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The Spotlight Of Humanity Or How We Are Told To Look Only Where They Tell Us To Look

In Essays On Embedded Photojournalism, Journalism, Musings On Confusions, Our Wars, Photography on July 30, 2010 at 10:00 am

It is probably one of the most blatant uses of photography as propaganda that I have seen in a long time. And I am glad for it because it reveals explicitly how easily images can be put to the service of an agenda of power and entrenched interests. And how easily photographs can mislead if not ‘read’ carefully.

‘What Happens If We Leave Afghanistan’ the cover screams. The answer is made obvious. The shocking photograph closes the mind, numbs thought, distracts insight and silences protest.

If it were only so simple. If we were only so easily fooled.

(Just a few days ago I wrote a post complaining that the Afghani and Iraqi have been completely erased from our media and from the interests of photojournalists. So the irony of this cover is not lost on me!)

Jodi Bieber’s (a photographer whose work I love!) portraits of Afghani women victims of domestic/family violence have been mutilated into a self-righteous and frankly hypocritical call to support an American military occupation that is increasingly brutal, murderous and simply untenable. I have to believe given Bieber’s intelligence that she was not aware of how this work would finally be put to use.

The timing of this cover, its hysterically comical association of continued war and Afghan women’s rights are not coincidental. That people still employ this infantile and inane justification for our imperial dreams tells me more about the world of the editorial community running these magazines then it does about anything going on in Afghanistan or in the lives of these women they so seem to be concerned about. With no real reasons for our war there, with no rational arguments for our continued presence there, with no explanations for our continued killings and torture of the civilians there, with no real idea of the goals of our military and advisors there, we can always turn what is nothing more than a sordid and poorly managed military occupation of an increasingly restless and violently resistant population into a feminist exercise.

Yes, its American imperial power in the service of the woman!

That seemingly intelligent people (I am giving the Editors of the magazine the benefit of the doubt here!) will offer us these empty bromides, these false and frankly insulting arguments about their deep concern and love of the Afghan woman’s freedom, begs the question ‘How stupid do they think we are?’

In fact, so blatant was the propaganda aspect of this photo essay that the Managing Editor had to give a separate explanation in the same magazine to explain the editorial decision and the choice of the cover. To cover his tracks I suppose. And I quote:

I thought long and hard about whether to put this image on the cover of TIME. First, I wanted to make sure of Aisha’s safety and that she understood what it would mean to be on the cover. She knows that she will become a symbol of the price Afghan women have had to pay for the repressive ideology of the Taliban.

The compassion and humanity flow from the page. With that sweeping and entirely wrong summary, he goes on to drop the other shoe:

We do not run this story or show this image either in support of the U.S. war effort or in opposition to it. We do it to illuminate what is actually happening on the ground…What you see in these pictures and our story is something that you cannot find in those 91,000 documents: a combination of emotional truth and insight into the way life is lived in that difficult land and the consequences of the important decisions that lie ahead.

This statement is disingenuous and misleading. What is actually going on the ground is that a war effort has lost its course, that civilians are being killed, that torture is standard operating procedure, that corrupt and brutal warlords lord over an oppressed population, that an illegitimate government has been foisted onto the country, that heroin remains its largest export and the brother of the so-called ‘leader’ its largest beneficiary. What is also left unsaid is why Aisha’s picture on the cover, and not one of the many women (men and children) maimed, crippled and killed under US/NATO bombs and assaults?

What about this picture?

Fazel Muhamad Fazel Muhamad, 48, holding pictures of family members who were killed in the attack. Photograph: Ghaith Abdul-Ahad

Fazel Muhamad Fazel Muhamad, 48, holding pictures of family members who were amongst nearly a 100 people killed in a NATO airstrike aimed at a few alleged Taliban fighters. Photograph: Ghaith Abdul-Ahad

Obviously the Taliban are not the only ones exploiting Afghani women and turning them into pawns in the service of larger political objectives. A circumcised humanity is no humanity at all. A carefully demarcated outrage, a walled-off moral indignation is nothing but hypocrisy. There are many injustices and acts of violence and brutality taking place in Afghanistan and being done so under our watch. Everyone knows this. Few will simply admit it. This magazine too knows it, but it chooses to offer us a selected outrage, an easily exploited and manufactured ‘injustice.

Its silence about people suffering under our presence, the injustices being committed by us and our allies, and the many dead that keep littering the already blood soaked soil of this blighted nation, is dismaying never more so when it decided to take this immature and inane stance on its covers.

Fortunately others have already caught on to this cheap game. Many have already voiced their outrage, including The Feminist Peace Network which released a statement in protest and concluded by saying:

Imagine instead of contributing to the violence in Afghanistan that further harms women, we were to provide humanitarian aid that improved the lives of Afghan women. Imagine if we had taken the billions of ‘reconstruction’ funds that are unaccounted for in Iraq and given that money to responsible organizations to actually rebuild and strengthen the social infrastructure of both countries. Oh wait, then we couldn’t use the women excuse to continue to fund the military industrial complex. Enough already, women are not an excuse for militarism and war.

Others have also spoken out including A Developing Story:Time, Photography, Propaganda?, and BagNewsNotes: Your Turn: What Happens If We Leave Afghanistan?Try…What’s Happening On This Cover? and Conscientious: Afghanistan, Women and War, and Jezebel: A Visual Introduction To An Afghan Woman’s Mutilation, and The Nation: What Also Happens If We Leave Afghanistan, and I am sure there will be others to come.

So here is mine.

A close examination of the subjects of the photographs and the associated captions provides some interesting insights. If one was hoping to view the series of photographs and come away with a sense of the cruelties of the Taliban, then one is left deeply disappointed. Not a single victim portrayed in the photo essay is a victim of Taliban violence. She is a victim of domestic violence, or family abuse, or even cultural negligence and disregard. But none of the victims can specifically be suggested to have suffered from an act unique to the ideology of the Taliban. In this regard the photo essay is a careful sleight of hand because its title “Women Of Afghanistan: Living Under The Threat Of The Taliban” clearly suggests that we are seeing examples of Taliban cruelty and inhumanity.

But the captions betray and tell us otherwise.

What they reveal is that nine years after we occupied this country and took over either directly or indirectly control of its legal, police, and various social institutions, women continue to suffer and that brutal, dehumanizing social and familial practices continue unabated. Lets remember, the Taliban no longer rule there, but we do.

But lets take a closer look at the images and their captions to see the ‘atmosphere’ and ‘references’ offered to help make the case of Taliban brutality.

The first four of five set of images keep referring to ‘parliamentarians’ or ‘the parliament’, ignoring the fact that what is in place at the moment is a completely illegitimate government that sits on the seats of power on the basis of an election so corrupt that its UN administrators had to resign in protest. It is a ‘parliament’ of warlords and killers and the token woman, run by a man who has no credibility, and whose brother happens to be the largest drug baron in the country. It is a parliament that was ‘created’ on the basis of fraud, and is maintained on the basis of American/NATO soldiers. But you would not know this from the words on offer in the captions.

And ironically, the editors at the magazine failed to edit Fawzia Koofi’s (the woman in the first image) comment that she ‘…fears that new election rules may make it more difficult to succeed. She fears that outspoken women like her will be sidelined.” This fear is a fear of the American backed regime that is currently in power – of Karzai’s corruption and illegitimacy. Both the fraudulent parliament, and the constrained on democracy being created are not Taliban pathologies clearly, but of our own allies!

The next of set of images moves us towards women that we are expected to associated as abused and victims of violence of the Taliban. But in fact their details further say nothing of the sort! Sakina (image 6) is a victim of the practice of child marriage, and well known Afghani tribal practice that people (Afghani and others) have been trying to address for generations. Sakina is abused by her husband and is a clear victim of domestic abuse and violence. There is no Taliban connection here. Islam (image 7), is also clear victim of a hideous family abuse and domestic violence. A cruel mother-in-law (aren’t they all!), an abusive and deranged husband. The portrait of the two prisoners (image 8), Nasimgul and Gul Barar, tells us that they are prisoners, but does not tell us why. What is their crime? What were they convicted of? And they are prisoners under the Karzai regime, so where is the Taliban connection? Image 9 is of Shireen Gul, who was forced into crime by her husband and later jailed. Her husband and his relatives were hanged for their crimes! Once again, there is no suggestion here of a Taliban threat, merely of criminality and a legal system that seems to love capital punishment. The Texans must be happy. Image 10 takes us to Zohal Sagar, a young girl who lost her parents in ‘the war’. What war? Which conflict? Afghanistan has been at perpetual war for decades, even before the Soviet invasion? What is this caption talking about? The next image has the Abadini family, the woman photographed in a burqa. The burqa is not a Taliban innovation, though they perfected its consistent use and abuse. Its a dress used and worn in the region well before the Taliban. But we are again not revealing any specific issue related to the Taliban or a unique pathology that their ideology offers. The picture is of a conventional Afghan woman as millions would dress even before the Taliban. It a picture of a cultural issue.

