Tuesday, November 15, 2005

Honorable opposition

Amid all the political racket that is being heard across the land, it has been rather hard to discern the voice of moderate middle America lately. You know, those people who have been standing silently in awe at the unusually ugly name-calling and vituperativeness on the national scene today, of which even I, Gentle Readers, am guilty. But not everybody in any other party is an ogre, as I keep reminding myself. A good friend of mine, who just happens to be a life-long Republican, was recently moved to take stock of what it means to be a conservative and a Republican, regardless of how those people in Washington, DC. are comporting themselves at the moment. With his kind permission, we hereby offer this reminder of what ‘honorable opposition’ really means. - grp

Liberty and the Party of Lincoln

An Essay by Terence Lyons
As a lifelong Republican, surveying the present state of political affairs does make me ask – as others ask me from time to time – why I still count myself a member of the Grand Old Party. Surely the answer transcends one administration. Alas, it may have to transcend one generation. (And at some point, if things don’t change, it may transcend itself right into the ground.) And so, I formulate the answer – for myself as much as for anyone else – like this:
I had a college professor who would take one day each term – no matter what course he was teaching at the time – to deliver a lecture on the subject of liberalism. (I should state that I have always regarded liberalism as an American ideal, not the special property of any political party and certainly not a term of derision.) It was Professor Beilhartz’s thesis that liberalism was an emotion rather than an articulated political philosophy – an emotion expressed in the cry of the French Revolution: “Liberty, Equality, Fraternity!”
The fundamental difficulty with liberalism is that there is an inherent tension between liberty and equality – absolute liberty crushes equality, and absolute equality smothers liberty, and there is a continuum of tense struggles between the two at all points between the absolutes. (It is the function of fraternity – good will among men (make that persons) – to lubricate this tension, but the tension persists nevertheless.)
In my view, Republicans tend to favor liberty in the management of this tension, while Democrats tend to favor equality. Each party recognizes both elements of liberalism, and each party recognizes the necessity and benefits of the tension between the two, and it is that recognition that separates Republicans from Libertarians, and Democrats from Socialists.
The Republicans’ emphasis on liberty leads them to favor a limited government (that which governs least, governs best) and to view government as a defensive protector of private enterprise – the freedom that allows individuals to create progress. True Republican philosophy enthusiastically endorses the manifesto set down by John Steinbeck in East of Eden:

“Our species is the only creative species, and it has only one creative instrument, the individual mind and spirit of a man. . . . And this I believe: that the free, exploring mind of the individual human is the most valuable thing in the world. And this I would fight for: the freedom of the mind to take any direction it wishes, undirected. And this I must fight against: any idea, religion, or government which limits or destroys the individual.”
The Democrats’ emphasis on equality, on the other hand, leads them to favor the broader government that is required for the maintenance of equality and to view government as the engine of progress. Thus, the Democrats’ agenda promotes “government programs” such as the New Deal or the Great Society.

It is certainly true that in today’s political landscape the two parties (and, I am sad to say, especially the Republicans) do not always hold true to such philosophical positions, choosing instead to cater to the special interests of what have become their respective “core constituencies.” But every now and then these political themes still assert themselves, as they did in this June’s Supreme Court decision in Kelo v. City of New London. In that case, the Court, in a 5-4 decision, upheld a Connecticut city’s condemnation of 15 residences for a commercial development project even though the condemned properties were not “blighted or otherwise in poor condition” and even though the taken land was to be used by private corporate parties rather than municipal facilities.

Several news commentators expressed surprise that Democrat-appointed Justices Ginsburg and Breyer voted in favor of the forced transfer to the private corporate interests while Republican-appointed Justices Rehnquist, Scalia, and Thomas voted for the less powerful homeowners. But to me, the alignment of the justices was consistent and predictable according to the higher standards of political philosophy rather than the lower standards of whose-ox-is-being-gored-today. The Democrats’ view that the use of the condemnation power as an engine for “economic revitalization” is “a traditional and long accepted function of government” triumphed (narrowly) over the Republicans’ view that the function of government is rather “to protect ‘the security of Property,’ which Alexander Hamilton described to the Philadelphia Convention as one of the ‘great obj[ects] of Gov[ernment].’”

