November 14, 2006

Marked As Allies


by Chris Maynard

Over the weekend, a morgue worker tends to body bags is Baquba, Iraq, in the province of Diyala, east of Baghdad. Diyala has a mix of Kurds, Sunnis and Shiites, which at this point is the equivalent of dousing sticks of dynamite with gasoline and sending in a two-year-old with a Zippo.

A horrifying piece by the New York Times Richard Oppel describes Iraqi military commanders, who happen to be Shiite, rounding up residents, who happen to be Sunni. The Iraqi general in charge is working off a list he claims comes from Baghdad. The list also contains the names of almost all the local Sunni sheiks and other leaders who the American military has marked as allies in their efforts to contain sectarian violence.

In April there were four civilian homicides a day, and now there are ten a day. The death rate isn’t helped by Sunnis killing Shiites to avenge Sunni deaths in Baghdad. And then there are the Kurds. Like everything else in Iraq, it is very complicated, which is why readers frequently never make it past the photographs.

This one was taken on Sunday, when 100 people were killed in Iraq. It adds a new dimension to the pictures of the dead, see-through body bags. As reluctant as the Western press is to show corpses of occupying troops, there’s never been much compunction against running images of the occupied. Maybe we’re inured to shots of stretchers filled with draped bodies, or street processions led by open coffins, or perhaps there’s just a built-in aspect of civil “us” versus the mob of “them.”

Here in America we seem to want to prettify our dead: a large part of a funeral parlor’s work is cosmetic, making sure the corpse looks good. A widow decides on a closed coffin for her husband’s wake because she’s ashamed that he was so skinny at the end; cancer will do that, but why should there be shame? What made the photographs from New Orleans so shocking was how dead the people were. They were swollen by gas, bobbing in the water. The country really wasn’t prepared for that.

And now, we have clear zipped up bags holding the dead, twenty-first century versions of the funerary veil. This is not what the Administration means when it talks about transparency. No favorite suit, no neatly combed hair and last close shave, just a piece of white paper slipped in, presumably listing the circumstances of death.

One popular way of allowing ourselves to look away from these scenes is to say “Oh, it cries out for a Goya.”  We can make out heads, shoulders, arms, the darkness of crotches. Would it be any worse if we could see bullet holes and crooked limbs and final grimaces?  If the light had been different we would see even more, but this is probably more than enough at the moment.

(image: Mohammed Adnam/A.P.  Baquba, Iraq.  November 12, 2006.

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Michael Shaw
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