And finally, the finale; the final image of a woman called ‘Aisha’ and the image the magazine’s editor chose – because shock always has the effect of stunting thought and numbing analysis. What does one say when confronted with such cruelty towards anyone, let alone a woman. Nothing. And that is precisely what this image is meant to do – silence us into submission. And since this is the most moving and disturbing of images, and the one most egregious and callously exploited by this magazine, let me say more about my point here.

Lets remember; it is the USA/NATO that is in power in Afghanistan, not the Taliban. The abuse that Aisha faced, abuse at the hands of her husband and her husband’s family that can be carried out with impunity after nine years of an American presence and an American/NATO foisted ‘government’ in the country. As the organization Women For Afghan Women In Afghanistan tell us that:

[Aisha]…was sold at the age of 10 by her father to a married man, a Talib. He kept her in the stable with the animals until she was 12 (when she got her first menstrual period). At the age of 12 he married her. From the day that she arrived in his house, she was beaten regularly by this man and his family. Sometimes she was beaten so badly that she couldn’t get up for days. Six months ago before she came to us, she was beaten so badly by her husband that she thought that she was going to die. She ran away and went to the neighbor’s house. The neighbor took to her to the police.

What happened to her is cruel and inhuman. But it is not unique to Afghanistan, nor to the Taliban. She is abused by ‘a Talib’ but is that his principal trait? Is that all that mattered about him that he was religiously conservative? Are we to believe that there is a direct link between his religious orthodoxy and his violent propensities? That would be what is being suggested here of course. And it can be suggested here because he is a Muslim. Not an individual with a history, with pathologies, with a history worthy of exploring in specifics. Her husband carried out these brutalities, and whereas he may have been delusional, violent, depraved, fundamentalist or whatever, he was not ‘the Taliban’. These remain individual, local acts of violence against women, and this is not news in Afghanistan nor in other countries in the region. This is not the pathology of a political creed, but the pathology of an individual, a family and possibly a broader society that tolerated this. It came first from within – the family, and then was sanctioned from without.

What we are confronting here is a socio-cultural pathology and one that has many manifestations that go beyond disfigurement. Aisha does not represents a consequence outcome unique a Taliban pathology, but is one of thousands of women who are confronted with violence and abuse and repression in the country and have for decades. By our modern standards of equality and universal justice, the condition of Afghani women is an issue of concern and it has been the focus of concern and action for activist both domestic and international for decades. But the causes are socio-economic and cultural to say nothing of the blatant use of an issue irrelevant to our reasons for being the country in the first place.

There is an attempt here to confuse us – all violence, pathologies, and decadence is ‘The Taliban’ and hence fundamentalist Islam. The fearsome bogeyman at the back of racist campaigns such as this one. And all things civilized and chivalrous are and can only be ‘Western/American’ and hence ‘modern’. A classical colonialist’s magic trick; we own all that is good, you are all that is backward and retrograde. But the issues surrounding the abuse and violence against women, as in any country, are far more complex than an imagined homogenous and well understood entity called ‘the Taliban’, a title that today has no more meaning than ‘the bad guys’. Simplifications of this sort are all the rage these days, so much so that Pankaj Mishra had to call them out in a recent article in The New Yorker called Islamismism by pointing out that:

The sad truth is that the problems [blamed] on Islam—fear of sexuality, oppression of women, militant millenarianism—are to be found wherever traditionalist peoples confront the transition to an individualistic urban culture of modernity. Many more young women are killed in India for failing to bring sufficient dowry than perish in “honor killings” across the Muslim world. Such social pathologies no more reveal the barbaric core of Hinduism or Islam than domestic violence in Europe and America defines the moral essence of Christianity or the Enlightenment.

The photo essay misleads us into believing that we are reading and witnessing victims of a uniquely pathological movement called the Taliban – who conveniently happen to be our chosen ‘enemy’ of the moment, while in fact it offers us individuals who have suffered egregiously at the hands of family and relatives. As do hundreds of thousands of women across the region, and millions more across the globe. It confuses the pathologies of patriarchy for a religion and for a religio-political movement. The magazine through a cruel sleight of hand, has exploited these women’s trauma and suffering for an ideological, imperialist and domestic policy agenda. And in the process exploited these women and their histories for propaganda purposes.

Violence against women remains a concern across the globe, but here, on this cover, it is transformed into something unique, specific and as a justification for war. In an opinion piece in the New York Times, the philosopher Martha Nussbaum in an article titled Veiled Threats pointed out that:

According to the U. S. Bureau of Justice Statistics, intimate partner violence made up 20 percentof all nonfatal violent crime experienced by women in 2001. The National Violence Against Women Survey, cited on the B.J.S. Web site,  reports that 52 percent of surveyed women said they were physically assaulted as a child by an adult caretaker and/or as an adult by any type of perpetrator.

Can we invade ourselves?

Now before I am misunderstood (and I realize that few will read this far!) Let me be clear on one point; the suffering of the Afghani woman under the Taliban regime was extreme and hideous. No organization documented and spoke out more against that period and the treatment of women under that regime than the Revolutionary Association of the Women of Afghanistan (RAWA) which was led by Meena Keshwar Kamal. In 1979, Kamal began a campaign against Soviet forces and the Soviet-supported government of Afghanistan. Her activities and views, as well as her work against the government and religious fundamentalists led to her assassination on February 4, 1987. But the organization lived on and carried on its work to reveal the horrors of the Taliban regime.

In fact, it was so popular in our propaganda war against the Soviet that RAWA that it was awarded over 16 awards and certificates from around the world for its work for human rights and democracy, some of the awards include The sixth Asian Human Rights Award – 2001, The French Republic’s Liberty, Equality, Fraternity Human Rights Prize, 2000, Emma Humphries Memorial Prize 2001, Glamour Women of the Year 2001, 2001 SAIS-Novartis International Journalism Award from Johns Hopkins University, Certificate of Special Congressional Recognition from the U.S. Congress, 2004, Honorary Doctorate from University of Antwerp (Belgium) for outstanding non-academic achievements, as well as many other awards.

But when RAWA started to speak out against the American/NATO presence and the regime, it was sidelined. RAWA is a severe critic of the American/NATO alliance and its cronies in government. It has continued it struggle for Afghani women’s rights and protection and argued that:

The US “War on terrorism” removed the Taliban regime in October 2001, but it has not removed religious fundamentalism which is the main cause of all our miseries. In fact, by reinstalling the warlords in power in Afghanistan, the US administration is replacing one fundamentalist regime with another. The US government and Mr.Karzai mostly rely on Northern Alliance criminal leaders who are as brutal and misogynist as the Taliban.

But you would know this from the magazine, which has made a mockery of any pretense of independence and integrity. It tries to hide that it is the US/NATO that has sunk billions into the country, that controls its government and all civic institutions, and that these crimes against women are taking place under its watch.

But there are dozens of pictures the magazine chooses not to run or write about. Here is one below that you will not see on the covers of the magazine.

A victim of a US airstrike in bala baluk 2009 which possibly killed up to 150 people including women and children

A victim of a US airstrike in Bala Baluk in 2009 which possibly killed up to 150 people including women and children

To exploit the suffering of some Afghani women in order to justify our repression, torture, incarceration, and killings of other Afghani women (and children and men) is simply hideous to observe. And this war, and our presence in Afghanistan involves all these hideous things. We are being asked to sheds tears for one carefully selected set of suffering to later justify or simply look away from the infliction of another set of suffering. That is, we exploit these women’s stories to justify our military occupation of a land and a people increasingly determined to oust us from there!

The Managing Editor paints our presence there as purely noble:

…she is in a secret location protected by armed guards and sponsored by the NGO Women for Afghan Women. Aisha will head to the U.S. for reconstructive surgery sponsored by the Grossman Burn Foundation, a humanitarian organization in California. We are supporting that effort.

Ah, civilization here. Barbarism there. Its all too clear.

