Middle East

War in Iraq

Feelings Are a Matter of Geography

U.S. soldiers search Iraqi civilians
Basra or Bethlehem? U.S. Marines lead Iraqi civilians out of their home on an aluminum factory compound in Nasiriyah (Photo: Eric Feferberg/AFP).

There was something absurd and surreal in the endless debate about what effect the photos of American prisoners of war in Iraq might have on the war. More than anything, it showed to what extent we are all prisoners to images and how we refuse to learn from the experience of others and our own.

The reality, which is unfortunately all too well known to us, shows that the effort that the [U.S.] government put into keeping these photos from the citizens of the United States was unnecessary. Furthermore, the American media’s obedience was meaningless. Two and a half years of seeing brutal pictures from terrorist attacks, where innocent civilians were killed in horrific ways, and not of soldiers who are still alive and suffer minor injuries, have caused only a few in Israel to consider the justness of the tactics its own government uses.

It’s just the opposite: [In Israel] it is customary to say that “terrorist attacks make the right stronger,” based on the assumption that they highlight the inhumane image of the enemy and strengthen the resolve to fight and destroy it. There is no good reason that the American public, with its high level of patriotism—which might be considered here to be fake, though extremely powerful—should act differently.

A person in crisis is always a painful sight, and the American prisoners of war are now in extreme desperation. But the focus on them yesterday showed just how much human emotions are a matter of geography. This is the face of war, said the newscasters on Western television, including Israel. Most of those same channels didn’t even bother to devote half a minute to the civilians who were killed in the explosion in Basra. Nobody tried to estimate how many civilians have been killed so far in Baghdad and other places, nobody is debating the effects of the difficult pictures on the Iraqi public. It is a "known fact"—as intelligence and government officials often say here—that the Arabs are void of feelings about their own deaths.

The American war machine did not blink for a moment yesterday. It was clear that the few days during which the media was transfixed by the power of amazing pictures of long lines of vehicles would also bring the first American dead. The next stage will be the battle for Baghdad, assuming that there will indeed be a battle for Baghdad. Do not expect that pictures from here—which may or may not be televised in America—will move someone from his beliefs or prevent the next stage of the war.

American public opinion—or that of any other place—takes a long time to change direction. It also takes a long time before the media understands that it is running up against the sin of “quiet, we are shooting” [that is, self-censorship—WPR]. Bush and Rumsfeld can still trust, as they have trusted since they decided to go to war, that if they win, everyone will sing “hallelujah.” If they get bogged down in the Iraqi mud, rich in terrorist acts and short in clear decisions, no one will remember what was said during the days of “shock and dismay.”