Which brings me square-on to the subject of progress, mentioned above. The Republican Party is often accused of being stuck in the past and anti-progress. While some who call themselves Republicans (especially today) are surely guilty of this charge, it is not a fair indictment of real GOP principles. True party loyalists do tend to be students of history, but that is because such Republicans share the outlook of Patrick Henry: “I know of no way of judging the future but by the past.” Democrats may gaze upon the future and quote G. B. Shaw (as Robert Kennedy was fond of doing): “You see things; and you say, ‘Why?’ But I dream things that never were; and I say, ‘Why not?’” Republicans prefer to rely on George Santayana’s maxim that those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it. But that does not divide the parties over whether to pursue progress, but only over how best to achieve it. It is instructive to read Mr. Santayana’s maxim in context:
“Progress, far from consisting in change, depends on retentiveness. When change is absolute there remains no being to improve and no direction is set for possible improvement: and when experience is not retained, as among savages, infancy is perpetual. Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.”
Republicans believe the past teaches that real progressive change is not wrought by government programs but by individual persons exercising their creative liberties under the protection of a government that insures their freedom to do so.

A friend recently called my attention to a piece written by Garrison Keillor (of Lake Wobegon fame) just before the 2004 elections:
“Something has gone seriously haywire with the Republican Party. Once, it was the party of pragmatic Main Street businessmen in steel-rimmed spectacles who decried profligacy and waste, were devoted to their communities and supported the sort of prosperity that raises all ships. . . . The genial Eisenhower was their man, a genuine American hero of D-Day, who made it OK for reasonable people to vote Republican. He brought the Korean War to a stalemate, produced the Interstate Highway System, declined to rescue the French colonial army in Vietnam, and gave us a period of peace and prosperity, in which (oddly) American arts and letters flourished and higher education burgeoned – and there was a degree of plain decency in the country.”
Coming from a Democrat, I can almost buy that, as well as most of the criticism Mr. Keillor goes on to level at today’s Republican leadership – but not the “(oddly)” dig. Because arts and letters flourish best when individuals are guaranteed the liberty to extend themselves beyond equality, and that is true Republican policy in action. I do not know how this current batch of narrow-minded, salivating censors and intellectual bigots wormed their way into my Republican Party, and I certainly don’t like it one bit. The party of Lincoln and liberty would let Robert Mapplethorpe photograph whatever he wishes, and defend his right to exhibit it too; but don’t expect to have it funded with a government program.

I dream (Republicans do that, you know) of a presidential contest between a real Republican and a real Democrat – perhaps the John McCain / Bill Bradley match up we didn’t get in 2000 – in which all the voters know that both candidates fully participate in the tension of liberalism and both candidates seem to share the good will that lubricates that tension. I will walk into the polling booth, adjust my steel-rimmed spectacles, and probably vote for the Republican. Because, on such a landscape, I believe that when push comes to shove, liberty trumps equality.

And that is why I am a Republican. Still. So far.

Inconvenient photographs

Unembedded: Four Independent Photojournalists on the War in Iraq
Photographs by Gaith Abdul-Ahad, Kael Alford, Thorne Anderson, Rita Leistner
Forward by Philip Jones Griffiths, Introduction by Philip Robertson
Chelsea Green, cloth $50.00, paper $29.95

A review by G. Randy Primm

During the Vietnam War, we saw it all, and we saw it all the time; it was on TV, in the pages of Life, Time and Newsweek, and on the front pages of every newspaper in the world: horrifying images of war. We saw assassinations of suspected Viet Cong agents, napalmed children, emotionally wasted combat infantrymen, torched hooches and immolated monks. But with the passage of time, the pictures had their desired effect, and finally the American public had had enough. Conventional wisdom these days has it that the pictures really didn’t do all that much to end the war; it was the doomsday pronouncement by Walter Cronkite, CBS news anchor and American icon, that the war was truly lost that finally caused the administration to throw in the towel, but the images from the printed press as well as the nightly newsreels certainly contributed.

Interestingly, the editors at Time/Life, in their book Life: 100 Photographs That Changed the World, comment, “[During WWII], President Franklin D. Roosevelt was convinced that Americans had grown too complacent about the war, so he lifted the ban on images depicting U.S. casualties.” But the military was always dubious; the Pentagon saw unrestricted (albeit occasionally censored) photo access as detrimental to the war, and probably a contributing factor to mission failure.

The policy of embedding

It took some years and several more military actions to finally settle on a policy and process that was amenable to both the press and the military. After Vietnam, they changed their policy on combat reporting several times. In Panama and Grenada, the press was barred completely until after the action had all but ceased; in Somalia, the press turned the tables by arriving ahead of the invasion and ended up sitting on the beach and welcoming the marines with hoots and cheers. With Operation Desert Storm, the press had all the nose cone video tape that they could stand and then some. But with the aid of the redoubtable RAND Corp., a policy was finally arrived at that seemed to make everyone - publishers, military and public - happy: "embedding."