The fact is that the brutalities against Afghan women are not the exclusive purview of the so-called Taliban. They are a pathology that continues under our chosen allies in government, just as they had continued under various other regimes in the past. This is precisely what RAWA has been protesting (see here, and here, and here for example) and why their voices are today largely missing from our American media. Attempts at legal and other reforms have been attempted in the past, and resisted violently in the past. There have been many, including the former King, who attempted to confront the condition of the country’s women – his wives appeared in public forums unveiled which created great consternation amongst the conservative population. When the Russians tried to do it, we complained that they were undermining Afghani culture.

In the 1970s the People’s Democratic Party of Afghanistan (PDPA) – Afghanistan’s Communist part, made up of two factions the Khalq and the Parcham, attempted a series of reforms that later tipped the country into rebellion. It was the rebellion that initiated the Soviet invasion of the country. The focus of the reforms were economic, land and such. But a parts of the reform were laws that abolished bride price, set minimum ages for marriage and laid it down that freedom of choice must be allowed. The regime also tried to push towards universal literacy and education for both sexes (based on a Marxist curriculum). But as Martin Ewans points out in his book ‘Afghanistan:A New History

…these measures…took no account at all of the complexities of Afghan society and the interlocking economic and social relationships on which it depended…the practice of buying and selling wives, bride price was part of a traditional marriage contract, by which the bride was given compensating security, and, the reform struck at the heart of familial relationships.’.

(page 139 – 140).

We have reduced Afghanistan to a caricature of itself. Its people, their (horribly war devastated) society, their ways and norms, are completely unknown to us or simply ignored. By reducing the suffering of these women in the photo essay to ‘evils of the Taliban’ we do nothing but a further disservice to the women themselves, and to any genuine possibility of social and cultural reform. But to use these women to argue for an unjust, increasingly bloody and clearly disoriented military adventure is simply immoral and inhumane.

We are not in Afghanistan as protectors of their women. It was not the basis of our venture there, and it can’t be, despite this clod footed attempt by this magazine, the reasons for our staying there. The nation is in rebellion, the violence is increasing, hundreds are being killed, a corrupt and isolated leadership is maintained behind American/NATO protected barbed wire and guns, the drug trade is out of control, and the presidents brother and cronies are the wealthiest men in the country, while millions continue to suffer in penury and deprivation. To suggest that it is the women that have become our cause is to insult their loss and trauma, and to insult our intelligence and sense of history, justice and humanity.

When ever we are offered a choice between two options, we have to explore and question so that we can find others. There are never two options, nor a world lived in black or white. Aisha’s fate and suffering is as much our fault and the continuation of such pathologies a consequence of our presence. From the moment we stepped into that country, and began a military occupation there, we became contributors to its pathologies and to its possibilities. We Americans cannot pick and choose our influence, our impact. As principally and primarily a military force our consequences are overtly disruptive, destructive and dismantling. A nation that has suffered the trauma of decades of war has a culture, society, and values seriously contorted and maimed. And when we contribute to those decades of war and suffering with our own military might, we contribute to maintaining if not adding to the contortions and maiming.

The same magazine shedding tears over Aisha has remained silence over every other Afghani woman who has died under our bombs, drone missiles and M-16 fire. Are they not women? Were they not brutalized? How do you choose whose liberation you value? As our Afghan war falls to pieces, this attempt to foist a hysterical and ‘shock doctrine’ piece of propaganda suggests that the administration, along with its media hacks, is getting truly desperate and looking for ways to shut out minds if not our eyes, from its failure there.

The dehumanization and violence against the Afghan woman are genuine and serious. But it is not just a consequence of the Taliban, nor a clarion call for continued military occupation. It will not be resolved by military action, and it is not a concern or interest of our political and military leadership. These associations are desperate, infantile and insulting. That they are made after weeks of careful planning, execution of photographs, writing and editing tells us a lot about the limited intellects running our magazines.

And I will repeat; what irks me the most is the carefully selected sense of moral outrage for one set of victims and the complete silence and in fact justification for the sufferings of another. It is the hypocritical cleaving of our morality, our humanism, our sense of justice, outrage and anger that I find the most insidious act here. These photographs have become weapons of war, aimed at our minds to numb us into submission, to reduce us into towing the arguments of voices of violence and suffering. These photographs have been reduced from the possibility of a larger concern about the complete range of war crimes, crimes against humanity and criminal acts taking place in Afghanistan under our watch and frequently because of our watch, and instead carefully elided most all to turn a small spotlight towards a specific set of victims that we can carve into spokespeople for our political, strategic, military and imperial agendas. This is hypocritical concern at its best…or worst should I say. It reduces our sense of moral outrage and shared humanity to only where the magazine chooses to focus our attention. Its immoral and its unacceptable. Aisha is not the only victim, nor the most important one. So what about the rest? Organizations like RAWA have waged a consistent battle on this front, refusing to fall into the trap of convenient political calculations masquerading as a humanitarian and moral crusade. I wish our journalism could be even half as consistent and stop exploiting women to serve political interests.

How Does It Do That….?

In Background Materials, Musings On Confusions on July 28, 2010 at 11:57 am

Photographing The Unseen Or What Conventional Photojournalism Is Not Telling Us About Ourselves

In Essays On Embedded Photojournalism, Journalism, Musings On Confusions, Our Wars, Photography, The Daily Discussion on July 27, 2010 at 1:20 pm

Trevor Paglen is a man on a mission and it is one that reminds us that what makes any work of photography relevant, interesting, important or even significant, are the ideas and intentions that inform it. Anything else is merely gazing at pretty pictures.

Unmarked 737 at "Gold Coast" Terminal Las Vegas, NV Distance ~ 1 mile 10:44 p.m.

Unmarked 737 at "Gold Coast" Terminal Las Vegas, NV Distance ~ 1 mile 10:44 p.m.

Paglen has spent the greater part of the last decade photographing, tracking, highlighting and revealing the dark, illegal, horror-ridden underbelly of the great American ‘Global War Against Terror’ (GWAT). Paglen is a 35-year-old artist, geographer, writer, and photographer who holds both a B.A. (religious studies, 1998) and a Ph.D. (geography, 2008) from Cal, as well as an MFA from the School of the Art Institute of Chicago. He’s currently a researcher at Berkeley.

A review of his work tells us that:

…his work traces the seam line between the government’s desire for secrecy and the public’s right to know. Besides the spy satellites, which he captures arcing across the night sky in lush art prints, Paglen has photographed classified air bases; tracked down CIA cover names and displayed them on gallery walls; and compiled a book full of patches from Pentagon black-ops units. It’s called I Could Tell You but Then You Would Have to Be Destroyed by Me. The patches—in some cases, the only evidence that the programs even exist—feature an absurd gallery of aliens, reapers, and wizards along with perverse accompanying mottos. One from the stealth bomber wing reads Gustatus Similis Pullus, Latin for “tastes like chicken.”

His most recent work, Invisible, (thanks to Conscientious) recently released by Aperture books, is based on his eight year documentation of secret CIA flights and ‘black sites’ that the government does not want us to know about. It reveals the secret military sites, but also, and perhaps most importantly, his works reveal the many who have been ‘disappeared’ in the name of ‘freedom’ and ‘our liberties’. In an installation project called ‘Missing Persons’, Paglen lays out the names of the missing. As the exhibition description points out:

Since the mid 1990s, the CIA has spearheaded a covert program to kidnap suspected terrorists from all over the world. These people are then brought to a network of secret CIA-operated prisons, called “black sites,” where they are routinely tortured. The CIA calls this the “extraordinary rendition” program.

People taken to these secret prisons are effectively “disappeared”: there are no public records of their captivity, their identities are kept secret, and they are prohibited from communicating with the outside world. Among CIA operatives, they are called “ghost detainees.”

The locations of these black sites, known by code-names such as “Salt Pit” and “Bright Light,” are some of the CIA’s deepest secrets.

To capture and subsequently transport these ghost detainees, the CIA uses a fleet of unmarked airplanes. These airplanes are owned by intricate networks of front companies whose boards of directors are non-existent people. Missing Persons is a collection of their signatures culled from business records, aircraft registrations, and corporate filings.

He has also documented our ‘black site’ – prisons and torture centers in Afghanistan for example, CIA’s secret flights and also co-authored a book called Torture Taxi: On The Trial Of CIA’s Rendition Flights


You can even track his most recent investigations on his blog.
This is critical work, and it is the work of a man who understands the fundamentals of democratic engagement and dissent. He understands that there are forces that claim to ‘defend’ our republic but are in fact engaged in activities that undermine it. It draws our eyes and mind towards basic structures of power and repression that underpin modern ‘democracies’ and the ‘background noise’ of control and violence that is believed essential for sustaining it.

