EVEN THEIR NAMES are getting hard to find, clustered in the back of the Sunday paper or left out altogether, now that death in Iraq is so quotidian and the war is not even news. For two years we have not been permitted to see the coffins, except during the week of April 14, 2004, when The Memory Hole website activist Russ Kick released the images he’d obtained through the Freedom of Information Act. And we rarely see the corpses. We read that U.S. soldiers are surviving massive devastation to body and brain that would have been fatal in any earlier conflict, which suggests something about the last minutes of these dead young men and women we will not see, except, occasionally, as a sort of yearbook of faces of those whose futures were canceled.
Nor will we see what they have seen. The war of patriotism and policy is always an abstraction, in stark contrast with the shrapnel-spilled guts and crushed skulls, the exploded flesh that is war’s most direct byproduct. Beyond the physical toll is the psychic impact, which will mount as months and years go by for the veterans, some of whom will join those other unseen, unacknowledged battalions of the homeless, the mentally ill, the disturbed, and the haunted. For millions of Iraqi civilians and hundreds of thousands of American soldiers and contractors, the war will be visible in the mind, inscribed on the body, long after it is over on the ground.
It will also be enshrined in photographs, those most powerful testaments to the effects of battle. The censoring of photographs has been standard in wartime, except, notably, during our war in Vietnam. The people running this war have been busy manufacturing images—staged statue topplings, “Mission Accomplished” photo ops—partly as a way of suppressing others. Simply reading the names of the dead Americans and showing their faces was, at least when Ted Koppel did it on Nightline last spring, decried as traitorous. Generally, U.S. news outlets don’t take such risks; they buffer us from what we might witness in Iraq. When photographer Chris Hondros captured a dozen images of our soldiers shooting at a car at a checkpoint, killing a father and mother and orphaning the five traumatized, blood-soaked children with them, as well as those at home, many in Europe saw the sequence; few here did. According to historian Tariq Ali, a U.S. general in Qatar demanded that Al Jazeera stop airing the photographs. Thanks to the twin censorship of the government and the media, and to our own desire not to be confronted with the costs of our war in Iraq, the gulf between those of us out of harm’s way and the civilians and combatants caught up in the fray is almost unbridgeable.
Yet unofficial images have been leaking through the media blockade like blood seeping through a bandage. They are being provided, usually over the Internet, by the same people the censorship is supposed to honor: our soldiers. During the First World War, soldiers circulated snapshots showing the suppressed realities of battle. But no soldiers in history have had the means of our troops in Iraq and Afghanistan to record and transmit their experiences, to make us see what they—what we—are doing. Technology determinists would argue that the increase in tools of mass documentation—cheap video recorders, digital cameras, picture phones, the Internet—is making censorship nearly impossible, making war massively, redundantly visible to those at home. But that’s only true if the images find an outlet and an audience, if we can bear to let ourselves look.
Penny Allen looked. On an airplane over the Atlantic, the Paris-based filmmaker and novelist met a soldier going home on leave, listened to his tales, and, at his insistence—I can’t look at that! You have to look!—viewed the movie he played on his laptop of his daily routine in Iraq. The two kept in touch, and Allen compiled the images he sent her into a foto-roman with dialogue gleaned from their conversations, a cartoon rendering starker in its reality than anything allowed on the evening news. Her construction, “War Is Hell” (excerpted above), has since been exhibited in art galleries in the United States. Its very awkwardness—atrocity as comic strip—summons up the inadequacy of our equipment for coming to terms with what is being done in our names, with our money. Here are the frames of a comic strip: roadscape, armored carrier close-up, explosion, gore. The surprise that is entertaining in the comics—next frame: Kaboom!—is the foundation of fear in war. Here is a dreary landscape that would be boring for the young soldiers were it not punctuated by confrontations in which they may become or make corpses. In stark desert light, these images, and others being transmitted by our troops to our reluctant eyes, lay wide open a secret war, perhaps the secret of every war: its gruesomeness, its brutality.