ExperimentalExperience

The Transformation Of Pathology Into Pathos Or The Military Does What It Does And It Does It Well

In Essays On Embedded Photojournalism, Journalism, Musings On Confusions, Our Wars, Photography on October 23, 2010 at 3:00 pm

But the question remains: how, against the best efforts of so many, did a war once perceived as a nearly genocidal slaughter to perpetuate American neo-colonialism come to be viewed as an American tragedy? And to what extent have cultural and in particular literary representations of the war helped in that transformation? It could be argued that Vietnam War novels and memoirs have contributed significantly to this process, since they reach an important readership – the editors, publishers, writers, pundits, and professors who make up America’s intellectual class. By promoting a literature that favors individual lives over historical contingency, and textual sophistication over social analysis, this class has helped reproduce, not merely in the small audience of serious fiction writers but in the general public as well, a simple and ideologically unthreatening view of the war

Jim Nielson, Warring Fictions: Cultural Politics and The Vietnam War Narrative

From Ammiel Alcalay’s Scrapmetal

Today many novels and memoirs, and I will add, certain photojournalism projects continue this practice i.e. of transforming a near genocidal act of war into stories of individual suffering. I have already stated in an earlier post – Photographing The Unseen Or What Conventional Photojournalism Is Not Telling Us About Ourselves that:

[a]…set of photographers have focused on the ‘aftermath’ of those [American soldiers]  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…They, the ‘other’, are completely missing in this discussion. The one-sidedness is difficult to accept…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 victims, and the real crimes committed in our name. 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 fallen defending the nation, 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 are in danger of helping us garland ourselves with righteousness and the self-pity of victims.

The construction of a narrative that turns our attention to our ‘boys and girls’ and their ‘struggle’ and ‘traumas’ in the field is precisely what the US military’s ‘embed’ program was designed to do; transform what is necessarily a violent, bloody and inhumane act of war into a cleansed, carefully managed, ‘precision-guided’, bloodless conflict. To that end, the US military exercised, and continues to exercise, any and all control necessary to help control the narrative of the conflict. A practice first instituted in the Falkland war, where only two correspondents were allowed access to the battlefield, we Americans have since perfected it. And our media has since willfully and gladly accepted it. Those who opposed the practice, those who attempted to go against the strictures of the US military paid a heavy price – were threatened, isolated and some other killed. One only has to look at the experience of Al-Jazeera reporters covering the war from ‘the wrong side’. The ‘unilaterals’ became targets for a military machine bent on controlling how the invasion of Iraq would be spoken about, and they continue to do so.

In his brilliant study of the media and the machinery of war The First Casualty: War Correspondent As Hero And Myth-Maker From The Crimea To Iraq, Phillip Knightley, points out that the first Gulf War:

…marked an important turning point in the history of war correspondents. Not only was it a war in which the military succeeded in changing people’s perceptions of what battle was really like, one in which the ‘surgical’ precision of new high-tech weapons meant few if any civilian casualties, but one in which the way in which the war was communicated was as important as the conduct of the war itself.

Indeed, this was a lesson put to full effect in the invasion of Iraq with the institution of the ‘embed’ program, Knightely revisits the intentions of this program, which I repeat here because it seems that many a veteran photojournalist and journalist seems to have forgotten:

It was [Bryan] Whitman (Deputy Assistant Secretary Of Defence) who came up with the idea of ‘embedding’ where correspondents would be placed with the military units in the field from where they could transmit ‘products’ or information compiled at the Pentagon, foreign capitals and ‘in theatre’, with the assistance of mobile press pools, combined information press centers (CIPCs) and sub-CIPCs. Public Affairs Officers (PAOs) from the Pentagon would scan all the media – print, electronic, domestic and international – all the while blending 24-hour news channels nightly news shows and news-magazine formats with entertainment companies. This would provide comprehensive coverage of the war while giving the impression that the news was coming directly from amidst the troops in the field: ‘the best representatives to convey American’s intentions and capabilities’ (Page 532)