For me personally, such works do something else very important – they highlight the shallowness of what passes for ‘photojournalism’ in our modern world. They remind us how most photojournalists prefer to pander in the simple, the obvious and the conventional, while never engaging in the complex and crucual. Our newspapers and photographers have, either out of convenience, laziness or sheer careerism, chosen to veil the GWAT behind beautifully rendered and largely distracting projects produced from the confines of embedded positions on the front line.

Conventional photojournalism – with its insistent focus on combat and consequences – has gone a long way towards allowing us to forget that we, the United States of America, is in an illegal and brutal military occupation of two nations whose inhabitants continue to fight and resist our presence there through guns, politics and a large-scale, popular rejection of our legitimacy and relevance. The hundreds of thousands of troops that are needed to maintain these post-occupation pathologies called Iraq and Afghanistan reflect our failure, and the vast chasm that exists between the region’s population and our imagined ideas of our role and impact in the region. These projects bring us to ‘the combat’ – the fireworks, and stun our minds into unthinking simplicities while distracting us from the general un-sustainability, and injustice of the wars themselves. They ensure that the hard political questions, the difficult presumptions and prejudices that assume that we have a right to be there, are not seen or heard. They avoid the ugly realities as they have manifest themselves at home (renditions, tortures, illegal detentions, immigrant sweeps, racial discrimination, xenophobia, impoverishment etc.) and abroad (mass killings, torture, the administration of the occupation, civilian displacement, dispossession, destruction of societies and culture, corruption, drugs, NGO culture of excess etc.)

Our embedded photographers and journalists – many celebrated with awards and celebrity screenings at major film festivals, keep coming back to convince us that they have ‘seen’ the war, and that it has been ‘reported’ it. Some seem so determined to convince us the that the ‘embedded’ program is without constraints that their protests are starting to sound a bit too desperate, a bit too defensive and frankly a bit too insulting. These photographer – award winners, movie makers and celebrities, are working too hard to hide from us the fact that ‘embedding’ no matter how ‘free’ and ‘friendly’ hides the truth, obfuscates the horrors and does not allow you to call yourself a ‘reporter. I don’t care how many Sundance Awards they bring back, they are merely propagandist because they challenge nothing, question nothing, confront nothing and resist nothing. It is not physical courage the defines journalism, but moral and intellectual courage.

And the real measure of the ‘propaganda’ nature of such works is the fact that the Afghan and the Iraqi has been completely erased from our minds and eye. What is worse, they have been erased from our moral equation. They do not exist. The injustices inflicted on them are not worthy of consideration. Their dead are not counted. Their humiliations irrelevant. Their blood does not run. They are merely objects upon which we act and not humans struggling to regain control of their own lives and futures. And resisting. We obfuscate their motives and humanity behind words like ‘Taliban’ and ‘Al-Qaeda’ so as to make it easier for us to justify indiscriminate killings and murder. Front page stories about the ‘liberation of their women’ act as justifications for acts of mass murder, bombing of civilians, pre-emptive killings, summary arrests, terrorizing of civilian populations in order to control them, construction of barriers/walls, torture and injustice that we carry out with impunity. Our righteousness needs to be fed, and our photographers and journalists have been happily doing that. We are constantly being shown as ‘saving’, ‘helping’, ‘aiding’, ‘educating’, ‘liberating’  the Afghan or the Iraqi and its all done with the same desperation with which the dark side is erased. Its not as if they are not confronting, resisting, speaking, challenging, rejecting, fighting, demanding, and defending. It is we who are not listening, or simply not allowing their voices and acts to be represented to others like us.

But it’s not just the embedded works. Another set of photographers have focused on the ‘aftermath’ of those suffering from the violence of combat. Most all of these works act as quiet ‘memorials’ to the sacrifices of ‘our boys and girls’. These reveal the individual soldiers and their post-conflict trauma and take us into the world of those who are physically or emotionally maimed, or whose families are dealing with loss. As important as these works are, what concerns me is the sheer one-sidedness that has now emerged as a result of not a single American or European or other photographer producing similar works about the other victims of our conflicts. Most all the projects concentrate on American soldiers, – with parallel works being produced in the UK, Germany, Sweden or elsewhere from the ‘coalition of the willing’ countries, and assiduously avoid any revelation of anything called an Iraqi or an Afghani.

The fact remains that hundreds if not thousands of Afghani civilians are dying each year in our war. Hundreds of thousands died as a direct result of our invasion of Iraq. To say nothing of the near million who may have died as a result of our sanctions against the country. The erasures of these people are reflected in the ridiculous ‘outrage’ that has been unleashed because of the leaking of CIA Afghan logs. The Afghan War Logs reveal the thousands of civilians that have been killed in our war there but rather than be outraged by this horror, we are outraged that people now know! We are outraged at the leak, not the realities and brutalities the leaks reveal.

The same misguided outrage has been targeted against WikiLeaks that has been quietly revealing the realities we so wish to forget. Few things were amusing (facetious comment, people!) than Robert Grenier, former CIA station chief in Islamabad (they have one!) and current CIA counter-terror director, writing for Al-Jazeera a piece called “US Needs Lesson in ‘Secret-Keeping'”. I can ask what a CIA director is doing writing for this network, but I will ask why he felt he had to make such an effort to suggest that the logs reveal nothing. He is wrong; they reveal the incompetence and sheer callous disregard for the civilians that is the base idea of this military operation in Afghanistan, and it reveals the failure of the American military machine to make any real progress anywhere within the country. They reveal a military occupation over a resistant population in progress. They reveal us as jackboot occupiers and in cohort with those who are considered corrupt, unjust, illegitimate and venal. It reveals how we have reduced our finest to acts of low repression and military violence. They reveal how after nine years we are still struggling, fighting, retreating, and blaming each other while the nation remains mired in corruption, violence and a movement that may be retrograde and violent but has been allowed to position itself as nationalist and anti-occupation. Yes, the appeal of the resistance comes not from any particular message of ‘Islam’ or ‘Global Jihad’, but from simply pointing out the inequities and injustices prevalent in the country under our watch.

But all this is entirely missing from the works being produced at the moment. The wars that exist in the documents of the CIA is nothing like the war that is offered to us by our reporters and photographers. The latter is a vision from Dante’s Inferno, the former a cleansed Hollywood production complete with acceptable rending of ‘violence’ so that can are not ‘disturbed’ from our morning coffee.

In fact, there is nothing that one can turn to and understand the broader consequences of our wars. And yet we continue to produce a whole host of works that concentrate on the trauma of our ‘boys and girls’. I do not mean to dismiss the suffering of the American soldiers injured or those of the American families suffering from loss. Far from it. But I am in fact dismayed that as Americans at war we can be so ignorant, dismissive and blind to the vast sufferings that are being inflicted on others who are also human, but happen not to be American (or British, or Swedish etc.). I am ashamed at the silence in the face of the murders being committed, the horrors being inflicted, the injustices raining upon the heads of a poor, impoverished nation whose people are today rising up in revolt against our presence there and the hideous, murderous, greedy and callous ‘democrats’ we have foisted on the people. The sheer shame of the illegal and illegitimate Karzai government – supported purely and only because of our money, is perhaps just too much to take!

They, the ‘other’, is completely missing in this discussion. The one-sidedness is difficult to accept. The attention is absolutely and exclusively on ‘us’ and ‘ourselves’, which is what these projects are about in the end. What I fear is that these projects on post-war scars – as wonderful as so many of them are e.g. Nina Berman‘s work, or Ashly Gilbertson’s or Eugene Richard’s to name just a few, are helping the rest of us forget the real innocent victims, and the real crimes committed here. They are distracting us from our willed and ‘democratically’ supported acts of warfare, terror, repression, torture, occupation, control, murder and devastation. They help repaint us a ‘good’ and ‘noble’, as involved in ‘defensive’ actions against ‘evil’, as simply honorable knights that have failed defending the faith, in innocence and purity.  They claim to be ‘anti-war’ but they in fact do quite the opposite. They create a sense of ‘us’ being wronged, as victims and innocent and fuel our ‘righteous’ belief for the need to continue their wars. They invert the situation in front of us, allowing us to think that we are the ‘objects’ of violence, the focus of ‘evil’ while helping us forget that we are in fact the aggressor, the occupier, and the oppressor. They help us wear the garbs of ‘honor’ and ‘courage’ and ‘dignity’ while we carry out acts of dishonor, cowardice and inhumanity. Rather than provoke a larger discussion – one that has yet to take place, about how we have entangled ourselves in this mess, and how our democratic ideals and the foundations of our republic have been weakened, we are using such projects to garland ourselves with righteousness and the self-pity of victims. And this is particularly obvious when there is little or scant attention being paid to those who are suffering, dying, being tortured, detained, displaced, deprived and devastated by our actions in their lands.