With embedding, print and video reporters are permanently assigned to a particular combat unit and live with them, dodging bullets and bombs with them and getting killed with them. Reporters Without Frontiers estimates 73 journalists KIA in Iraq so far, from multiple press agencies and countries. But here’s the kicker: no more free rides; if the embedded journalist leaves his assigned unit, he is basically abandoned by the military (“retrograded”), with virtually no recourse, and if he travels alone, he is in extreme danger. Robert Fisk, Middle East correspondent for the UK Independent, estimates that he has about 12 minutes of street time after he leaves his hotel in the Green Zone to get his story and get back to the hotel before he is targeted by whomever, including by American forces.

This war is vicious, and civilians are dying or are severely injured right beside the so-called “insurgents”; some by suicide bombers and others by stray howitzer shells, phosphorus, friendly fire, napalm, the whole bit. Sabrina Tavernise of The New York Times calculates (Oct 30, 2005) that civilians are dying at a rate of about 63 a day, with the number of wounded almost impossible to estimate because of the lack of coverage. But we don’t see this carnage because they are dying out of range of the camera lenses for the most part, and because most of the death and injury is to them, the other guys, and the bystanders, mostly women and children. but these images of Iraq are mainly unseen by the American public because, just as the American style of modern war is long range, so too is the visual imagery that is coming out of it.

So were the videos and stills that came out of Desert Storm real r├ęportage, or just agitprop? Does the coverage from the embedded reporters in Iraq today reflect the reality of today’s Operation Enduring Freedom? Where are the images of the bombed houses, gutted hospitals, burning mosques and the innocent dead? We know this is happening, but where are the pictures? Is there any publisher in the American press who would continue the legacy of Henry Luce, founder of Life magazine (now moribund) who once said of his magazine’s mission, “To see things a thousand miles away, things hidden behind walls and within rooms, things dangerous to come to...”?

Times have indeed changed, and probably not for the better.

The photographers

It is beyond the scope of this review to go into the politics of why the American press has held back on publishing images of this war, other than those clich├ęd pictures of burned-out Humvees or stylish close-ups of soldiers standing at Iraqi check points, and certainly no graphic pictures of the American dead or even the Iraqi dead, civilian or otherwise. Suffice it to say that it is ‘not convenient,’ and we will discuss that issue later. Thankfully, the rest of the world press has no such editorial reluctance, and the more graphic images in this book have found their way into many of the rest of the world’s editorial pages, if not the American press.

I have spent nearly ten months in Iraq – almost all of that time “embedded” with the Iraqi people themselves. I traveled with American soldiers for a few days, and it was like being in a plastic bubble. From the American Humvees I could see the Iraq that I know, but there was no interaction with it. The Americans have almost no cultural contact with Iraqi people. They may have an occasional chat with some random Iraqis who pass by, but the American soldiers don’t make Iraqi friends over time, they don’t eat in their homes, visit their mosques, play with their children, go to weddings, play dominoes, or take afternoon naps with them. – Thorne Anderson

The photographers themselves are a motley crew: Thorne Anderson, an American; two women: Canadian Rita Leistner and American Kael Alford, and a Baghdad native and former Iraqi soldier, Ghaith Abdul-Ahad. All but Ghaith were full-time photojournalists before coming to Iraq. Ghaith was an architecture student in Baghdad before the war, and his photography is apparently self-taught. It’s obvious from looking at their photographs that they are all possessed of nerves of steel and an intense desire to document what is really happening in Iraq outside the Green Zone, where the war is killing the Iraqis we’re supposed to be bringing democracy to.

The military calls them “unilateral” journalists, operating outside of official sanction, hence, the “unembedded.” They may or may not have official press credentials, they may be stringers or on assignment, one is even a native Iraqi, but they are not officially recognized, they are barely tolerated and they get minimal support from the military or space in the American press. They do deliver honest images of this particular war, from close up, the way it should be done.

The photographs

There are some critics of photography who maintain that photographic coverage of war is not for information’s sake, but to boost the sales of magazines, newspapers and TV time. In fact, critic/deconstructionist Mario Cutajar, in a review of a recent showing of James Nachtwey’s photos at the Los Angeles Fahey/Klein Gallery, accused those who would defend combat photography as news-gathering as “naive” and possibly cynical. This would make the military’s policy of not showing pictures altruistic, perhaps?

