March 30, 2017

Trump, the Mosul Atrocity, and a GIF That Says it All


People with skills make the difficult look easy.

Barack Obama brought considerable care, mediation and expert counsel to every aspect of the presidency, especially the role of Commander-in-Chief. Since Donald Trump came into office, of course, that sobriety has gone missing in the country’s domestic concerns, the affairs of state, or apparently now, the use of the armed forces and the application of military might.

The first indication of a difference on the military front was the attack Trump blithely approved in Yemen. Unfortunately, the dismal result was mostly buried in the chaotic launch of the administration, already swirling in controversy and bombastic, rapid-fire executive actions.

As for Iraq, Candidate Trump constantly ridiculed the military campaign against ISIS. In reality, a deliberate strategy and a delicately-balanced coalition of players has shown steady progress and impressive results. At the point Trump inherited the situation, these forces had largely reclaimed Anbar Province, the Islamic State reduced to it’s last bastion, the city of Mosul. That’s why the bombing and mass killing of civilians in a U.S. airstrike in Eastern Mosul last week is so alarming, the event described by WAPO as “potentially one of the worst U.S.-led civilian bombings in 25 years.”

Of course, this isn’t the first time, in the course of the post 9/11 wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, that errant U.S. actions led to horrors and political blowback. Still, President Obama worked calmly and persistently over eight years to apply realistic strategy, methodical goals and a range of limits to American firepower. Trump’s bellicosity and thin skin, his knee-jerk ways, his inability to educate himself, his aggressive stance toward friends as well as foes, and his personalizing of everything proves him the anti-Obama. Under seasoned hands, the Trump Pentagon remains to prove itself. Still, the Yemen incursion, and now the atrocity in Mosul has cast the American military and America itself in a new light. Trump — the man who up until recently was still advocating that we seize Iraq’s oil — is turning America into a hair-triggered bully.

Trump inherited a stable government, a growing economy, and a complex set of foreign engagements that hardly made waves at home. After eight years of Obama, we’re now in a hard pivot. It’s difficult to believe, let alone adjust to. And to make matters worse, Trump aims to keep people off-balance, his radical and impulsive actions a political and emotional form of shock-and-awe. Public confusion and disorientation, as well as the elicitation of anger and helplessness is intentional.

So how do we come to terms? This is where questioning and dialogue and imagination is critical, and art has a large role to play. Artist Brandon Tauszik’s GIF, above, was produced last year in Lebanon for The International Committee of the Red Cross. It was published this January with other moving and still images on a project website called “Syria Street.” The project documents the hostility between two Lebanese neighborhoods, one Sunni Muslim, the other Alawite Muslim, aligned as they are with different sides in the Syrian civil war. Ironically, the two sects are separated by a street named after the war torn country only a forty minute drive away.

To be clear, bombers are not threatening this Tripoli suburb. The men in the GIF could simply have noticed a bird. The suggestion of vigilance and the unnerving repetition is metaphorical, and it’s also hauntingly effective. Couched in the safety of slow-motion, the mundanity of sanding a chair and, especially, the repose that comes with having a cigarette is the specter of imminent annihilation in so many Middle and Near Eastern neighborhoods. In the gesture is the anxiety that, in the next instant, your community with be reduced to rubble, and you, your family and all your friends will be incinerated.

Of course it’s difficult for Americans to relate to this, just like it’s difficult to wrap our heads around a suddenly poisonous and reviled United States of America.  Perhaps the new reality is easier to apprehend though if you imagine that, from today on, the looping GIF does not just apply to citizens of Syria. It now also applies to Iraqi citizens terrified of it’s own ally — us.

See the entire Syria Street website here.

(GIF: Brandon Tauszik for the  The International Committee of the Red Cross.)

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Michael Shaw
See other posts by Michael here.

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