 Victims' families tell their stories following Nato airstrike in Afghanistan  'I took some flesh home and called it my son.' The Guardian interviews 11 villagers      * Reddit     * Buzz up     * Share on facebook (361)     * Tweet this (48)      * Ghaith Abdul-Ahad in Kunduz     * The Guardian, Saturday 12 September 2009     * Article history  Fazel Muhamad Fazel Muhamad, 48, holding pictures of family members who were killed in the attack. Photograph: Ghaith Abdul-Ahad

Fazel Muhamad Fazel Muhamad, 48, holding pictures of family members who were killed in the attack. Photograph: Ghaith Abdul-Ahad

Of course, we have a long history of turning our acts of brutality and genocide into comforting victimhood. The Vietnam conflict still awaits a memorial to the millions of Vietnamese who died under our bombs, the millions maimed and scarred for life, and the tens of thousands who continue to suffer the consequences of Agent Orange and other chemicals. To say nothing about war crimes tribunals and criminal indictments.

The Afghanistan War Logs, much like Paglen’s work, reveals the shocking shallowness of our photojournalistic coverage. They lift the covers over the very things we wish not to see or confront – the darker aspects of ourselves and our actions in the world. They remind us how much, how most of it, has just been left unsaid. It reminds us how redundant, and limited, our photographic works are and how desperately most photographers just seem to want to copy and imitate. Not think and challenge.  The surface distracts while the depth confuses.

The entire corpus of mainstream photojournalism pales in comparison to the efforts of real reporters and individuals confronting the complex set of administrative, military, covert, civic and political shenanigans and injustices required to maintain our posture in the GWAT.

It is in moments like this that I am reminded of David Foster Wallace’s challenge to us:

Are some things still worth dying for? Is the American idea one such thing? Are you up for a thought experiment? What if we chose to regard the 2,973 innocents killed in the atrocities of 9/11 not as victims but as democratic martyrs, “sacrifices on the altar of freedom”? In other words, what if we decided that a certain baseline vulnerability to terrorism is part of the price of the American idea? And, thus, that ours is a generation of Americans called to make great sacrifices in order to preserve our democratic way of life—sacrifices not just of our soldiers and money but of our personal safety and comfort?

David was trying to remind us to hold on the things that matter, and to not get distracted by the ‘fire and glory’, the empty rhetoric, the debilitating and restrictive legal and judicial measures that will only reduce us as citizens while doing little to confront our enemies. Tim Paglen reminds me that at least some have heard his call.

As citizens of this nation, as Americans, perhaps our greatest challenge today, perhaps one of our most important acts of freedom, is to question what we see, hear and read. To look and hear past the slickly produced photo essays, reportage, movies and documentaries, and explore their methods of creation, their sponsors, their producers, their restrictions and their prejudices.

In a world increasingly obsessed with ‘packaging’ and ‘presentation’, in a world where an iPad application is being suggested as something ‘interesting’, it is becoming crucial to examine the underlying ‘method’. Trevor Paglen has a method – individual, determined and dissenting, which informs his works and productions. And the truths that he reveals. It is ‘method’ that most scares our mainstream press and it is ‘method’ that will determine and define meaningful journalism vs. simply slick business news production. As bureaus close, as the media markets consolidate, as wires take over foreign reporting, as ‘collaborations’ with NGOs are sought as substitute for independent investigative, questioning journalism, as we ‘cut corners’ and ‘make efficient’, it is ‘method’ that becomes the key differentiator. All else will simply be ‘production’.

Jogging Our Memory Or Jogging Our Morality Perhaps?

In Musings On Confusions, Our Wars, The Daily Discussion on July 20, 2010 at 5:59 pm

Denis Halliday, the UN humanitarian coordinator, who later resigned in protest, called the sanctions regime against Iraq ‘genocidal’. When asked by 60 Minutes correspondent Lesley Stahl if the deaths of nearly 500,000 Iraqi children was worth it, the then US Ambassador to the UN, Madeleine Albright, replied ‘We think the price is worth it.”

Today, as we are told by our media mavens (particularly newspapers like the New York Times, Los Angeles Times, and The Washington Post that pretty much act and behave as an arm of US policy and hence US state propaganda as any number of recent Glenn Greenwald pieces – e.g. 1, 2, 3, 4, 5 and more,  on the US media’s behavior in the face of corporate and government ass-kissing will reveal) that Iraq is free and democratic – Our invasion justified. Our actions moral. These publications, and I will include magazines like Time and Newsweek and others, have been in the forefront of the program to erase the memory of the illegality, immorality and sheer criminality that was inflicted on a people that meant this country no harm other than to have had the misfortune of sitting on oil. Where prosecution and war crimes tribunals are needed, excuses and brute manipulations of law, logic and humanity are offered.

Now comes a fantastic new book that takes us back and into the details of the sanctions regime and the callous and hideous calculations that went into maintaining and strengthening them. Joy Gordon’s Invisible War reminds us not only of the brutality and criminality of the sanctions that the US was principally responsible for maintaining, but also that it was maintained and sustained on the basis of lies. We invaded and further raped a nation already bought to its knees through starvation, disease, pestilence, deprivation and desperation. Later we blamed it on Al-Qaeda, and continued a process of systemic lies and outright fabrications to justify our desire to shed mass blood only so that we could pump oil.

Invisible War by Joy Gordon

Lest we forget, the sanctions were kept in place over the lie of Saddam’s possessions of WMDs. In a review of this recently published book Andrew Cockburn reminds us that:

The economic strangulation of Iraq was justified on the basis of Saddam’s supposed possession of nuclear, chemical or biological weapons. Year after year, UN inspectors combed Iraq in search of evidence that these WMD existed. But after 1991, the first year of inspections, when the infrastructure of Iraq’s nuclear weapons programme was detected and destroyed, along with missiles and an extensive arsenal of chemical weapons, nothing more was ever found…by early 1997 Rolf Ekeus had concluded…that he must report to the Security Council that Iraq had no weapons of mass destruction and was therefore in compliance with the Council’s resolutions, barring a few points. He felt bound to recommend that the sanctions should be lifted. Reports of his intentions threw the Clinton administration into a panic. The end of sanctions would lay Clinton open to Republican attacks for letting Saddam off the hook. The problem was solved, Ekeus explained to me, by getting Madeleine Albright, newly installed as secretary of state, to declare in a public address on 26 March 1997 that ‘we do not agree with the nations who argue that, if Iraq complies with its obligations concerning weapons of mass destruction, sanctions should be lifted.’ The predictable result was that Saddam saw little further point in co-operating with the inspectors. This provoked an escalating series of confrontations between the Unscom team and Iraqi security officials, ending in the expulsion of the inspectors, claims that Saddam was ‘refusing to disarm’, and, ultimately, war.

And what was the consequence of a policy based on lies. Cockburn points out:

…its [the 661 Committee's] actual function was to deny the import of even the most innocuous items on the grounds that they might, conceivably, be used in the production of weapons of mass destruction. An ingenious provision allowed any committee member to put any item for which clearance had been requested on hold. So, while other members, even a majority, might wish to speed goods to Iraq, the US and its ever willing British partner could and did block whatever they chose on the flimsiest of excuses. As a means of reducing a formerly prosperous state to a pre-industrial condition and keeping it there, this system would have aroused the envy of the blockade bureaucrats derided by Keynes. Thus in the early 1990s the United States blocked, among other items, salt, water pipes, children’s bikes, materials used to make nappies, equipment to process powdered milk and fabric to make clothes. The list would later be expanded to include switches, sockets, window frames, ceramic tiles and paint. In 1991 American representatives forcefully argued against permitting Iraq to import powdered milk on the grounds that it did not fulfil a humanitarian need. Later, the diplomats dutifully argued that an order for child vaccines, deemed ‘suspicious’ by weapons experts in Washington, should be denied.

Throughout the period of sanctions, the United States frustrated Iraq’s attempts to import pumps needed in the plants treating water from the Tigris, which had become an open sewer thanks to the destruction of treatment plants. Chlorine, vital for treating a contaminated water supply, was banned on the grounds that it could be used as a chemical weapon. The consequences of all this were visible in pediatric wards. Every year the number of children who died before they reached their first birthday rose, from one in 30 in 1990 to one in eight seven years later. Health specialists agreed that contaminated water was responsible: children were especially susceptible to the gastroenteritis and cholera caused by dirty water.

