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Wilfred Owen and Donald Rumsfeld have next to nothing in common, but Owen’s most important poem and Rumsfeld’s most important Senate testimony Friday share the same controlling nuance.
A leading figure among the “War Poets” of the World War I era, the battle-scarred Owen wrote of the hollowness of war, set against the promises of glory told to the young. His poem about the victim of a gas attack in the trenches ends in an arresting stanza:
In all my dreams before my helpless sight / He plunges at me, guttering, choking, drowning. / If in some smothering dreams, you too could pace / Behind the wagon that we flung him in, / And watch the white eyes writhing in his face, / His hanging face, like a devil’s sick of sin….My friend, you would not tell with such high zest / To children ardent for some desperate glory / The old Lie: Dulce et decorum est / Pro patria mori.
The nuance of the poem is that “watching” the death, the “sight” of it, not just knowing that it happened, makes all the difference. Everyone knew what was going on in the trenches, but few at home had actually seen it, and the rest were singing the glories of war uninhibited.
Enter Donald Rumsfeld, explaining to the Senate why there are photographs of American soldiers torturing Iraqi detainees. Faced with the fact that the Pentagon knew about these abuses in January, he tried to explain why he and the president have become shocked, horrified, etc., only in May. “It is the photographs,” he said. “Words don’t do it. The words that there were abuses, that it was cruel, that it was inhumane, all of which is true, that it was blatant, you read that and it’s one thing. You see the photographs, and you get a sense of it, and you cannot help but be outraged.” For Rumsfeld, as for Owen, what matters is not what you know but what you see. This is not a crisis about torture. This is a crisis about photographs of torture.
On some level, we should not be shocked by the abuse. If you pause to actually think what happens during war, even “modern war,” this is on the milder end of the scale. In a war, limbs are severed, heads are crushed. Children are mangled beyond the recognition even of their parents, and parents are charred alive before the eyes of their children. All of this has happened in Iraq—not because Americans are evil, but because war is the ultimate doer of evil.
If you don’t appreciate this, it’s not because you haven’t been told. It’s because you haven’t been shown. But the Arab world has. For more than a year, while we watch fireworks shows over that river in Baghdad and think that we know what a war looks like, Arab viewers have seen footage of the bodies of Iraqi children who had the misfortune of coming between a bomb and its target. Look closely at American complaints about al-Jazeera, and you will find that most objections are not about inaccurate reporting or unfairness, but rather about editorial decisions to show graphic photos—images which American journalists are either reluctant to show or unable to obtain. Last week’s photos are America’s first taste of what scholars describe as “The al-Jazeera Effect” whenever some well-intentioned American reporter asks why those Arabs are so very angry all the time.
Seeing is believing, so much so that crises happen only after the fact, after the images come in. It’s enough to make a postmodern literary critic explode: things which happened in the past are not going to become real until the future, when the photographs and videos bring them into our present. President Bush and Dick Cheney may not have seen the Vietnam War, but they have seen enough pictures of it to know the power of images. They know that the best way to prevent something that has already happened is to make sure no one sees it. That’s how you get a policy against photographing caskets, and a military begging CBS not to air its photographs of prisoner abuse. If people see these things, the victims will be disaggregated from numbers back into people, and America could have second thoughts about having chosen this war.
In the hearings we learned that there is more to the abuse story on the way—in the words of Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., “we’re talking about rape and murder and some very serious charges.” But the story is not being reported in terms of further abuse that has happened, but rather photos (and possibly videos) that will come out in the future. Any homicides in the prison are described in this quasi-future tense, because they will come to have happened only after people see photographs.
Meanwhile, a British reporter has videotape showing American soldiers deliberately shooting a wounded Iraqi from a helicopter as he crawls out from under a flaming truck, which is a war crime under the Geneva Conventions. But for all practical purposes, this war crime hasn’t occurred...yet. In the U.S., the video has aired only on ABC, and so far the obscurity of this story is a weird mimicry of the prisoner abuse revelations, which had aired on CBS almost a full week before the issue exploded onto front pages and presidential announcements of shock. If you haven’t seen it yet, it’s as though it didn’t happen. If the images are adequately controlled, perhaps the shooting can be prevented from happening, even though it occurred in December.
Rumsfeld may be full of just the kind of “high zest” that Owen decries, but both of them understood the power of imagery. With the New York Times calling for his resignation, Washington is buzzing about Donald Rumsfeld’s fate. Whatever it is, it will be better than Wilfred Owen’s. An English officer, he wrote those lines while recovering from wounds in 1917. Once healed, he returned to the front, 25 years old, to be killed on the battlefield one week before Armistice.
Peter P.M. Buttigieg ’04 is a history and literature concentrator in Leverett House. His column appears regularly.
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