This is not a book of aesthetic war photography, a la Nachtwey, who has often been accused of being a disaster aesthete. No, this is not war as art, and this is not a critique of the aesthetics of the photographs; it is obvious that these pictures were taken by professionals; with that said, these are news photographs. Many of them are badly framed or shot in poor light; composition is frequently out the window as many of these pictures were taken on the run or from inside jostling crowds. They are, however, full of content, following the dictum, “fill the frame.” Content is the issue here and content is what we get.

In the suburbs, US missiles went wrong or landed close to brittle cinder blocks housing that collapsed on whole families in their sleep. By the third week of bombing, the communications and telephone exchanges had been destroyed, so no one could call for help. In Saddam City Medical Center, casualties filled the rooms and lined every hallway. I photographed doctors setting bones, sewing stitches, and treating burns on patients without anesthesia. The ambulances were broken down, and drivers said they didn’t know where to find the injured anyway. These stories multiplied as the air raids grew to a crescendo before the Americans’ final push to Baghdad, until one editor asked, “Please don’t send any more wounded civilian pictures.” – Kael Alford

This is not to say that blood does not sell. Obviously, if you’re trying to make a point - in this particular case, attempting to bring attention to the unnecessary damage being done in Iraq – it is not out of line to show a grisly scene or two. And while there are grisly images in this book, a large amount of space is given over to the side effects of the ceaseless pounding this people have been subjected to. Rita Leistner, for instance, focuses on the patients of a Baghdad psychiatric hospital, a la Mary Ellen Mark, of which Rita’s work is reminiscent. Again, this is straight-ahead photojournalism, and brings our attention to a subject that is often overlooked in any telling of the war effort: the bystanders who, while not specifically targeted, are double victims, of the war and of their own inner turmoil.

Rita shows us the inmates of the Rashad psychiatric hospital. Plain walls, caged TV sets, naked pain. The composition is formal, the settings minimal, but the anguish of the patients is projected through her frame like a blowtorch.

There is a fear among many Iraqis, the doctor told me, that if one daughter has a mental disorder the family won’t be able to marry off any of the other daughters. So they are sent to Rashad, cast away from society by their families, who will often provide false addresses so hospital staff can never find them again. Some mentally healthy women find refuge at the hospital from beatings and honor killings, a traditional code that has resurfaced in the instability of postwar Iraq. Most of the women have no choice but to live at the hospital for the remainder of their lives. –Rita Leistner

Ghaith Abdul-Ahad lived on the run in Baghdad, taking his pictures on the fly – the very essence of street photography - slipping through the American lines by posing as a stringer for a British newspaper, then plunging back across the lines and into the maelstrom as an alleged reporter for whomever. That’s got to be nerve-wracking. Damn few sane people I know would do that for the sake of mere ‘art’ photography. On his travels, he stopped to record the aftermath of US helo gunships which had opened fire on a crowd celebrating around the burning hulk of a US Bradley Fighting Vehicle: it’s not clear how the Bradley came under attack, but Ghaith reports at least two strafing runs of the gunships on the civilians on Haifa Street, a main Baghdad boulevard. Upon examination of the wide-angle shot of the street scene of fleeing civilians with a magnifying glass, I couldn’t spot a single civilian with a gun. What we do see are many dead Iraqis. Ghaith takes some responsibility.

We left the kids to die there alone. I didn’t even try to move any with me. I ran into the entrance of a building and someone grabbed my arm and took me inside. “There’s an injured man. Take pictures. Show the world American democracy,” he said. [...] All the people I had shared my shelter with were dead. Every time I look at these pictures I tell myself I have killed those people. I should have helped them instead of taking pictures. – Ghaith Abdul-Ahad

War is hell, as the general famously said, but each generation seems to forget that truth, preferring to let the images of that hell die. This is all too easy to let happen. We live in a time with remotely controlled TV sets, airplanes, bombs and armies. Governments are all too happy to control what we see, and thus to control what we think and feel. We are fortunate that this band of journalists has brought these pictures to our attention.

These images are reminders that hell does exist on earth; it is required of us to look at these pictures, to really look and understand what we have done to these people. They are not inconvenient; they are our fellow human beings. If we let these pictures die, then we will have died a little bit as well: to the truth, to life, and to mercy.

While this book stands alone as testimony to the waking nightmare that is present-day Iraq, Unembedded is also the companion book to a national touring exhibit of photographs of the Iraq conflict, scheduled to start a run across the United States beginning in early 2006.

For more images from Iraq, please see Robert Fisk: Iraq war images. Additionally, for the view from the other side, a startling video of snipers killing Coalition troops, apparently produced by the insurgents themselves and via BNP TV is here. (wmv file, 25 mb) Warning: graphic violence.

Update: The BNP video has since been taken down.