On Sanitizing War Images
“[A] ‘phantasmatic purview’ is constituted by placing out of the frame, of erasing, of papering over, the bloody realities of war.” – Malathi De Alwis, “How to Wage War,” Lines Magazine (2004)
Over the past two years a barrage of images — including the gruesome public spectacle of the mutilation of US security guards in Fallujah, the disturbing photographs of Americans humiliating and torturing Iraqi prisoners at Abu Ghraib prison, and the videotaped beheading of Nicholas Berg — have raised questions about the war of images. Do these corporeal and powerful images defy the distancing and sanitation achieved through such terms as “collateral damage” and “scoring touchdowns”? These images stand in stark contrast to the detached, sanitized images of violence that appear as blips on a screen, or as the star-spangled imagery of bombs over Baghdad, inasmuch as they convey the precise consequences of war. Despite this, the Bush administration and the majority of mass media outlets diligently, if not desperately, attempt to fashion and maintain a “phantasmatic purview” surrounding these powerful images.
The United States and its allies not only sanitize their own killing of Iraqi civilians and soldiers, but there are efforts to sanitize the killing perpetrated by the other side. While the ‘other’ can be made out to be a ‘savage’ or non-human to a certain degree, there is a fine line between where graphic exposure to killing can raise serious doubts about a war effort, rather than fueling vengeance or helping justify the war. One of the most powerful images from Fallujah appeared on the front page of the New York Times. The photograph shows a mob of cheering Iraqis; in the background hangs the charred and dismembered bodies of the American security guards. In the lower left foreground of the picture is a boy, smiling and exuberant. Hearing various reactions in New York, and from television and radio broadcasts, I was struck by the imagery’s power to affect people. Some thought it embodied racism; some thought it was evidence that Iraqis were not embracing American’s ‘gift’ of ‘freedom’; some worried it would escalate the violence. Others called for vengeance, and many compared it to the public mutilations of US soldiers in Somalia.
This image caused a strange distortion. Since the US-proclaimed end of the war, Americans have been dying every day in Iraq. These deaths arrive in the United States in numerical form for the most part, with an occasional news story that might show a dead soldier when alive, fresh-faced, and smiling in a military portrait rather than as a bullet-ridden body. The Fallujah mutilations were unique in that the perpetrators went beyond killing and into the realm of public desecration, but desecration is both relative and commonplace. The reality of the situation is that American soldiers as well as Iraqi soldiers and civilians have been dying every day. Corpses from the battlefield are never pretty and any casualty of war is a form of bodily desecration. The real rule of war these Iraqis broke was making public that which is supposed to remain private. The façade of sanitation broke down. The US response to this macabre and taboo transparency was an intensive ‘precision’ bombing campaign on Fallujah. Here, however, US media present the deed as sanitary; we do not see the dismembered bodies. By contrast with a US presidential power to obliterate and secure his image as an order-giving masculinized Western subject, the Fallujah mutilations are still converted into a phantasmagorical product despite their bloody candor.
Shortly after Fallujah, photographs began to surface from the Abu Ghraib prison depicting humiliation and torture despite Pentagon attempts to keep them submerged. One photograph, now infamous, also on the front page of the New York Times, featured Pfc. Lyndie England standing over a naked Iraqi prisoner. She holds him on a leash as she looks down on him. The photos of England probably received the most attention because as images, they break with more familiar representations of women, in that the photos portray the female as playing the role of the “masculinized western subject.” The image also contradicts the familiar argument that women should not engage in combat because of their maternal instincts. The photograph places the female squarely in the role of the masculinized Western subject playing the role of the Lord in Hegel’s Lord and Bondsman metaphor.
As a result of the release of the photos, the Bush administration was forced to do something that it tries to avoid at all costs, to apologize. An apology lacks the obliterating power that gives rise to the masculine subject, and allows “the impenetrable contours of its own subjecthood” to be deeply penetrated. The administration managed to maintain some of its masculine subjecthood by making claims that the torture and humiliation were the result of a few “bad seeds,” and Bush paternally admonished defense secretary Donald Rumsfeld.
Bush’s comments reflected the preoccupation with sanitation, he said the “photos made Americans sick to our stomach,” adding “It’s a stain on our country’s honor and our country’s reputation” (New York Post, 7 May 2004) By making such exculpatory statements, Bush transformed humiliation and torture into something as banal as a “stomach ache” and a “stain.” Other Abu Ghraib images show U.S. soldiers demoralizing prisoners by arranging their naked bodies into human pyramids.
These groups of war images — from Somalia, Fallujah, Abu Ghraib — all articulate a diachronic syntax that forms a dialogue, where one set of images invariably is defined through contrast of its relation to another set of images. GOP strategist Rich Galen commented on the Abu Ghraib scandal: “I’m still waiting for anyone in the Arab world to apologize for the four Americans who were attacked, burned, hacked to pieces and dragged through the streets [of Fallujah]” (New York Post, 7 May 2004)
By contrast with such street realities, the US government has sought to sanitize imagery and distance its citizens from the real war conditions of war. This process has been developing in US official language and imagery for decades. In her 1992 essay “Contingent Foundations: Feminism and the Question of Post-Modernism,” Judith Butler refers to the US capability to have a bomb’s-eye view transmitted via its smart bombs:
The smart bomb screen is of course destroyed the moment it enacts its destruction, which is to say that this is a recording of a thoroughly destructive act which can never record that destructiveness, indeed, which effects the phantasmatic distinction between the hit and its consequences. Thus as viewers, we veritably enact the allegory of military triumph: we retain our visual distance and our bodily safety through the disembodied enactment of the kill that produces no blood and in which we retain our radical impermeability. In this sense, we are in relation to this site of destruction absolutely proximate, absolutely essential, and absolutely distant, a figure for imperial power which takes the aerial, global view, the disembodied killer who can never be killed, the sniper as a figure of imperialist military power.
The smart bomb images allow Americans to participate in the war in a sanitary and distanced way.
The crucial point here is the “disembodied enactment of the kill.” If American soldiers had cameras on their gun barrels — thereby conveying an embodied enactment of the kill — civilians at home would be watching the kills on the television and thus participating in a relatively unsanitary war. The power of the image of the body is remarkable in that it bridges the psychological distance between the vicarious annihilator and the annihilated despite the distancing effect of the camera. This was most evident in the brutal and graphic images of the beheading of Nicholas Berg. The imagery of Berg’s slaying derived its power from the fact that people observing the video could see that he, knowing his fate, was clearly afraid and thus humanized.
David Peppas is a graduate student in anthropology at the New School University in New York City. Thanks to Barbara A. Adams and Sean Floyd for their suggestions.