The images of wars’ horrors

Times Staff Writer

In the fearsome Maya civilization of Mesoamerica more than a thousand years ago, wars were fought twice -- once on the battlefield and again in elaborate courtly rituals. Prisoners of war were paraded before the king and his royal cohort and subjected to ritual humiliation and torture, the better to assert the absolute power of the victors. A remarkable exhibition of Maya art now at the National Gallery in Washington includes a poignant ceramic figure of a male captive stripped naked, his arms tightly bound behind his back. Nearby, an elaborate mural reconstruction from the city-state of Bonampak shows a bloodied prisoner being proudly displayed on the palace steps.

Across the street from the National Gallery, Congress has been holding hearings into the abuse and humiliation of Iraqi prisoners at the hands of their American captors inside Abu Ghraib prison, west of Baghdad. Photographs, not ceramic sculptures or wall paintings, picture the modern depravity. Some 1,200 images are said by the Pentagon to exist, along with digital videos as yet unreleased to the public.

For the record:

12:00 AM, May. 14, 2004 For The Record
Los Angeles Times Friday May 14, 2004 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 2 National Desk 1 inches; 48 words Type of Material: Correction
Leon Golub credit -- In Thursday’s Calendar Weekend section, a reproduction of the Leon Golub painting “White Squad V,” with a story about the images of war, was credited to the Broad Art Foundation, Santa Monica. The credit should have been: Copyright Leon Golub/Licensed by VAGA, New York, N.Y.

As recently as April, the White House no doubt clung to hopes that the defining image of America’s war in Iraq would be pictures from the fall of Baghdad, taken a year ago. They showed a monumental bronze statue of Saddam Hussein being toppled from its pedestal -- images more dramatic than later ones of the actual captured dictator being examined for head lice.

The ubiquity of camera images in the modern world means that new photographs can piggyback on the lingering memory of older ones. So it was with the toppling of Hussein’s statue, which stirred up memories of effigies of Lenin and Stalin being pulled down as the Soviet Union collapsed and the Cold War ended. The similarity can boost recognition and, sometimes, dissipate interest more quickly because of the familiarity that breeds, if not contempt, at least indifference.


And now, a surreal battle of pictures is being waged, with cameras fired like a volley of cannons. Tuesday, a grainy video of the beheading of an American businessman by five masked Islamic militants was posted on the Internet. These pictures will surely be followed by the eventual release of the Abu Ghraib videos, which are said to include scenes of rape. Internet pornography has reached a new plateau.

But as the magnitude of the Abu Ghraib scandal grows, the images of brutality there threaten to permanently usurp the place of any others. Arriving in the wake of a long occupation whose planning is under fire, and following the deadliest month for American soldiers since the war began, these photographs of human degradation assume an awesome force.

They also came on the heels of another set of pictures, whose gruesome nature only made the new ones worse. On March 30, still and video cameras recorded the brutal scene of a frenzied mob in Fallouja who dragged the burned bodies of four civilian U.S. contractors through the streets and strung up two blackened corpses from a bridge over the Euphrates River.

These pictures too echoed within our collective image bank. They resounded against the visual memory of Somali goons dragging the bodies of U.S. Rangers through the streets of Mogadishu in 1993, and even back to ghastly pictures of the lynching of blacks, as well as Jews and Catholics, in the American South earlier in the century.


But the recentness of the awful pictures from Fallouja might also have had an unanticipated influence on the stunned reception the Iraqi prisoner photographs have evoked. Both sets of pictures are disgusting. But those from Fallouja set up a powerful boomerang effect.

How? War, by its nature, demands the dehumanization of the enemy in order to make its annihilation possible. It is easier to erase a cipher than kill your own kind. The Fallouja pictures gave evidence to Americans of gross Iraqi inhumanity -- just the sort of savagery Hussein practiced in the torture chambers of Abu Ghraib (and elsewhere) during his long reign of domestic terror. Suddenly, when the Iraqi prisoner pictures trickled out, the sight of American barbarism being gleefully enacted in exactly the same corridors of authoritarian power created a whiplash effect.

“We have met the enemy,” these pictures announced, “and he is us.” Pogo’s immortal line comes from the days of Sen. Joseph McCarthy, portrayed in Walt Kelly’s venerable comic strip as a dimwitted, authoritarian Washington populist named Simple J. Malarkey. In a memoir, Kelly explained that he wanted the strip to show that every individual is involved in the democratic process. “The results of the process fall on the head of the public,” Kelly wrote, “and he who is recalcitrant or procrastinates in raising his voice can blame no one but himself.”

Perhaps the most haunting of the Abu Ghraib photos -- so far -- is the one showing a man standing atop a box with his arms stretched out. The picture is like something out of Goya. A long fringed poncho covers the unknown man’s body, while his head is hidden beneath a hood. Dangling wires are affixed to his fingers, and some seem to disappear beneath his cloak. Eight rows of electrical power lines run down the wall behind him.


Whether or not the cruel specter of electrocution for this prisoner is real, the symbolic annihilation offered by the composition is inescapable.

Individual identity is erased. The veiled garment is like a burka, putting the man in a traditionally female Muslim role. Burkas objectify women, functioning as shrouds to hide them from public view -- as sexual tempters, defiled victims and cultural blanks, either not worthy or too risky to be seen in public. In the photograph, the threat of death for the humiliated Muslim man is portrayed with the pose of a Christian crucifixion.

Why was this picture made? Who was meant to see it? Those questions remain to be answered, although it’s reasonable to assume that other Iraqis were meant to see it -- and to see it as a warning.

Other pictures from Abu Ghraib show a waif-like female American soldier mocking bigger, stronger, naked Iraqi men. Some of them masturbate in front of her. Others simulate oral sex, or they’re piled up with their buttocks exposed and pointed toward the camera’s lens.


The subjects in all these photographs have been feminized or homosexualized; that is the source of their degradation. By unspoken contrast, the anonymous camera operator, whether male or female, is conceived as masculine and heterosexual.

Don’t ask, don’t tell? These photographs shatter invisibility and silence.

In 1979, the American painter Leon Golub began an extraordinary series of paintings showing petty thugs and mercenaries idly brutalizing the weak -- stuffing bodies into the trunks of cars and interrogating prisoners blindfolded and stripped naked. Partly, these paintings are powerful because they use the imaginative capacity of art to bring us into eye contact with events typically hidden out of sight. The photographs from inside Abu Ghraib also smash that taboo.

That Americans are seeing these photographs now is an accident -- although in retrospect, it seems inevitable for this age of media. No artist made them, or perhaps it would be more accurate to say that they constitute a type of public art, the kind produced collectively and unconsciously by an entire culture.


Sometimes that art is among the most profoundly beautiful, like Chartres Cathedral or the Temple of the Reclining Buddha in Bangkok; sometimes it’s grotesque. But we should look at these photographs closely and with unblinking eyes, however nauseating we find them. For in them, we meet the enemy.