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Susan Sontag on War Photographs

Amazing essay by Susan Sontag on War Photographs (specifically the Iraqi prison war photographs). A few preliminary thoughts: 1)The Guardian has been printing some incredible essays recently (almost better that the highbrow U.S. publications). 2) Sontag’s comparison between Soviet gulags and the Bush Administration’s follies is a little extreme, but on the other hand, any shortcomings of the world’s predominant power will look abominable.

It’s likely that quite a large number of Americans would rather think that it is all right to torture and humiliate other human beings – who, as our putative or suspected enemies, have forfeited all their rights – than to acknowledge the folly and ineptitude and fraud of the American venture in Iraq. As for torture and sexual humiliation as fun, there seems little to oppose this tendency while America continues to turns itself into a garrison state, in which patriots are defined as those with unconditional respect for armed might and the necessity of maximal domestic surveillance. Shock and awe were what our military promised the Iraqis who resisted their American liberators. And shock and the awful are what these photographs announce to the world that the Americans have delivered: a pattern of criminal behavior in open defiance and contempt of international humanitarian conventions. Soldiers now pose, thumbs up, before the atrocities they commit, and send off the pictures to their buddies and family. Should we be entirely surprised? Ours is a society in which secrets of private life that, formerly, you would have given nearly anything to conceal you now clamor to be invited on a television show to reveal. What is illustrated by these photographs is as much the culture of shamelessness as the reigning admiration for unapologetic brutality….

So, then, is the real issue not the photographs themselves but what the photographs reveal to have happened to “suspects” in American custody? No: the horror of what is shown in the photographs cannot be separated from the horror that the photographs were taken – with the perpetrators posing, gloating, over their helpless captives. German soldiers in the Second World War took photographs of the atrocities they were committing in Poland and Russia, but snapshots in which the executioners placed themselves among their victims are exceedingly rare, as may be seen in a book just published, Photographing the Holocaust by Janina Struk. If there is something comparable to what these pictures show it would be some of the photographs of black victims of lynching taken between the 1880s and 1930s, which show small-town Americans grinning beneath the naked mutilated body of a black man or woman hanging from a tree. The lynching photographs were souvenirs of a collective action whose participants felt perfectly justified in what they had done. So are the pictures from Abu Ghraib.

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