by Lou Dematteis
(PNS) -- In the mid-1980s, while photographing the war raging in Nicaragua, I found myself in a desolate location confronted by a band of U.S.-backed Contra rebels then fighting to overthrow the elected Sandinista government. It was a tense situation, and my colleague Bill Gentile of Newsweek and I wanted to photograph the group, and at the same time were concerned with our own safety. The Contras were concerned with their image -- they had reputations for kidnap, rape and murder of the civilian population. Gentile spoke words in Spanish I would come to use again and again as I spent years covering the wars in Central America: "Las fotos no dicen mentiras," photos don't tell lies.
The Contra leader pondered those words and then gave us the go-ahead. His group relaxed and we got our shots, and got out.
This is what George W. Bush is now facing: the truth from Iraq. Karl Rove and Donald Rumsfeld know the power of imagery and, despite their best efforts, control of the imagery of the war has slipped away from them. In an ever-more rapid slide, iconic images have gone from the crash of Saddam's statue and the turkey dinner in Baghdad, to burning humvees and collapsed buildings, to flag-draped coffins coming into Dover Air Force Base, to today's horrific images from Abu Ghraib.
This is certainly not the first time an administration at war has faced the power of the photographic image. One day in 1986, while working in Managua, I got a call about a Contra supply plane downed in the jungles of Nicaragua. Rumor had it that there were Americans on the plane and that one had survived the crash. At the time, U.S. Congressional law prohibited President Ronald Reagan from providing any support to the rebels. The next day, I was on a helicopter to a jungle site where I shot what has been called the single most iconic photo of U.S. involvement in the Central American wars of the l980s: young Sandinista soldiers leading captured U.S. mercenary Eugene Hasenfus through the jungle. The photo was splashed on newspaper front pages around the world, and it provided hard evidence of an extensive, illegal U.S.-funded Contra supply operation that had been denied by the Ronald Reagan administration. Things unraveled. It was the beginning of the scandal that became known as Iran/Contra.
The war in Iraq is being compared more and more to Vietnam. During that war, relentless images of American servicemen dead and wounded added to iconic images such as the napalmed Vietnamese girl running naked down the road and the Saigon police chief summarily executing a Viet Cong prisoner during the Tet offensive. They helped turn the tide of public support against that misguided and unnecessary war.
The genie of images portraying the Iraq war in all its grim reality is out of the bottle and there is no putting it back in. Washington did what it could to suppress photos of returning flag-draped caskets, which made them all the more powerful when they were splashed across newspapers some weeks ago. Ted Koppel gave each of the U.S. dead in Iraq a few seconds of picture time on national television. According to the Pew Research Center, 76 percent of U.S. residents they surveyed have seen photos of the Iraqi prisoner abuse. All said they were bothered by them. Even Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld admitted in his congressional testimony that those photos were more powerful than any words describing them might be.
The images coming out of Iraq have forced Bush to change the words he uses to describe the regime of Saddam Hussein. Just two weeks ago, he said that with Hussein gone "there are no longer torture chambers or rape rooms or mass graves in Iraq." Now we have pictures of mass graves in a soccer field in Fallujah and torture of prisoners at the hands of U.S. captors. And shortly we might well be seeing images of rape and murder, if other photos that have been described emerge. Now, when speaking about the horrors of Abu Ghraib prison, Bush talks about a "small number" who "dishonor the honorable cause in which so many are sacrificing."
But are those involved really a "small number?" The volume of images continuing to surface, from various locations, will prove that false. The brewing scandal will move further and further up the chain of command. As a photographer who has covered war, I've seen it before. In the end, with these images, the war will lose critical public support among Americans, and will lose even more hearts and minds in Iraq and the Arab world. There is no other possible outcome: photos don't tell lies.
May 11, 2004 (http://www.albionmonitor.com) All Rights Reserved. Contact firstname.lastname@example.org for permission to use in any format.
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