When you close your eyes and think of Iraq, what do you see in your mind’s eye?
Is it a picture of charred bodies hanging from a bridge over the Euphrates River in Fallujah? Is it a picture of a Marine climbing a massive statue of Saddam Hussein to place an American flag on its face, hours after the fall of Baghdad?
Or is it a picture of an Iraqi prisoner standing on a box, arms outstretched with wires attached, a fabric bag covering his head?
The images of Iraq are piling up. The pictures are everywhere – in newspapers, on television, on the Web and, most prominently, in our collective psyche. As much as the body counts and the sad tales of the wounded, as much as the successes and failures in battle, these photographs form the narrative of the past five years.
Photography has documented America’s wars since Matthew Brady roamed the Civil War battlefields. The tragedy and exaltation of warfare are prime material for the camera, and war itself trumps all other stories: “War is not my delight,” said Carl Mydans, who photographed wars from the onset of World War II to America’s misadventure in Vietnam. “War was the event of my years.”
In Iraq, “we’ve just been flooded with images,” says David Perlmutter, associate dean of journalism at the University of Kansas and author of “Visions of War: Picturing Warfare from the Stone Age to the Cyberage.”
Every war has its pictorial icons, Perlmutter says. The ones that remain fixed in our culture usually reflect the outcome of the war.
World War II, a triumph, has Joe Rosenthal’s epic picture of the Marines raising the flag at Iwo Jima; Vietnam, a disaster, has Eddie Adams’ series of pictures of a general executing a Viet Cong prisoner, and Nick Ut’s photo of a napalm-drenched, naked young girl running screaming down the road.
So what will be the icons of Iraq?
Perhaps the tight portrait of a helmeted Marine, his face coated with grime and creased with fatigue, a cigarette dangling from his lips. James Blake Miller came to be known as the “Marlboro Man”; the public followed his story home, to hard times and post-traumatic stress disorder.
Perhaps the Abu Ghraib pictures – snapshots with a chilling immediacy. Or President Bush speaking on an aircraft carrier, a banner with the premature boast “MISSION ACCOMPLISHED” stretched behind him. Or Saddam Hussein, bleary and bearded after his stay in a spider hole.
Or any of a number of visions of death or battle or grief.
And then there are the coffins. In the early days of the war, authorities forbade photographs of transports loaded with flag-draped coffins; a contractor was even fired for leaking one such picture.
But the conflict continued and photos of caskets have become commonplace, as the funerals go on and on.