if they and the regimes that would supply them are not stopped now.

I, for one, thank my own God for an intelligence community that has quietly and with Israeli-like efficiency brought so many of these hateful people to ground, most recently Khalid Shaikh Mohammed, the self-described architect of the World Trade Center atrocity, not to mention the son of a bitch who allegedly helped murder the Wall Street Journal's Daniel Pearl.

The domestic hassles and, yes, limits on our individual freedoms that we have had to endure since 9/11 have been onerous yet necessary. Ask any traveling photographer about this and I am willing to bet that he or she will regale you with horror stories – but none will say the added security is foolish or unwanted. [Or, for that matter, say that things haven't improved with the passage of time and the addition of better-trained screeners.]

Even as I write this, scores of my colleagues are being "embedded" – a silly term that suggests an implant or a filling – with military units in or near what soon may be a war zone. These are the men and woman–the photographers, writers and technicians–who will be our eyes and ears when and if the shooting starts. It probably is even money that, in the absence of a 72-hour rollover and a lopsided military win, a handful of these men and women will die doing their jobs if the fighting gets close and ugly.

I cannot even conceive of the courage it takes to do such an assignment.

The awful conundrum of the real world is this: for too many times when real evil – or at least genuinely evil intent – confronts a near-universal and laudable desire to avoid conflict, evil wins.

I am willing to accept that this baseline belief in peace at any price is what has motivated the people and nations who so vigorously oppose war with Iraq: the idea that civilized people can and should resolve their differences without resort to violence. [Of course this pre-supposes that all sides to a conflict are civilized–a point I am not willing to concede about Al Qaeda, the Taliban, Saddam Hussein or North Korea.] The ex-political writer in me can make a slam-dunk of a case that the French, for example, have acted with appalling venality, self-interest, petulance and greed and actually have aided Iraq's course at the United Nations. But I will suspend disbelief and concede to the other side that the very same adjectives hurled against the French also might be used to describe the behavior of the Bush administration.

In this current perilous endgame – in the Bronx we'd call it "chicken" – there is no comfort in the fact that the leaders on each side of the conflict, George W. Bush and Saddam Hussein, profess near-messianic faith in the rightness of their cause. Hussein has long seen himself as the latter day Saladin who unites the Arab word against the western infidel. My old colleague Tom DeFrank wrote in Sunday's New York Daily News of a George Bush eerily serene as war nears, so convinced is he that he is doing God's will by smiting Saddam.

Each leader, so it seems, is willing to go it alone.

And each is wrong.

Perhaps unfairly, perhaps not, the biggest onus for this foolhardy behavior falls on the President, precisely because no one in his right mind views Saddam Hussein with anything but horror. Even the much quoted "Arab Street" – and certainly many Arab diplomats and political leaders – prefer Hussein gone, or worse.

But in fact we have managed to blow apart the coalition that once supported us–a testament, not to any perceived goodness in Saddam Hussein, but to our own political clumsiness in not being able to close the deal that would have sealed Hussein's fate.

Give the administration credit for applying the military pressure that is forcing Iraq, however slowly and reluctantly, to comply with the unanimous wishes of UN resolution 1441.

But give credit, too, to our opponents–including the damn French – for making us confront, also slowly and reluctantly, the terrible folly of acting alone.

Frank Van Riper is a Washington-based commercial and documentary photographer and author. His latest book is Talking Photography (Allworth Press), a collection of his Washington Post columns and other photography writing over the past decade. He can be reached through his website www.GVRphoto.com.

© estate of Claire Flanders
"Where I Learned to Swim," River Eure, France.

Claire Flanders (1937-2003)

A bright and eloquent light extinguished last week with the death of Claire Flanders, one of the gentlest and most talented photographers Judy and I ever knew.

Claire was profiled here with hope and admiration in January, on the publication of her latest book. At the time, I wrote of the cancer that afflicted her and of her valiant fight, if not to beat it, then to deal with it on her own terms.

Those around her marveled at how she went back into the darkroom to make the exhibition prints for the show that accompanied the release of Claire Flanders/ Photographs. We only could marvel, too, at her courage and humor during her public appearances to promote what she knew would be the final work of her too-short life.

Now we only can offer up our tears and our love in her memory.



Talking PhotographyAlready acclaimed as the photographer's bedside companion, Talking Photography (Allworth Press, $19.95) is award-winning Post photography columnist Frank Van Riper's ten-year collection of his favorite photography columns and essays. This lavishly illustrated paperback already has garnered rave reviews from all walks of photography for its breezy, informative style and unbounded enthusiasm for making pictures.

To order directly, go to: Allworth Press

 Van Riper on Van Riper

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Hockney's 'Lucid' Bomb At the Art Establishment

Reader's Mailbag on Airport Screening

Of Zapped CF cards And Wary Security

Garry Winogrand: Huge Influence, Early Exit

The Gentle Appeal of Window Light