As we wave our flags, celebrate our ‘liberties’ and claim for ourselves the exclusive ownership of ‘humanity’, ‘democracy’ and all that is good on this earth, perhaps a moment to reflect and hear the sounds being drowned out by these bromides – the screams and tremblings of the millions who we sacrificed to serve our sense of righteousness, revenge and retribution.

‘They hate us for our freedoms.’ he said and laughed the laugh of a vampire after a feast.

In These Days Of Confusion And Obfuscation, A Voice That Still Clarifies, Illuminates and Reveals

In Journalism, Our Wars on July 16, 2010 at 11:38 pm

Why waste time writing, when Eqbal Ahmed can simply clarify with greater clarity and insight. An intellectual, revolutionary, activist, academic and a MacArthur Fellow, Eqbal Ahmed saw and spoke with a clarity and insight that few have been able to match. Edward Said dedicated his book ‘Culture & Imperialism’ to him (the credit says simply: For EA).

This is an important talk, a reminder of where we have come from, and why today’s ‘good war’ is a mess of our own making.

Eqbal asks the questions we here in America remain consistently afraid to ask. He offers answer that we consistently refuse to hear.

Too many today , particularly in our newspapers of note who tell us that they only print ‘the news that is fit to print’, work hard to hide and erase from our memories the continuities of policy and prejudices that have bought us to where we  are. They work hard to convince us that ‘the barbarism’ there has no connection to ‘the civilization’ here.  But Walter Benjamin would remind us that ‘There is no document of civilization that is not simultaneously a document of barbarism’.

A fascinating film which can now be seen on youtube is called ‘An Unholy Alliance’ which takes us back to our ‘jihad’ against the Soviet Union in Afghanistan, and the close relationship of the CIA and the drug trade. The roots of our ‘involvement’, or should i say ‘addiction’ to Afghanistan can be seen here (below is the 1st of 6 parts of this video):

We would do well to remember history, its inter-connections, and our deep, enmeshed and messy involvement and influence in a region we now stare at in confusion

Unintended Consequences Or Why Men Rape In War And Why Development Aid Can Kill

In Musings On Confusions, The Daily Discussion on July 15, 2010 at 10:49 pm

I came across a rather disturbing report recently (thanks to Wronging Rights) released by the Nordic African Institute of the Swedish International Development Agency (SIDA). Titled The Complexity of Violence: A critical analysis of sexual violence in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) it is a critical examination of how crimes of sexual violence in the Congo are depicted, documented and reported on. Specifically the report challenges the prioritized focus on sexual violence, as something ‘abnormal’ and different from other forms of violence, and the undue and highly publicized attention given to it by international health, aid and media organizations.

The researchers argue that (see page 13 through 15 of the report):

…sexual violence in the DRC has tended to be conceptualised as “abnormal” and fundamentally different from and outside of other forms of violence, which are presumed to be ungendered. By “ungendered”, we mean that the gendered aspects of other types of violence are not seen to be significant or relevant. Conceptualising sexual violence as somehow “abnormal” or outside other forms of violence by being gendered has ultimately contributed to dehumanising those who rape (and also ultimately those who are raped)…

…the specific, often exclusive, focus on sexual violence is problematic in that it hampers our understanding of the relationship between sexual violence and other (supposedly) “ungendered” violence. Emphasising and commenting on only the sexual violence mentioned in testimonies that also talk of other forms of violence hinders our understanding of the relationship between sexual violence and other violence. These forms of violence are, to a large extent, manifestations of the same systemic failures and mechanisms as those contributing to SGBV…

…the DRC experience shows that a singular focus on sexual violence within a very wide repertoire of human rights abuses by state security forces risks feeding into the “commercialisation of rape” or the perception of “rape as an income earning strategy”. In a context of a corrupt judiciary, rampant poverty, decreasing stigma and the almost total absence of basic health and social services, the focus on sexual violence as a particularly serious crime and the resources provided specifically for survivors of rape give rise to situations where allegations of rape become a survival strategy.

…the storyline of GBV in the DRC has been embedded in a limited understanding of gender, which conflates sex with gender and ignores the many ways in which wartime gendered violence also affects men and boys.

This is perhaps the most detailed and extensive analysis of the issue of sexual violence in time of war that i have read to date. It goes far into the historical, social, economic, institutional and other factors that may encourage and offer impunity to acts of mass rapes in a nation at war. The report challenges our presumptions about why rapes occur, what their objectives are, whether they are actually a ‘weapon of war’ as it is so commonly referred to these days.

I found it particularly interesting to read paragraphs like the following which open our eyes to ‘sanctioned’ sexuality amongst the military and violent sexuality that may occur in a conflict, and the presumptions and prejudices that both share.

As explained above, the soldiers themselves cite poverty as the main reason for rape. According to this line of reasoning, it is as “somewhat unavoidable” that a man—who in any way is “denied sex” through lack of financial or other means—will eventually rape. This reasoning is a familiar echo of myths about male heterosexuality, masculinity, soldiering, and violence reproduced in military contexts. The Congolese military celebrates certain ideals of macho heterosexual masculinity. A (male) soldier’s libido is understood as a formidable natural force, which ultimately demands sexual satisfaction from women. Similar portrayals of masculinity can be found in most other military institutions globally. For example, men’s sexual needs are often presented as the reason for the need of regular R & R… Army brothels have also frequently been used, not the least during the Second World War. The prostitution rings that notoriously surround army bases, including current UN forces worldwide such as MONUC, is another example of this phenomenon. (page 47)

But perhaps the most eye-opening pages of the report are under the section called ‘Commercialization of Rape’. As the writers point out:

The attention received by SGBV in eastern DRC is, simply put, out of proportion to the attention received by other equally grave human rights violations (mass killings of villagers, systematic torture of detainees, etc.). This is problematic, since it means that other violence does not receive adequate attention, but also because it has other consequences: it contributes to a process in which allegations of rape are perceived as, and become, a particularly effective bargaining, and ultimately quite effective income-earning, strategy. (page 51)

Resulting in a situation where:

Another problem is more specifically connected to the vast resources from international organisations earmarked for various services to rape survivors. The lack of basic health services and the lack of resources for women who have not been raped—plus the widespread poverty—have created a situation in which destitute women and girls who are not rape survivors sometimes present themselves as rape victims in order gain access to these opportunities….A similar situation arises in connection with other services provided to rape survivors, such as food aid, training/education and credit facilities. According to local organisations, such instances mostly involve women and girls who have lost their families and therefore have little to lose from the stigma of rape. However, with the increasing attention to sexual violence and combating stigma and shame, in combination with high prevalence of such violence, the stigma associated with rape has also decreased, facilitating the process of presenting oneself as a rape survivor in order to access services. (page 54)

Far from detracting from the gravity of the crimes, and the urgency and seriousness of its human, social, cultural and other consequences, this analysis sheds a light on the ways in which aid organizations, and journalists influence and create consequences on the ground. It points out that we – aid workers, photojournalists, writers, reporters etc. are not neutral observers but in fact affect, influence and possibly contort the very situations we insert ourselves in and report on.

This was also the subject of a fascinating book by Peter Uvin, a professor at Tufts University, titled Aiding Violence: The Development Enterprise in Rwanda where as early as the introduction of the work he points out that he will show:

…the process of development, and the international aid given to promote it interacted with the forces of exclusion, inequality, pauperization, racism and oppression that laid the groundwork for the 1994 genocide. In countries…where development aid provides a large share of the financial and moral resources of government and civil society, development aid cannot help but play a crucial role in shaping the processes that lead to violence.

These, much like what is in the SIDA report, are difficult examinations, but necessary. We are too casual in our assumptions about sexual violence in Africa (or elsewhere for that matter!), and too comfortable presenting it as yet another African ‘barbarism’. The SIDA reports offers insights into socio-economic factors that explain acts of rape, while reminding us how our actions and behaviors in response to the situation affect and influence the habits,behaviors and responses of the very people we are claiming to help. This argument is extended further by Professor Uvin’s work which invites us to set aside our naive and frankly infantile ideas about the ‘purity’ and ‘chastity’ of ‘development aid’ enterprise and begin to see its connections and its unintended consequences.

