07/05/2006 01:18 pm ET | Updated May 25, 2011

Reading The Pictures: Killing 'Em With Kindness in Ramadi


ramadi-house-encounter.jpg (image at full size)

If you believe the MSM, U.S. forces have found a better way to retake an Iraqi city. In contrast to the Falloujah campaign, the media is describing the Ramadi push as a "restrained charm offensive."

The two western photojournalists in Ramadi that I am aware of are Jacob Silberberg for the AP, and Joao Silva for The New York Times. Silva has been accompanying Dexter Filkins, who has been filing Times stories from this hellish city for over a week now. Today's installment (In Ramadi, Fetid Quarters and Unrelenting Battles) details the harsh turf battle going on, including plans to reclaim territory "neighborhood by neighborhood" and to bulldoze the city center and create a Green Zone. This article, too, emphasizes that the "highest priority is winning over people ... even at the cost of letting insurgents escape."

While these articles almost uncritically herald this "hearts and minds" strategy, however, the (written and visual) examples they offer mostly reflect the tension or mutual distrust between the American's and local civilians. Consider this passage near the end of the Filkens story:

"The people are in the middle, between us and the insurgents," Lance Cpl. Sean Patton said as he wheeled his Humvee through a neighborhood downtown.... "Whoever is friendly, they will help."

A few moments later, Corporal Patton and his men were reminded of just how bewildering this city could be. As he turned slowly down a street, all the Iraqis milling about, maybe 30 people in all, suddenly disappeared.

"They're going to hit us," the corporal said, convinced that the crowd had been tipped off to the presence of a bomb or an impending attack.

When the Americans left the street, the Iraqis returned.

Both photos above are framed to illustrate, according to photographer Silberberg's caption, how the U.S. military is "replacing confrontation with courtesy in hopes of winning public trust and undercutting support for militants." In the first example, a Marine corporal "tells an Iraqi man where he is from." The second image comes from the truly revealing photo gallery accompanying this morning's Times article. To the Times' credit, its caption is light years more "real" than the other. It states:

Iraqi civilians have spent the last three years caught between the two warring camps, with individual Iraqis often simultaneously under threat by insurgents and under suspicion by the Americans.

In the first shot, with a finger and a camera pointing in the Iraqi's face, with the map askew and the setting cast in inadequate light, it is impossible to see this photo as uncomplicated, simply reflective of mutual goodwill. Comparatively though, the second shot just reeks of tension. This is a clear confrontation between the soldier and the Iraqi man, not a love-in. As intense, if more complex, is the way this woman's face relays and stifles deep fear and concern.

If it's hard to accept the media's propagation of a wildly optimistic engagement strategy, it's also terribly "old hat" by now, in light of embedding, one-party power, political intimidation and conservative spin. If these images do have an unequivocal message, however, it speaks to the absolute need for us to take the reading and looking more into our own hands.

For more of the visual, visit

(image 1: Jacob Silberberg/AP. Ramadi. June 28, 2006. Via YahooNews. image 2: Joao Silva. July 5, 2006. Ramadi.