The concept of ‘embeds’ was created to help control the narrative of the war. It remains the military’s most effective weapon of propaganda, and ensures that the US citizenry sees the war only from the perspective of the US soldier. In that, it expects the citizenry, much as it does of the reporters and photojournalists who embed with the soldiers, to find empathy and camaraderie with the fighting American soldier, and focus only the individual and ‘ground level’ realities as they are offered to them on-screen, print and internet. To this end, the war had to be, and has been, shown as bloodless, and certainly, horror-less. Any and all rules of this program are geared towards this end, and they are subject to change as the needs of the narrative change. There is, and there should not be, any misunderstanding about this.

So it is with some confusion that I view videos such as this one by reporter/photographer Michael Kamber – an otherwise fine writer and photographer, which has been getting a lot of air- and internet-play recently:

What confuses me is the thought behind the video and comments: Michael Kamber is surprised that a system meticulously designed to censor the likes of him, is…..censoring him.

Isn’t this precisely what this system is designed to do?

Why would anyone express surprise when a military program designed to control the narrative, and censor facets that can turn ‘public opinion’ against it, does what it is designed to do?

We have to remember that The New York Times was one of the newspapers at the forefront of the jingoism towards this illegal and unnecessary war. Their reporters – including the ‘fabulous’ Judith Miller, embedded with the Bush administration and regurgitating its lies to the broader American public. They were amongst the many mainstream journalism outlets that offered no protests were offered when the ‘embed’ program was first introduced. The paper that employs Michael Kamber has never felt it necessary to challenge the military’s ‘embed’ program and in fact understands very well what it can offer and produce. This paper’s particularly close collaboration with US administrations is quite well known, and in fact was inadvertently revealed some months earlier. To say nothing really about the fact that for the last seven years a number of ‘embedded’ reporters and photographers have gone on to win major journalism and photojournalism awards, thereby sanctioning what is basically a military propaganda program as a news reporting method.

While those who dared to work outside the program – the ‘unilaterals’ in the Gulf War, or Al-Jazeera correspondents working the ‘other’ side, were harassed, fired upon and in many instances killed. We remember the attacks on the Al-Jazeera headquarters in both Afghanistan and Iraq. The necessity of ‘embedding’ was created by the promise of violence and threat if one did not. Today all reporters reporting our wars have learned this lesson well. In fact, being embedded has become the only way to report on any way, anywhere in the world, as militaries across the globe has seen the success with which the US military fended off criticism and critical examination of its war effort.

Michael Kamber is a talented reporter and a talented photographer. So my confusion stems from his rather short-sighted criticism of the military doing what it always said it would do. Their latest embed rules – see USF-I NEWS MEDIA GROUND RULES Jan 2010, have been in effect since January of 2010 and if you are signing these documents before you proceed, why complain about them later? More egregiously, if you are signing up to participate in a propaganda program, why pretend that you are working with the ethics and rules of a ‘free press’?

I respect photographers like Ashley Gilbertson and Chris Hondros who never allow you to believe that their sold their intelligence and eye to the program. Their work, despite the restrictions, suggests a resistance to the efforts of the propaganda machine. How well they succeed is hard to tell, but from their images and words you can see that they are trying.

Michael Kamber also points out the importance of creating a ‘full document’ of the war. But wouldn’t such a document, should it ever be produce, require the rigorous and honest documentation of the experiences of the Iraqi’s who resisted and continue to resist the American presence? Can a ‘full document’ of the war even be created by simply ‘embedding’ with one of the protagonists of the conflict?

I would think not.

Wikileaks has just released a large tranch of Iraqr files. The Iraq War Logs make for eye-opening reading, and a corrective one.  The New Yor Times has a full discussion about them as well (You have to admire the paper’s rich resources to put all this together so quickly!) Reading them one is struck by the brutality of military occupation, and the inhumanity that is necessary to maintain it. We already know this from Gaza and the West Bank, but it is obvious that the war that is presented to us on our TV screens and morning newspapers, is not the same war that is being reported from on the ground.  As Al-Jazeera points out, they make for some disturbing reading:

The new material throws light on the day-to-day horrors of the war. The military calls them SIGACTs – significant action reports – ground-level summaries of the events that punctuated the conflict: raids, searches, roadside bombings, arrests, and more. All of them are classified “secret”.

