Saturday, April 21, 2012

Images of The War in Iraq: “Perception is everything” Exposing the grotesque – how this impacts on propaganda and public opinion

Images of The War in Iraq: “Perception is everything”

Exposing the grotesque – how this impacts on propaganda and public opinion

Warning this posting contains strong language, ultra violence and acknowledged pornographic images:

This essay is intended to be a very confronting and contains deliberately depraved and distressing views of the war against Iraq. You may decide after this experience that war is so unconscionable that you will never agree to have one again, unless it desensitise you to the extent that the awfulness just washes over you, paralysing your emotions.

“Naturally the common people don’t want war, but after all, it is the leaders of a country who determine the policy, and it is always a simple matter to drag people along whether it is a democracy, or a fascist dictatorship, or a parliament, or a communist dictatorship. Voice or no voice, the people can always be brought to the bidding of the leaders. This is easy. All you have to do is to tell them they are being attacked, and denounce the pacifists for lack of patriotism and exposing the country to danger. It works the same in every country”.

Hermann Goering

Hitler’s Reich-Marshall

At the Nuremberg Trials

After World War II

In Stephen Sewell’s play

Myth, Propaganda & Disaster In Nazi Germany & Contemporary America (2003)

George Gittoes’ painting Super-power Oil - Oil on Canvas


Inhabitants of wealthy Western nations, like Australia, that are members of the USA’s ‘coalition of the willing’, are accustomed to sanitised images of the War in Iraq. The war is depicted as the conflict that happens, by coincidence, to occur in Iraq, rather than a war that was meticulously planned and relentlessly pursued in spite of massive evidence that it was unnecessary, fraught with great risk to non-combatant civilians and illegal in international law. The public in Australia are not allowed to see images of just how grotesque this war of aggression actually is; nor are we meant to regard Iraqis as fellow human beings capable of feeling grief, whose country, culture and rich history are being ground into dust.

For this reason the quotation from Hermann Goering (above) is particularly apt. What we are exposed to is a propaganda model of media practice. Our media is compliant in a propaganda exercise in which our government and others like it are engaged. The images we see are powerful adjuncts to the highly polished public relations messages. “Perception is everything”, as Terry Allen explains in New Scientist. (Allen: 2003) This argument is supported by Sheldon Rampton and John Stauber in their book, Weapons of Mass Deception the uses of propaganda in Bush’s war on Iraq (Rampton & Stauber: 2003) Having made a polemic and partisan statement in a political science essay my task will be to demonstrate that these statements do describe a viable version of factuality.

I argue that the images the public actually see through the media’s ‘agenda-setting process’ are designed to persuade and manipulate public opinion. (Ward: 1995) So, art does add to our understanding of politics, but it is actually used by holders of political power to disinform us of political realities. For those in power it is the visual world’s ‘escapees’ that present the greatest danger to their carefully contrived message, as I will explain. I have chosen images of the war against Iraq that commenced officially in 2003, because these are prime examples of potent images that could have the potential to destabilise ‘disengagement’ and persuade public opinion to withdraw the tenuous support for this war that exists in some areas of the Australian community.

The images that most strongly demonstrate the extent of the grotesqueness of modern warfare are actually imprinted on the brains of both the suffering civilians and the participants in the combat. The psychiatric damage to combat troops is explained by Retired Lt Colonel David Grossman, US Army, who trained men to kill and later reflected on what this meant (Grossman: 1995) Only the political decision-makers and their constituents are ‘spared’ this traumatic experience and the responsibilities, possibly culpability that it infers. There is a dichotomy, therefore, between those who did the fighting and those at home that lent their support, which invisibly divides and undermines grieving societies for many years following wars as Russell Crowe explains. (Crowe: 1999) Modern photography, especially high definition digital images could change this divergence of experience in ways about which it is only possible to speculate.

Filmmaker, George Gittoes’ found the war against Iraq so grotesque that he focused his film making on the lives of the soldiers and the music they used to enable them to carry out their ‘jobs’. This study led to his film Soundtrack to War. The lyrics of the song Full Nelson by US rap band, Limp Bizkit, favoured by American soldiers going into combat engagements in Iraq. Gittoes met an African American rap group and followed them home, only to find that the disadvantaged neighbourhood in America, in which they lived, was as dangerous as the streets of Baghdad. Gittoes made the film Rampage in response to this discovery and leaves his audience with a question about how recruitment is carried out; selecting those that society regarded as most ‘expendable’. Both of these films focus public attention on the psychological damage that modern combat inflicts on combatants.

