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March 24, 2008


Iraq — Worth a thousand words

Just as American’s attitudes toward the Vietnam War changed once they began to see battle scenes on their evening newscasts, so too have images focused and clarified opposition to the War in Iraq.

The media are varied, but the corpus has grown in the past year. In documentary films, there is the Oscar-nominee No End in Sight and the Oscar-winning Taxi to the Dark Side. This week PBS is devoting two evenings to the new Frontline production Bush’s War. A new feature film, Stop-Loss, opens in the Bay Area this Friday.

And then there’s “Exposure,” a deeply disturbing article by Philip Gourevitch and Errol Morris in the March 24 issue of the New Yorker that looks at the photographs taken at Abu Ghraib and the people — especially a young woman named Sabrina Harmon — who took them. The article is drawn from a book by Gourevitch and Morris called Standard Operating Procedure, which will be released on May 15, and from a film directed by Morris that is scheduled to appear in theaters on April 25.

The role of these images in the public’s understanding of the war is one of the themes of the article. In fact, there have been relatively few images of the war in Iraq, which is probably one reason why Americans have been slow to express their opposition to it. But even if we had been bombarded with hundreds of images every day, reactions might have been very different without the words of interpreters like Gourevitch and Morris.

In On Photography, Susan Sontag quotes from Jean-Luc Godard and Jean-Pierre Gorin’s film A Letter to Jane: “[A photograph] is physically mute. It talks through the mouth of the text written beneath it.”

And talk, Gourevitch and Morris do, fiercely and eloquently:

The abuse of prisoners at Abu Ghraib was de facto United States policy. The authorization of torture and the decriminalization of cruel, inhuman, and degrading treatment of captives in wartime have been among the defining legacies of the current Administration; and the rules of interrogation that produced the abuses documented on the M.I. block in the fall of 2003 were the direct expression of the hostility toward international law and military doctrine that was found in the White House, the Vice-President’s office, and at the highest levels of the Justice and Defense Departments.

Even before they published the article, they provided what is in effect a commentary on it in the form of a “conversation” at the New Yorker Festival of October 2007, a commentary that raises — and attempts to answer — questions of involvement and image-making.

In the course of making the film, Morris says, he was frequently asked if he had found the smoking gun yet. No, he would reply, but he wasn’t looking for one. The real explanation, Gourevitch adds, is that “properly considered, Abu Ghraib is the smoking gun.”

— Copyright Betsey Culp 2008