Where The Head Spun July 4th 2010

In Musings On Confusions, Our Wars, Photography, The Daily Discussion on July 4, 2010 at 9:51 am

It is American independence day, so lets celebrate:

A Harvard Kennedy School study has confirmed what we all already suspected; that when it comes to torture we are more likely to call it torture when others do it, and something obfuscatory when we do it. The conclusion of the report was pretty well clear:

The New York Times called waterboarding torture or implied it was torture in just 2 of 143 articles (1.4%). The Los Angeles Times did so in 4.8% of articles (3 of 63). The Wall Street Journal characterized the practice as torture in just 1 of 63 articles (1.6%). USA Today never called waterboarding torture or implied it was torture. In addition, the newspapers are much more likely to call waterboarding torture if a country other than the United States is the perpetrator.

Indeed, we do not torture. And in fact, that fact is so explicitly clear that even when there is copious evidence that we have tortured our courts and justices are only to pleased to remind us that in fact we have not. In a case carefully followed by Harper Magazine’s Scott Horton it has become clear that the courts and the political administration will do anything and contort any and all language and judicial precedents to avoid confronting what is a clear case of torture and an innocent man.

An Al-Jazeera report is here:

By the way, give your support to the Center for Constitutional Rights if you must support something. These are indeed some of the bravest and most dedicated individuals fighting our ‘real’ war – the one to protect our liberties and our rights most of which have been taken from us under the pretext of these ‘fake’ wars and cowardly occupations.

As Scott Horton concludes in a piece about the case of the Canadian citizen Maher Arar who was renditioned and tortured by a client state in the Middle East:

Throughout this litigation, the Justice Department has attempted to hide behind Canada, insinuating that the case, if allowed to proceed, would embarrass an important ally. But our neighbor to the north offers an instructive example of how a democratic state, conscious of its duties and obligations, deals with embarrassing allegations of torture. Canada has made full disclosure of its missteps, publishing a white paper as thick as two Manhattan telephone directories, issuing a full apology to Maher Arar, and making a payment of roughly $10 million to him in compensation for the damages suffered. Most significantly, even as the Obama Administration was attempting to close the door on the matter, Canadian law-enforcement authorities announced the opening of a criminal probe designed to identify and prosecute the government actors responsible for Arar’s rendition to torture.

The Arar case is thus far from over. Arar is still waiting for an apology from the United States, and he still has his right to compensation. The Obama Administration owes both Arar and the American public a full accounting of what transpired in this case, and it owes Arar a considerable sum of money. The unnamed Justice Department political cowboys who sent Arar to be tortured in Syria need to spend some time in the spotlight, and they need to atone for their misconduct in the way the law demands. This end is called justice, and it’s what the Department of Justice has been working feverishly to subvert.

Yes, a very happy July 4th. What is it that we are celebrating again? Oh, right, liberty.

On a related note (patience please….), I came across a new David Foster Wallace book in a Washington D.C store. Well, its more about David Foster Wallace than by him. It is a series of interviews with journalist David Lipsky and my first impression was to be irritated by Lipsky’s contant interruption of Wallace’s thoughts – that is the downside of a books based on ‘interview’ or ‘a road trip’ as Lipsky calls it. Regardless, if you can get past Lipsky’s insecurities and inaninities you can read Wallace’s insights such as:

The narrative patterns to which literate Americans are most regularly exposed are televised. And, even on a charitable account, television is a pretty low type of narrative art. It’s a narrative art that strives not to change or enlighten or broaden or reorient—not necessarily even to “entertain”—but merely and always to engage, toappeal to. Its one end—openly acknowledged—is to ensure continued watching. And (I claim) the metastatic efficiency with which it’s done so has, as cost, inevitable and dire consequences for the level of people’s tastes in narrative art. For the very expectations of readers in virtue of which narrative art is art.

Television’s greatest appeal is that it is engaging without being at all demanding.

Which, by the way, also seems to be the appeal most photojournalism is seeking these days; entertaining without being demanding. With such productions as Sebastian Junger/Tim Hetherington’s video Restropo vying for our attention and proclaiming an unfolding of a new era of….something (why are we always so desperate to proclaim new eras!) we are moving into a world where the narrow, provincial and the entertaining is being passed off as journalism and ‘the new’. By the way, just because its at Sundance does not mean its interesting, or important or even insightful. However, I will write a more extended criticism of this film and others of its ilk in a longer, more considered post that I am working on at the moment.

However, as we continue to dig our heads into our navels by concentrating on converting the footsoldiers of our imperial occupations and devastations into martyrs and ‘innocent victims’, the real situation remains beyond our courage to confront or intelligence to do anything about. Perhaps this is why a whole host of such ‘embedded’ movies and photo documentaries are finding a strong audience – its just easier to repaint the entire situation as ‘us’ the victims of an ‘evil’ we do not know or understand. But this has been a classic American penchant for decades and we are only getting better at it.

I suppose movie/multi-media becomes the ideal medium for this obfuscation – its easier to just confuse and offer sollace through a medium that does not encourage thought or introspection. Or, as Wallace points out (from the New York Review Of Books Blog):

I think one of the insidious lessons about TV is the meta-lesson that you’re dumb. This is all you can do. This is easy, and you’re the sort of person who really just wants to sit in a chair and have it easy.

What is happening in Afghanistan and Iraq can’t be found in our little ‘films’ but has to be carefully examined, researched and understood. It will come only by extricating ourselves from the ‘patriotic’ and ‘nationalist’ fetters that seems to block our minds at the moment and see that the spiral of Afghanistan does not offer solace or heroism.

If you want to step away from the glitz and glamour where our Afghan war is being re-packaged as a ‘boys adventure’ and our soldiers of war tranformed into ‘boys and girls’, you can do well by starting by listening to Tariq Ali in a London Review of Books talked called Obama’s War:

You see, since the surge began, the big publicity machines going into operation—another victory, yes, we’ve captured this, we are now going to attack Kandahar… In fact, disaster stories. Total and complete disaster stories. And you read side-by-side with these big propaganda stories smaller, quite shocking stories, of which many more happen, if you read the vernacular press in Pakistan (because that reports them). But occasionally they find a way into the mainstream press in the United States and Britain and other parts of Europe.

Let’s just see one story. The US Special Black Ops Squad targets a house because they think insurgents are in the house. They don’t explain why they think that, but they say they’re pretty sure. They attack the house and kill everyone in it. In that house is a family, a large joined family. Everyone is killed. Women, children, a pregnant woman—this happened in February—are killed. Realising what they’ve done… but the story is already going out: “We had a targeted attack on an insurgent house and it was successful.” Then, a London Times journalist who’s there, embedded with the troops, finds out what really happens. That it was a completely innocent family that was killed, that they went back in, the marines on these special operations, and with knives took the bullets out of everyone there, especially the women and children, so that no one would know American bullets had been used to kill them and to cover up the whole story. Now this is a tiny cover up. But there have been big cover ups since.

Not the least of which are ‘embedded’ films that awe us with their ‘access’ and their ‘nail biting’ excitement while carefully eliding the very fundamental illegality, immorality and hideousness of our actions and presence in the region itself. They continue to distract us from facing our misjudgments and our missteps. They prevent us from realizing that our wars have  crippled our government, undermined our civil rights, destroyed our sense of our values, reduced to ‘fear ridden’ children, unleashed a broad security apparatus based on fear-mongering, convinced us of ‘bogeymen’ on our doorsteps and ensured that an easy reach of violence is our ‘best’ and ‘only’ solution to complex issues. The wars may be killing the other, but it is eating away at us, and our judicial, political, legal systems as well. But you will not hear about this at Sundance. Or such ideas as which Tariq Ali constantly points out:

And what has made them supportive of the insurgents and [enabled] large numbers of kids joining the insurgency is how the NATO armies have operated. Look, it’s not just the killings, it’s not just the massacre of innocents, which happens regularly; it is the whole tone and tenor of this occupation. That the way Western soldiers, Western journalists, Western administrators, Western NGOs live is in such sharp contrast with the ordinary people of the country, that it excites anger and makes people feel this is not the way we are ever going to get anything.