The reports reveal how torture was rampant and how ordinary civilians bore the brunt of the conflict.

The files record horrifying tales: of pregnant women being shot dead at checkpoints, of priests kidnapped and murdered, of Iraqi prison guards using electric drills to force their prisoners to confess.

Equally disturbing is the response of the military to the civilian deaths caused by its troops. Excessive use of force was routinely not investigated and the guilty were rarely brought to book.

This then starts to move us towards a fuller document of the war, but certainly most all of these issues mentioned above are beyond the ‘eye’ of the ‘embed’. All this is what is taking place beyond the ‘embed’ or against it. There will be many who will condemn the ‘leaks’, but these same people will fail to make the connection between the fact that these documents are being leaked, and the carefully stage-managed war in the first place. It is the ‘embed’ program that necessitates the leaks, for even in the US military, there are many who are aghast at the immorality and brutality of war and refuse to be a part of it. The tight controls of ‘embedding’, and the guarantee that such placement of reporters will not reveal anything remotely related to the nature of this war, is what has compelled individuals to take their careers and lives in their hands and ‘leak’ material. It is a reflection of the effectiveness, and efficiency of the ‘embed’ program itself.

Its crucial to see the ‘embed’ posture for what it is, and work with it. You can’t work against it, at least not literarily. You can adopt a cynical/ironic posture within it, as some have done. Perhaps that is our last defense in this matter. But to try to suggest that somehow one is doing journalism while working exclusively with one side of a conflict is naive and misleading. An embedded reporter reports what s/he is allowed and told to report. There is some room for chance and good fortune, as in all human affairs, for the script to be violated and the embedded journalist to see something the military did not want him/her to see. But these are exceptions to the rule, and rare, and getting rarer still.

In the end we made our choices. Even now there is no debate amongst American journalism about the validity of this program or the need to challenge it on the legal front. It has become the way of doing ‘journalism’. There is a larger issue here about the rules and operational posture of American reporters reporting on America’s wars. It’s an issue that has largely been ignored – not the least by so many awards being handed out to the ‘embedded’, and which I feel there is an urgent need to address. I believe, in my own infinite naivety, that we can still turn things around. That American media still has the wherewithall to change this situation, to start to take the control back from the military. Or at least show resistance to the program. Perhaps this is what Michael Kamber is trying to do – to finally start to speak back to the military. I hope so.

During the first Gulf War a group of journalists and smaller media organizations attempted to protest the US military’s ‘pool’ program. They decided to file a legal case against the Pentagon alleging that the pool program was a violation of the First Amendment Right to freedom of expression. No major media organization – print, broadcast of other, joined the action. The war was over by the time the courts could rule on the issue.

Soon thereafter, at a National Press Club forum on March 19th, 1991, Barry Zorthian, chief Pentagon public affairs spokesperson during the Vietnam war, gloated:

The Gulf War is over and the press lost.

Indeed. We are still losing.

UPDATE: Embedded New York Times photojournalist Joao Silva was severly wounded this morning while on patrol with American forces in Afghanistan. See Times Photographer Wounded In Afghanistan. It may produced limited journalism, but it remains dangerous and requires considerable personal risk to accompany any military unit to any front line. Nothing can change that fact. I don’t know Joao personally, but know his work and wish him well and a full recovery. As far as I can tell there are no details about his injuries or condition. Will keep an eye out for that.

 

  1. [...] have made my own arguments about the embed approach in a number of pieces, including The Transformation Of Pathology Into Pathos Or The Military Does What It Does And It Does It Well, and Wrapping Photographers Into The Packaging Of War, and a partial tongue-in-cheek piece called [...]

Comments are closed.

%d bloggers like this: