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Heart of darkness
The terrible images from Fallujah are destined to become icons of the war in Iraq. But what, exactly, are they trying to tell us?
BY DAN KENNEDY


WORDS, TORRENTS OF words, expressing rage, shock, horror, and revulsion, have filled our newspapers, our magazines, and our airwaves since four American security workers were murdered and mutilated in Fallujah last week at the hands of a howling, blood-crazed swarm. Perhaps no one expressed the moral outrage of the moment more vividly than Christopher Hitchens, who wrote in an op-ed piece for the Wall Street Journal: "The mob could have cooked and eaten its victims without making things very much worse."

For many observers, the charred, dismembered corpses and the cheering crowd were reminiscent of Mogadishu, the outpost in Somalia where, 11 years ago, loyalists of a local warlord dragged the bodies of American soldiers through the streets. The lesson then — or at least the lesson that the Clinton administration chose to take — was that intervention in the benighted country, begun under the first President Bush, was a mistake, and that US forces should be removed as quickly as possible.

During the week after Fallujah, the lesson drawn by American officials and opinion leaders appears very much different from that. The Democrats’ presumptive presidential nominee, Senator John Kerry, momentarily set aside his criticism of President Bush to express at least symbolic solidarity. "These horrific attacks remind us of the viciousness of the enemies of Iraq’s future," Kerry said in a public statement. "United in sadness, we are also united in our resolve that these enemies will not prevail."

Over the next few days, conditions in Iraq continued to deteriorate. On the same day the four contractors were killed, five American soldiers died in an ambush. Then, on Sunday, US troops fought in the Baghdad slum of Sadr City, in Najaf, and elsewhere in Iraq against supporters of the Muslim cleric Moqtada Sadr. The battle was apparently sparked by the arrest of one of Sadr’s top lieutenants and the closing of a newspaper US authorities charged had been used to incite violence. Eight Americans were killed.

By Tuesday, American troops were reported to be fighting in both Fallujah and Sadr City. A warrant has been issued for Sadr’s arrest. It was an ominous moment: Fallujah is predominantly Sunni, and is said to be loyal to Saddam Hussein; Sadr City is overwhelmingly Shiite, and its residents despise Saddam. (The area takes its name from Sadr’s father, who was killed by Saddam’s forces; before the fall of Baghdad, it was known as Saddam City.) Together, the Shiites and the Sunnis make up the overwhelming majority of Iraq. Only the Kurds, in the north, are considered to be pro-American.

Over and over, we’ve been told, the war in Iraq was waged — is being waged — to win the hearts and minds of the Iraqi people, and to build a decent, stable society in the heart of the turbulent Middle East. Now it seems like everyone hates us. Which is what gives the images of those bodies hanging from the bridge, with the happy, hateful mob dancing in front, such awesome, awful power. We can beat them. We can kill them. But we can’t make them love us, which was supposed to be the point.

"Is there a single American who has not looked at the news the last couple of days and muttered to themselves, ‘We have to get out of there’? Seriously. Whether you think it was a good thing or a bad thing to go into Iraq, is there a sensible person who doesn’t realize that we have to get out of that cauldron as soon as we reasonably can?" asks Larry Sabato, director of the University of Virginia’s Center for Politics.

Yet if the images from Fallujah are destined to become iconic — like the scenes from Mogadishu, like the 1983 bombing of the American military barracks in Beirut, like the Vietnam War photos of the street execution and the naked young napalm victim running down a dirt road — it is by no means clear what the images mean, or what they will come to mean in the months and years ahead.

To Christopher Hitchens, a staunch supporter of the war, the savagery of the Fallujah crowd, which he compared to Joseph Conrad’s novel Heart of Darkness, is evidence that he was right all along. "A few more years of Saddam Hussein, or perhaps the succession of his charming sons Uday and Qusay, and whole swathes of Iraq would have looked like Fallujah," Hitchens wrote, adding: "A broken and maimed and traumatized Iraq was in our future no matter what."

But to the London Independent, the attacks in Fallujah and the battle with Sadr’s supporters demonstrate that Paul Bremer, the American-appointed administrator of Iraq, is now paying the price for arrogance. "Mr Bremer seems unable, or unwilling, to understand that Iraqis, whether Sunni or Shia, must be partners in efforts to stabilise Iraq between now and June when the Americans are scheduled to hand over power to an Iraqi administration," the Independent editorialized. "The American administrator is unwise to shut a newspaper even if he finds its views disagreeable. It also sends a dangerous message that the democratic liberties that America professes to be delivering to Iraq, including a free press, can be suspended when it suits the US administration."

As is the case with most icons, it appears likely that the scenes of horror from Fallujah will come to mean different things to different observers, subject to change as the situation in Iraq continues to evolve. This much, though, is sure: those pictures stand in shocking contrast to the president’s increasingly incredible claims of success.

FOR BUSH, the pictures from Fallujah must have come as a terrible blow. This is, after all, a president whose White House has done so much to manage and manipulate the imagery surrounding the war in Iraq. From the embedded reporters beaming back scenes of conquest and heroism, to his flight-suited "Mission Accomplished" landing on the USS Abraham Lincoln, to the bodies of American casualties that arrive at Dover Air Force Base, unseen by the media because the Bush administration decided to enforce a previously ignored rule, Bush has striven to present the war in a brightly optimistic light, upbeat and unreal.

No set of images from a place as complex as Iraq can tell any more than a small part of the truth, of course. And what is most shocking about Fallujah is that there are images, that this violation took place in such a public manner. Without pictures, the horror of that day would no doubt be quickly forgotten. Michael Goldfarb, who hosts the documentary series Inside Out for Boston’s WBUR Radio (90.9 FM), was in Iraq from March 12 through 30. "Iraq is the place where the question is asked: if a bomb goes off in the forest and there’s no journalist to report on it does it make a sound? The answer is a resounding no," Goldfarb told me by e-mail.

Goldfarb added: "On this very narrow point of private military guards ... they are successfully targeted almost every day. They just aren’t mutilated in a town an hour’s drive from downtown Baghdad easily accessible to the press corps. Example: I was in Mosul last Sunday. Two foreign security guys were in a two car convoy near the city’s power plant. The convoy came under fire. One car managed to get away. The second was peppered with AK-47 fire which ignited the fuel tanks and turned the SUV into a fiery death trap. I saw video of the aftermath at the Reuters bureau (a hotel room). The charred corpses were pretty hideous. Did those pictures make the news? Did you even know about the event?"

The more significant question is whether Fallujah was an aberration or instead tells some larger truth about the occupation of Iraq. Unfortunately, according to Goldfarb, it’s the latter. "Fallujah was an extreme event. Hopefully not to be repeated," Goldfarb told me. "But it seems to have awakened the American public up to the fact that the administration has failed in the last year to build a relationship with the Iraqi public — a relationship that is absolutely necessary if the idea is to lead Iraq towards something like democracy. I think the problem for reporters based in Baghdad is their foreign desks are still primarily interested in body count journalism and not stories that assess, through anecdote and small events, how the country slipped away."

Rod Nordland made much the same point in a piece on Newsweek’s Web site last week, writing that "it would be tempting to say that Fallujah hardly typifies this war, but it would be wrong. Certainly there are few communities where anti-American sentiment is as widespread as in Fallujah. But the savagery and utter abandonment of any sort of civilized conduct, so amply demonstrated on the streets of the city Wednesday, is actually pretty typical of the way the opposition has chosen to fight its war against American occupation everywhere else, as well."

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Issue Date: April 9 - 15, 2004
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