Gittoes chose to express his feelings of revulsion regarding the grotesque aspects of the war in his oil painting Super-power Oil (above), which demonstrates that the grotesque can be mediated and re-interpreted in art in symbolic ways, whilst photography gives us an image qualified by the frame, the light conditions, depth of field, focus and technology that is applied. Photographs, though a form of artistic mediation, are generally ‘believed’ as a ‘true record’. The photo image is therefore a powerful persuader, notwithstanding the possibilities of framing and computer manipulation.

The US military and the Bush administration decided before the war against Iraq that they would tightly control media access, giving birth to the fully “embedded” journalist who wore a uniform and rode in the same armoured vehicle, sharing the same jokes, chewing gum and scary experiences as the fighting troops. Very few journalists managed to go ‘independent’ in Iraq, and both the US military and Iraqi resistance forces have lethally targeted many journalists. Skilful and manipulative public relations communicators have kept the American public and the Australian public “on message”.

“The picture of Kim Phuc remains among the indelible images from the Vietnam War. Taken on June 8, 1972, it appeared on front pages of newspapers all over the world that year, and it has been reproduced innumerable times since. George Esper, the Associated Press’s last bureau chief in Saigon, who stayed until the Communists ordered all remaining foreign journalists out, spoke with me [Denise Chong] about the power of the picture and its impact on the Vietnam War: “It captures not just one evil of one war, but an evil of every war”, he said. “There were many casualty pictures, but this one was haunting … In her expression was fear and horror, which was how people felt about war. This picture showed the effects of war, and how wrong and destructive it was. People looked at it and said, ‘this war has got to end”’.

Denise Chong, The girl in the picture 1999 155

Denise Chong explored the story of the adult Kim Phuc, what the family were having for breakfast on that fateful morning their village was attacked with napalm and recounts the family history. Kim Phuc was a real person on whom this outrageous napalm attack was perpetrated; we do not know the names of the other inhabitants of the village of Trang Bang. That act of ‘humanising’ war victims makes it more difficult for military and civilian war operatives to carry on with their ‘work’ with the assurance of public approval. People are uneasy about the role of ‘war crimes’ since the end of World War II and the Nuremberg trials. (ICRC: 2006) The ‘solution’ to this ‘problem’ was the suppression of images that might disturb an apathetic public and impel them into opposition to war.

“Mission accomplished” was in my view a ‘grotesque’ staged event, rich in trite symbolism, facile triumphalism, and devoid of factually realistic content, but it did really happen. US President, George W Bush was on an aircraft carrier “somewhere”. The most powerful military force in world history had taken just days to defeat “a third rate nation”, whose defences had been systematically dismantled by twelve years of persistent air strikes and whose economy had been severely affected by economic sanctions. No one expected any other outcome.

George W Bush – “Mission Accomplished” May 2003

The public of Australia are not seeing the grotesque images of the war against Iraq for several stated, possibly legitimate, reasons that relate to war and to other disasters. One of these is that we are culturally conditioned to put the grotesque beyond view, the so-called 'bad-taste' argument – which does have exceptions. The most compelling reason for this is, as George Esper said, and as I argue, that, these images may persuade us that war is an unconscionable and unacceptable barbarity - a form of pornography. These images may either outrage us or desensitise us, depending on our empathy with ‘other’ inhabitants of the world. The images in the television news stories, though ‘filtered, have been shown to have associations with psychological disturbance in children. (Grossman & DeGaetano: 1999)

Arguments can also be raised as to whether the most grotesque of these images could evoke a voyeuristic response when focussing our gaze on the most confronting images of human carnage. It is possible that some people would gain some kind of vicarious pleasure by looking at images of the ‘other’ people, for whom this disrespect transforms into a deeper contempt, and perhaps satisfaction – “we showed ‘em”. Displaying images like these does contravene Geneva Conventions by demonstrating an absence of respect for opponents in a conflict. (ICRC: 2006; Gutman & Rieff: 1999) The infant victims of Depleted Uranium and their parents have waited too long, following World Health Organisation (WHO) suppression of reports on their plight. Depleted Uranium (DU) babies probably need our immediate attention, in lieu of a protracted debate on ‘bad taste’. (Baverstock & Mothersill: 2003)

There is a distinctly moral agenda demonstrated when people like journalist, Robert Fisk (four references) or JB Russell, reveal the ‘hideous’ harm the war is doing, or when the Iraqi doctors, through Al Jazeera’s Shaheen Chugati try to show us the teratogenic effects of DU munitions on babies.

