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Reading The Pictures: 4,000 U.S. Combat Deaths, and Just a Handful of Images

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Copters-And-Cows

Why do I think this image from Thursday's NYT is so profound?

It's because the military has been so overwhelmingly effective in muting the war, and the war photographer, that -- practically without notice -- many of our best shooters have found themselves turning, in a disproportionate way, to the technique of irony.

For example, Cristoph Bangert has been masterful in articulating the surreal nature of a long incoherent strategy in an alien land. And now, photographer Ashley Gilbertson -- whose work I've shown and discussed a number of times at BAGnewsNotes -- is back "in country," and again "firing wit-tipped darts" attempting to wake us up.

Of course, if we weren't so anesthetized, we might actually sit forward and wonder about the outlandish contrast in this photo, or more particularly, to consider what an all-too-stealth-like picture might have to do with still one more headline confirming the latest non-development concerning Iraq's Babel-ish, seemingly permanent stalemate-for-a-government.

The agrarian scene, confounding associations of Iraq as a mostly arid, desert-like place, uses the really hilarious device of cows grazing to mirror how we in the U.S. have become so thoroughly pacified (or, dare I saw, "cowed?") by the pictorial censorship and fundamental lack of context in the war reporting as to basically reduce the whole subject -- despite the shadowy war machine still silently screaming overhead -- to the significance of, well, grazing.

If you've been following my site and this "Reading The Pictures" series, you're aware of a few humble efforts here to poke pin holes in the blackout.

Although I'm still not certain of the claim, I believe the Nov 09, 2005 post "Beyond Dover: MSM's First Published U.S. War Fatality?" ("thirty-two months and 2,000+ American deaths into the campaign," as I wrote at the time), shows one of the first (and only) published U.S. fatalities of the war in the traditional media. And then the post "Have We Just Seen The Last Combat Injury In Iraq?," co-authored with the incomparable war photographer Michael Kamber a year ago June, calls out the military for a procedural power play, effectively precluding any more pictures of injured U.S. service people from hitting the presses.

However, the visual blackout and all the ironic carom shots were punctured two days ago -- at least for one day -- by a story in the New York Times. In a courageous piece, Kamber penned a concise exposé not only outlining the pervasive, hypocritical and ever-more manipulative visual censorship being practiced by the U.S. military, but also specifically detailed the castigation and persecution of embedded photographer Zoriah Miller for documenting -- without any blinders -- a June 26th suicide attack outside of Fallujah.

(Iraqi and American victims of the June 26th suicide attack in a slum area of Fallujah)

If Zoriah captured and, ultimately, posted the images of U.S. and Iraqi fatalities on his website, incurred the terrifying wrath of the military for it, it wasn't for any lack of professionalism and commitment to journalistic practices, or subjugation of military rules of embedding, or any disregard or disrespect for the soldiers and their families. No, it was merely in service of truth and of seeing.

If I have earned any credit at all as an advocate of visual politics, I urge you to read these two piece, first Michael Kamber's story, "4,000 U.S. Combat Deaths, and Just a Handful of Images." (As mentioned, I pay respect to The Times for running the feature, although I think it's slightly chickenshit they chose to land it on a Saturday.) And, as soon as you've finished, go immediately to Zoriah's blog and read/look at Suicide Bombing in Anbar - Eye Witness Account, the post graphically documenting the suicide bombing that put Zoriah at odds with the man. (You might also be interested in his July 3rd and July 7th follow up.)

To the extent this war has been about what hasn't and can't be seen -- including the casualties on all sides; the caskets; the literally millions of Iraqi refugees; the intense American bombing; the permanent U.S. bases; and most recently, the U.S. military running invisible interference for the Iraqi government assaults on the Mahdi -- thank God for Zoriah. Because, as much as Ashley's "cattle prod" calls out our myopia, more than a handful would likely take it for Iowa.

For more of the visual, visit BAGnewsNotes.com.

(image 1: Ashley Gilbertson for the New York Times. July 2008, Diyala Province, Iraq. image 2 & 3: © Zoriah/Zoriah.com. All rights reserved. June 26, 2008. Anbar Province)