Friday, April 30, 2004

Image Makers

The power of images has long been understood by advertising people, and image making is a widely used tool of politicians.  Stage setting and image making is a bi-partisan activity, but no one has become more adept at it than the Republicans, particularly since Michael Deaver came to town with Ronald Reagan.  So it's not surprising that a great deal of attention has been paid on this day to President Bush's fly-in and staged end-of-hostilities address before that huge Mission Accomplished banner on the deck of a large carrier last May 1.  I can't add to it other than to note something Bob Woodward recently said about owning things you create. 

What I can't get out of my head are two vivid images that appeared on our front pages in the past days.  The first, and clearly the most disturbing, was of American soldiers humiliating war prisoners, and the second was of an of American officer shaking hands with a former Iraqi general to whom he was turning over authority in Falluja.  While being a vociferous opponent of the war in Iraq, I don't for a minute think that those few soldiers represent the brave youngsters who are risking their lives every day, nor do I doubt George Bush's sincerity in expressing disgust.  I also understand the desperate need to quiet down Falluja -- thus General Saleh.  But think about the images.

The prison in which those soldiers disgraced themselves and their country is the same prison in which Saddam tortured Iraqis throughout his brutal regime.  The general with his Saddam-like mustache and Saddam-era uniform has been asked to take command of the place, claims about outside agitators notwithstanding, that is widely regarded as the main stronghold of Baathist resistance.  If images are the name of the game in influencing minds and carrying the message, what must the average Iraqi be thinking?  What are we, who have sent our sons and daughters to war and spent billions to rid the world of Iraq's old way, to think?  Isn't it fair for both of us to wonder why our two countries are going through all of this? 

Ugly things happen in the heat of war, on all sides.  Frustrated  and tired soldiers commit atrocities.  The only people in Iraq with any track record of getting things like security done are the bad guys.  Our problem is that we have entered a world whose language, customs, culture and way of doing things we neither knew nor understood.  We speak platitudes about being on the Almighty's mission to bring the light to the democracy-starved.  We are confidently self-assured but are absolutely clueless.  Now everything is out of control, including the images.  In the end, it is the Iraqi people who, based upon our promises had harbored some hope, will pay the price.  They should have known the day we marched in Ahmed Chalibi as their democratic savior.  Speak of images.

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