Robert Fisk – empathy with the suffering of the Iraqi people

“Please note that some of these pictures are not suitable for small children and those who have weak hearts. The following pictures are only of a very tiny fraction of the thousands of Iraqi Civilian Victims who have been terrorised, humiliated, injured, maimed and killed through British and American Bombing of civilian areas in various cities of Iraq. Due to insecurity, Independent Reporters could not and still can not reach many areas to photograph and report the atrocities. Even after the bombing had stopped, thousands of civilians continue to suffer and die due to their severe injuries. We kindly request Independent News Reporters to send us photos of the Anglo-American atrocities in Iraq for inclusion on these pages”.

Robert Fisk (2003) 121

Japanese photojournalist, Takashi Morizumi has taken photos that deal with the horrors and ravages of war and economic sanctions in Iraq. Morizumi creates photographs that were obviously taken with the consent of his subjects. Peoples’ own stories are an integral part of the process. Their pain and suffering is our foremost thought when we view these photographs. The pictures resonate with us as these fellow human beings have names and their facial expressions ask us to justify why such brutality has been inflicted on them.

Takashi Morizumi’s Mission Statement (extract) reads as follows:

“As citizens concerned with social justice and the deteriorating situation in Iraq, we have conceived a program that we hope will draw attention to the devastation of war and economic sanctions on the people of Iraq. We hope to expose the genocide and moral bankruptcy of U.S. foreign policy regarding people in Iraq, especially children.

Many people in America know little about what actually goes on in Iraq other than what the government-controlled media tells them. Many Americans are misinformed about the effects that government policy has on the civilian population. Bringing the truth to the public attention is our program’s objective”. 102

A young boy next to bombed apartment house where many residents were killed.

Juwad has lost 550g in four month since his birth. His parents were unable to buy milk for him. He suffered from heavy diarrhoea due to malnutrition. The hospital had almost no antibiotics available. Babies with low resistance are highly susceptible to infectious disease. Many fail to escape death”. 50

Australian photographer, Tim Page, who covered the wars in Vietnam, Cambodia, Afghanistan and Iraq, is also a campaigner against the use of land mines. Page’s images of war are so exquisitely framed that many look like film sets. His pictures do also go to the ground and find human stories. His images of third generation Agent Orange babies in contemporary Vietnam have the capacity to invoke involuntary tears of despair, but they were not on the front page of the Murdoch-owned newspapers in Australia, nor have the victims received any meaningful compensation against the US government or the manufacturers. My own comments in my report on the Fulbright Symposium entitled Civil Military Cooperation & the War on Terror, June 2004, expressed this as follows:

Participants [in the Fulbright Symposium] should not have missed the photo exhibition by Tim Page of Kangaroo Point which was displayed downstairs in the gallery. This was the visual ‘tour de force’ with lots of images of how ugly and mind-wrenching war really is (when it isn’t happening in your suburb). The one picture for me was the little Vietnamese boy swathed in a cloth with two fingers growing off each of his shoulders. “That’s a third or fourth generation Agent Orange baby”, I was told”. Willy Bach (2004) 85

The image I refer to is one of 538 on the DVD From War to Peace – revolutions revelations resolutions – a photo sutra by Tim Page, who was interviewed by ABC Radio National.

There is also another aspect to the grotesque images of war, driven by the now ubiquitous, often miniature, digital camera. Every soldier can now secrete this device in their pocket and become an amateur documenter of the war whenever the opportunity arises. Their level of education, brutalised culture, uninformed views prior to their deployment, their prejudices and the effects of public disinformation may influence the attitudes of soldiers. They are, after all, the ones who are sent to do the fighting, so it is necessary for them to dehumanise the ‘enemy’. Their experience is that of “bad people” killing their colleagues and the rawness of that fresh and traumatic experience. Non-military veteran viewers need to factor this into any judgement they make of these young men. The soldiers have become what society requires them to be.