What we are in the world is cleansed and offered back to us in nicely packaged stories of brave soldiers, the difficulties of war, their fear and worries, their families and their suffering. All of this is true, regrettable but basically tangential to the fact that we are in these wars by choice, that we have policies and collaborations in place that ensure that these conflicts continue indefinitely, and that a tremendous amount of destruction of life and society is taking place under the boots and guns of our ‘boys and girls’, that ‘innocent’ reference hiding what they are actually sent to do in Afghanistan and Iraq and in fact actually do when they are there. Even the otherwise measured William Dalrymple had to chime in with a piece in The New Statesman called Why the Taliban Is Winning In Afghanistan quietly pointing out how ‘we’ look to the ‘other':

As Predator drones took off and landed incessantly at the nearby airfield, the elders related how the previous year government troops had turned up to destroy the opium harvest. The troops promised the villagers full compensation, and were allowed to burn the crops; but the money never turned up. Before the planting season, the villagers again went to Jalalabad and asked the government if they could be provided with assistance to grow other crops. Promises were made; again nothing was delivered. They planted poppy, informing the local authorities that if they again tried to burn the crop, the village would have no option but to resist. When the troops turned up, about the same time as we were arriving at nearby Jegdalek, the villagers were waiting for them, and had called in the local Taliban to assist. In the fighting that followed, nine policemen were killed, six vehicles destroyed and ten police hostages taken.

After the jirga was over, one of the tribal elders came over and we chatted for a while over a glass of green tea. “Last month,” he said, “some American officers called us to a hotel in Jalalabad for a meeting. One of them asked me, ‘Why do you hate us?’ I replied, ‘Because you blow down our doors, enter our houses, pull our women by the hair and kick our children. We cannot accept this. We will fight back, and we will break your teeth, and when your teeth are broken you will leave, just as the British left before you. It is just a matter of time.'”

By the way, I am not a big fan of these ‘sweeping’ historical narratives of ‘they have never been conquered’ or ‘much as the British lost in the 18th century…’ or ‘graveyard of Empires’ and other such simplistic linear narratives. But it makes for a good read and Dalrymple is good at pulling out the ‘historical’ angles on this situation. He does narrow it down to a fundamental:

The reality of our present Afghan entanglement is that we took sides in a complex civil war, which has been running since the 1970s, siding with the north against the south, town against country, secularism against Islam, and the Tajiks against the Pashtuns. We have installed a government, and trained up an army, both of which in many ways have discriminated against the Pashtun majority, and whose top-down, highly centralised constitution allows for remarkably little federalism or regional representation. However much western liberals may dislike the Taliban – and they have very good reason for doing so – the truth remains that they are in many ways the authentic voice of rural Pashtun conservatism, whose views and wishes are ignored by the government in Kabul and who are still largely excluded from power. It is hardly surprising that the Pashtuns are determined to resist the regime and that the insurgency is widely supported, especially in the Pashtun heartlands of the south and east.

Conflating what is today a Pushtun Nationalist uprising with ‘the Taliban’ helps distract us from what we are facing. Just as movies from ‘embedded’ locations obfuscate and hide the unfolding tragedy that is the world of the Afghan. We are not innocent. These are not ‘victims’. What may be worse is that we are using ‘our boys and girls’ as shields to veil our own cowardice, our own sense of impotence and our own quiet realization that what has happened, and is happening in Afghanistan and Iraq is wrong, immoral and unjust.

But instead of confronting this head on, a task that will take courage, determination, intelligence and commitment, we prefer to turn to the ‘softer’ side of this situation, the easy, the pious, the pitying, the packaged sense of ‘sorrow’ at the loss or suffering of another and preferably much like ‘us’. Our soldiers, the injured, the maimed, the dead, have become vessels into which we pour of confusion, our fear of the blood on our hands, and our realization of our pusillanimous acceptance of our own degradation. And there isn’t a photographer, photojournalist, post-photography media maven who has had the temerity to speak out for the ‘others’ we are so gleefully and indifferently killing or help kill.

There is no honor in a dishonorable war, which will only end dishonorably and bring nothing but dishonor to those who designed it, executed it and performed it.

Speaking on ‘innocent victims’, or not, there is an interesting documentary on Pakistan that is interesting to watch. A bit convention as it attempts to understand the dynamics of the country through the lives of 5 seemingly disparate Pakistanis, it nevertheless has moments of insight. Called Without Shepheards you can see a trailer here:

Its best moments are with the singer/writer Arieb whose performances are of course spectacular. Imran Khan is also one of the subjects. leaving us much to wonder about him and the future of the country.

Finally, there was an interesting essay in Guernica magazine on how reconciliation programs are another form of torture for the victims. This is a controversial position and frankly I have always been a strong advocate of reconciliation programs. I recently argued that it the absence of such forums was perhaps one of the reasons for the continued fears, suspicions and hatred between Indians and Pakistanis. The unresolved questions of the partition, and the ‘communities of suffering’ that it created underpin our divisions and doubts. But Jean Hatzfeld had argued that in fact reconciliation is the preferred method for the perpetrators and not for the victims. In his books Life Laid Bare: The Survivors in Rwanda Speak and The Antelope’s Strategy: Living In Rwanda After The Genocide and Machete Season: The Killers In Rwanda Speak Hatzfeld examined this moment in Africa’s history from all perspective.

Now, Susie Linfield has penned an essay in Guernica called Living With The Enemy, that questions the value of reconciliation programs. She argues:

“Reconciliation” has become a darling of political theorists, journalists, and human-rights activists, especially as it pertains to the rebuilding of postwar and post-genocidal nations. Nowhere is this more so than in the case of Rwanda. Numerous books and articles on the topic—some, though not all, inspired by Christian teachings—pour forth. It can plausibly be argued, of course, that in Rwanda—and in other places, like Sierra Leone and the Balkans, where victims and perpetrators must live more or less together—reconciliation is a political necessity. Reconciliation has a moral resonance, too; certainly it is far better than endless, corpse-strewn cycles of revanchism and revenge. Yet there is sometimes a disturbing glibness when outsiders tout the wonders of reconciliation, as if they are leading the barbarians from darkness into light. Even worse, the phenomenological realities—the human truths—of the victims’ experiences are often ignored or, at best, treated as pathologies that should be “worked through” until the promised land of forgiveness is reached. This is not just a mistake but a dangerous one; for it is doubtful that any sustainable peace, and any sustainable politics, can be built without a better, which is to say a tragic, understanding of those truths.

Hatzfeld’s writings had pushed me to doubt my earlier stance on this question. Now Linfield’s essay reminds me of those doubts and pushes for a reconsideration. Or at least a contemplation on this question. As Bangladesh prepares for war crimes tribunals, as I hold in my hand Antjie Krog’s remarkable and lovely book Country Of My Skull: Guilt, Sorrow And The Limits Of Forgiveness In The New South Africa, I am can’t help but feel that indeed, the execution and performance of ‘justice’ may outweigh the value of ‘reconciliation’. It seems that certainly the victims would prefer that. I feel that the victims deserve that. It is certainly the lesson that Hatzfeld stresses.

By the way, Linfield’s piece also has a short review of the Israeli photograph Jonathan Torgovnik’s project in Rwanda called Intended Consequences which documents the challenges of the women raped during the genocidal campaigns and the lives of the children born as a consequence.

From 'Intended Consequences' by Jonathan Torgovnik

Linfield points out, while reviewing the photographs and the testimonies that Torgovnik gathered:

The wonderful thing—if there is any wonderful thing—that emerges from these photographs and interviews is the stubborn singularity of each woman. Despite their shared history of horror—and despite the génocidaires’ attempt to kill their human-ness—each has defiantly remained an individual. And each struggles, in her own way, with how she and her children might face the future. (“Be friendly. Love one another,” advises Josephine, somewhat miraculously.) Yet in another, decidedly un-wonderful sense, all these women are the sisters of Améry. In their incomprehension, their shame, their scars, their losses, their dislocation, their impotent fury, their bleak loneliness, their irretrievable lack of trust… The worlds of the Rwandan peasant and of the Viennese intellectual are not, it turns out, far apart: whoever was tortured, stays tortured.

Just another Sunday morning, July 4th 2010, issue to think about.

Finally, onto Kashmir and the return of the pandit familes. A slow but it seems an inevitable one. I had written about the Kashmiri Pandits and their cautious attempts to reclaim their rightful place in the valley of Kashmir as part of my India project work. The essay called Lost Paths To The Shared Or Historical Elisions That Divide I tried to highlight the struggle of the Pandits who were making a slow return to the town of Baramullah in the valley. Today I learn that on June 18th thousands of Kashmiri Pandits were able to make their way to the temple of Mata Kheer Bhavani in Tullamula, 20 Kilometers from Shrinagar for the sacred day of Zyeshtha Ashthami. And that it was an ‘official’ ceremony attended by local Kashmiri leaders as well. I am not sure how permanent or positive all this is, but anything that suggests attempts to reach across the false and artificial sectarian divide in Kashmir is just plain good news.