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Monday June 05 2006

Johan Norberg, yesterday:

The massacre of unarmed civilians by American marines in the Iraqi town of Haditha in november last year is a horrible crime, and the worst part of it is that some marine officials must have known about it and tried to cover it up. As The Economist points out, the positive lesson is that cover-ups like that are much harder than they used to be, thanks to modern communications.

Crimes like these have been committed in all wars, but never before have soldiers and civilians been equipped with digital cameras, e-mail and mobile phones, which means that incriminating pictures spread fast (Abu Ghraib-pictures, for example). In this case, an Iraqi student got video footage of the location the day after the massacre. Time Magazine got the film from a local human rights group and gave it to the American military in Baghdad, which forced them to start a formal investigation, and when that wasn´t credible, a criminal probe was launched.

Although, such is the nature of evidence that actually all us Billion Monkeys can do is spread pictures around.  What the pictures are actually of often seems more obvious than it is.  I mean, it would be entirely imaginable that there was no original crime here, but that there was a cover-up of the evidence concerning that non-crime, because the coverer-uppers assumed, correctly, that wrong conclusions would be drawn from that evidence, were it ever to become public.  That surely happens a lot.

Not that I’m saying that this happened here.  (From what I hear, this sounds like it could be the Iraq version of My Lai.) I’m only saying that the truth is not always as obvious as it can appear to be.

Norberg evidently subscribes to The Economist.  I don’t, so I don’t know what was said in the original piece.

Two quick points.

First, you’re absolutely right about the way in which language is needed to unlock the emotive force of even the most ‘revealing’ images. Any student of war photography, from the Spanish Civil War onwards, can detail how the most affecting photo only works once the caption is in place underneath it.

Style matters, too. The Abu Grahid snaps attracted disgust not simply because of what one could actually see in them (which, compared with atrocities that take place all around our world all the time, was pretty darned small beer) but because they were so clearly composed in the visual rhetoric of a sort of demotic internet porn site. Plump rednecks enjoying non-consensual nudity in badly-composed photos didn’t stand a chance against the massed ranks of the liberal establishment, most of whom probably thought that a few barking dogs and a bit of pretend terror were the worst thing that had ever happened on the blood-soaked floors of Abu Grahid.

(Not that a first-world army ought ever to allow this sort of thing to happen, which, in fact, the US Army didn’t, in the end – the point is simply that infractions should perhaps be judged more squarely on moral, rather than aesthetic terms.)

Secondly, though, and even more negatively, I am not so sure that cover-ups are harder these days. Sorry if this sounds rather trite, but – well, how would we know?

What I do think is the case is that standards are higher now than they used to be. Scratch the mythic surface of even the ‘best’ wars, and some intensely nasty stuff happens, even on the ‘good’ side. The reason is simple. In a world of peace-time armies, teaching men (and women) to be soldiers involves telling them to jettison a lot of the apparently arbitrary, civilising taboos under which we all operate. Once that happens, it’s sometimes hard to draw lines. This doesn’t mean, of course, that massacres are okay. They are not. But the fact that My Lai is more famous for an American audience than, say, Katyn ought to tell us something positive about the standards we demand of the heartbreakingly ordinary boys we daily send to die for us, or at least for causes to which America and Britain are vaguely espoused.

It may be old-fashioned, and even a bit ‘liberal’ coming from me, but I do think it’s quite good when decent ends don’t excuse bad means.

Doubtless, some of the psychos who, for actuarial reasons, inevitably gravitate into the armed forces can do a lot of harm. Plenty will be clever enough not to email their snaps into the waiting arms of those who are looking for anything, everything, with which to denounce what they see as an unacceptable war, whatever the cost of their doubt to the poor sods who have to deal with the actual fighting.

But the meta-point is that we, unlike the Iraqi insurgents our armies fight, don’t think that killing innocent bystanders is okay. And that tells us something, even if that ‘something’ is a text we’ll all read in different ways.

Finally, though, as for your closing remark:

I’m only saying that the truth is not always as obvious as it can appear to be

Truths don’t get much bigger, or truer, than that. Thanks for a thought-provoking post.

Posted by Bunny Smedley on 06 June 2006
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