Listen to or read the interview with former British SAS soldier, now ‘private contractor’ in Iraq, Andy McNab on ABC Radio National and ask whether this could be your son/lover/husband or father. Unfortunately for the soldiers, they will return to a society that has not shared their experience, and a society that is in denial of what these young men (mainly) have become. Society will not comprehend their restlessness and tendencies to violence and their relationships will frequently fail. (Crowe: 1999)

The soldiers’ images are shocking and depraved, though perhaps understandable. When these and similar images are sold by US soldiers to internet porn sites with comments like: “DIE HAJI DIE!” few civilians will understand what is happening in the soldiers’ minds. In this essay I have made the viewing of the most distressing images optional. I contrast these images to the works of Robert Fisk, Takashi Morizumi, JB Russell, and Tim Page, who each seek to expose the cruelty of the illegal war against the people of Iraq.

These American soldiers treated the grotesque with triumphal glee. Journalist, Chris Thompson reported in his article, dated 28 September 2005, in the East Bay Express, not one of the United States’ major broadsheets, in his column entitled, City of Warts – U.S. Soldiers Swap Gore for Porn, “In an echo of the Abu Ghraib fiasco, grisly images of dead, mutilated Iraqis are traded for access to pornography, an apparent breach of Geneva Conventions”. The dead and wounded are to be treated with respect

Chris Thompson reported in his article on the web site with these comments:

“The captions that accompany these images, which were apparently written by soldiers who posted them, laugh and gloat over the bodies. The person who posted a picture of a corpse lying in a pool of his own brains and entrails wrote, “What every Iraqi should look like.” The photograph of a corpse whose jaw has apparently rotted away, leaving a gaping set of upper teeth, bears the caption “bad day for this dude.” One person posted three photographs of corpses lying in the street and titled his collection “DIE HAJI DIE.””

Chris Thompson (2005) 94 
Cooked Iraqi posted 15 April 2005 by ‘Sideburnz’
The image above is the least explicit in the collection. However, the soldiers’ facial expressions match spirit of the captions that accompany this and other photo images on the NFTU site. NFTU could have become a public relations disaster for the Bush administration. This site has been closed down through US government censorship. The site may disappear but the images are remembered. You will now read this message:
“NTFU is now closed All memberships were allowed to expire naturally and then canceled. No credit cards will ever be billed by NTFU again. Please take a moment to stop by and chat with us here

How effective is censorship? has been shut down, but continues its fully searchable internet presence. Chris Wilson, the site administrator was arrested on 8 October 2005 at Polk County, Florida, on one felony and hundreds of misdemeanour charges, “at his Lakeland apartment and [police] seized several computers, digital recording equipment, a nun's outfit, and a maid's fetish costume. Wilson, a former police officer, was released on $101,000 bail”. He has now announced that all but five of the minor charges have been dropped, 15 January 2006, and posted a new web site in defence of his own constitutional rights to free speech I have recorded my own distressed response to this story in a poem I have posted to my blog.

If the US government did not believe that images affected domestic and international public opinion they would not have suppressed Chris Wilson’s web site. Clearly, these images do have the potential to disgust Americans, outrage Muslims, jeopardise support for the war and endanger the lives of US military personnel and their allies. This last point goes to the heart of the intent of the Geneva Conventions. If one side in a conflict shows disrespect for their opponents’ dead they cannot hope that they will also be treated with respect. This was not the uppermost consideration in the minds of these mainly young soldiers.

Many people would prefer not to gaze on these images, as a form of self-protection from the emotionally upsetting outcomes this might produce. Shutting down, disengaging, refraining from looking can extend to not reading newspapers, not listening to the news on radio or viewing the war on television or even not voting in elections. Should we be ‘spared’ the confronting images of war? I believe that we have a responsibility to participate in democratic processes and make elected representatives who promulgate war take the honourable path to resignation.

What if we are being manipulated by the omission of confronting images, while we reside in calm and reassuring surroundings and endorse the actions of our governments who make war on ‘others’? What should be omitted? Should this include the flag-draped coffins of our government’s dead military employees? If a government has the right to prevent media exposure of ‘our’ dead they are trying to hide the realities of war from their constituency. The different attitudes of the governments of the USA and Canada to their respective dead military personnel is also of interest in the public relations context.

