July 15, 2008

Sleepwalking Out of Iraq


by Robert Hariman

There has been something strange about the recent coverage of the war in Iraq.

Privately I’ve been complaining that the war has all but disappeared from the papers, or that the photos are soft news shots, or that everything has becoming numbingly repetitive. There is some truth to all of that, but not enough. It finally hit me today after a friend suggested that I was giving up too easily. So I looked again and there it was: the US, across the board, is already disengaging and moving on, but as if in a dream, as if none of this is really happening.

To see what I mean, you might look at the photograph above.

Iraqi civilians are queued up for food and medical aid in Sadr City. We see, front to back, the civilians, an Iraqi soldier, and then an American soldier. The details tell a familiar story not without irony: As the Iraqi military steps up the US can drop back into a supporting role.  Although the US troops are occupying a school that had to be abandoned, the Iraqi soldier is masked because of sectarian violence, and kids are already armed, albeit with water pistols.

But these are distractions from the real truth of the photograph. The American is already well in the background, behind a barrier, peering out as though from a door that he is about to close. He is looking on a scene of his own making, but one that now clearly is separate from where and who he is. The interaction is all on the other side of the barrier. Soon he will step back. After all, he is in the vanishing point of the picture.

Any one photograph can be but a fragment and not representative of a larger pattern. So let’s look at two more.


This one is yet another shot of US soldiers searching a family’s home in Iraq. You might contrast it with others which were images of close encounters that could be terrifying and confusing for all concerned (such as this one posted at No Caption Needed). This picture, by contrast, could be a study in alienation: The scene has an eerie feel to it, as if it were a still from some European film where dream and reality get mixed together.

He is preoccupied in the background, she is waiting in the foreground, and they are separated by the long viewing angle as well as a concrete partition, as if they were in separate zones of feeling. She is tense, alert, even colorful; although frightened and wary, this still is her home. He is distant, relaxed, even laconic–just going through the motions. He stands by a door. On close inspection it appears to be a closet, but it does double duty as a portal to the some symbolic other place. He will look around, go through his check list, and then go out the door. Why not? He already is far away from those around him in Iraq.  And besides, he might be redeployed to go on patrol in Afghanistan:


This is supposed to be our new and improved war against terror, but old habits are hard to break.

The photograph captures the near-complete separation between the US military and those living under the occupation. The troops are walking in one direction, set on their mission, while the Afghani civilian walks in the other. Once again, the troops are a muted presence in the background while more colorful domestic life goes on as best it can.

Purely military rather than political, cultural, or economic engagement means that the US is there but not there. The unreal quality of American empire makes it easy to send the troops abroad, and easy to let it all melt away without really admitting mistakes and counting the cost.  The war in Afghanistan initially was justified and may still be necessary. The war in Iraq was neither. That war began in a condition of collective–though not total–delusion.

Perhaps it is too much to expect it to end any other way. One would like to think the US could face up to the tragedy and learn from its mistakes. As these photographs suggest, however, it could be that we haven’t learned a thing and that we will leave Iraq in a haze of denial, perfectly capable of making the same mistakes again.

Cross-posted from No Caption Needed.

(Photographs by Andrea Bruce/Washington Post, Damir Sagoli/Reuters, and Rafiq Magbool/Associated Press)

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Robert Hariman
See other posts by Robert here.

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