The coffins of American military personnel killed in Iraq

In contrast to this Australians were purposely shown the coffin of Private Jake Kovko, an Australian sniper who was allegedly killed “accidentally” by his own pistol in his barrack room. It is equally disturbing that the Australian government did not immediately send the body of Bosnian soldier Juso Sinanovic from Sarajevo to his family in Europe. The Australian government’s bungling of this episode exhibit insensitivity for the ‘other’ whilst bestowing excessive attention on “one of our own”. I believe that Australians should learn to be sensitive to the suffering of others.

Members of Private Jake Kovco's regiment carry his casket into Sale cemetery this afternoon.


I opt for the affirmative to the question – “Can art add to our understanding of Politics?” I have further argued, however, that art is ‘unreliable’, mediated, manipulated, censored, with omissions and enhancements that both deceive and “smuggle in ideas” to meet political objectives. A sceptical eye needs to be cast on the images citizens are offered by public relations driven governments and a media that is corporate, integrated and compliant with “the message”. This ‘unreliable’ mediation of information and its dissemination through news media is well illustrated in the film ‘Outfoxed’ This distortion has profound emotional effects on ‘public opinion’. Showing audiences the realities of modern warfare could have unpredictable and divergent outcomes. We are left with the discomforting question as to whether people are happier as they are, without the knowledge that could challenge their worldview. The words of Hermann Goering are, in my opinion, as relevant today as they were during World War II.

Concepts of ‘public decency’ can be manipulated for political/propaganda purposes whenever this suits governments. It is pertinent that the USA has suffered the loss of 2,600 military personnel in Iraq and does not allow the photographing of flagged-draped coffins, whilst Canada with four recent casualties in Afghanistan, made a decision in April 2006 not to allow their media to go to an air force base near Toronto to report on the arrival of the bodies of the Canadian soldiers. (Ljunggren: 2006) Australia, with one accidental death in Iraq flaunts the undraped coffin of Pte Kovco, as if to claim him as a hero. (Above)

Australians rarely see what the Australian military is doing in Afghanistan or Iraq unless a government minister is visiting the troops. The omission of really graphic images and detailed reporting is probably due to excessive secrecy. But Australians seem to have a willingness to believe the mediated message and the absence of images that could jolt public apathy, or ‘disengagement’.

The currently pseudo-religious dimensions of war glorification in countries like Australia and the orchestrated admiration of “fighting men and women” has a suppressive effect on dissent. The Australian government and media maintain an unhealthy silence on challenging questions about brutalisation and PTSD among ‘combat-hardened’ military personnel, which is subject to national denial. Even less concern is shown to the casualties we are unable to imagine or comprehend.

Finally, General Tommy Franks, US Central Command, 2003, signalled his disdain for the Geneva Conventions with his infamous statement “We don’t do body counts”. tracks the deaths of Iraqis, not recorded by US forces, have conservatively reached between 37,918 and 42,288 at the time of writing (25 May 2006).

I have left till last an image of a ‘Daisy-cutter’ bomb, the effects of which are explained in a BBC story that Australians were not exposed to. picture story

I have only referred in passing to the effects of Depleted Uranium (DU) weapons on civilians, particularly babies. The image below is the least confronting on this page assembled for David Bradbury’s film Blowin in the Wind also draws attention to this horror. Ross B. Mirkarimi, The Arms Control Research Centre, from his report: ‘The Environmental and Human Health Impacts of the Gulf Region with Special Reference to Iraq.’ May 1992, has documented the harm caused to Iraqi babies, as he says, "Unborn children of the region [are] being asked to pay the highest price, the integrity of their DNA."

Iraqi child with extreme hydrocephalus, and defects of cerebral nerves. journo-subP/perception.htm A woman told me, "DU did this to my baby. The doctors told me that if the tumour is removed, he will probably die. Tell that to Bush, please, and ask him why his father did this to my child." 40

Terry Allen, in New Scientist, 2003, says, “Perception is everything”. He explains: “The West talks of a moral case for war, yet Iraqis believe the US has committed grave crimes against them. Terry Allen looks at the battle for truth.

The end


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