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One of AP photographer Khalid Mohammed's many brilliant shots

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Pictures Worth 1,000 Wails

Two and a half years ago the intrepidly pandering Michael Yon, who is to all things military what pimps are to their prey as he panders to America’s bottomless lust for anything martial and brutal (the preys being utterly defensible, the pimps not), took a picture of an American soldier cradling an Iraqi child after an alleged car bomb by “terrorists” (with Yon, one has to qualify anything he reports with “alleged” and quote marks, his reporting being, of his own admission, non-objective). The picture was a hit with the Jessica Lynch set—those desperate for any hint, no matter how fictitious, of American virtue in Iraq: “The soldier portrayed,” Oliver North wrote, “though donned with the accoutrements of battle, is cradling the child in his arms with love and care, affection and tenderness. He has wrapped the young Iraqi child in a blanket—to keep her warm; to give her comfort; to protect her dignity. The soldier is holding the child close to him—with his head nestled in close to her body. It looks as though the soldier is either weeping or praying over her small body. In fact, it’s likely he’s doing both.” It’s more likely, of course, given the alleged circumstances (a car bomb), that the soldier is cussing up a storm and wondering what the fuck either he or the child are doing in that motherfucking hellhole. Yon himself who, like the military he pimps for, has never been one for modesty, said this of his own picture: “Many people say this is the most important photograph of the Iraq war. Some have called it ‘a national treasure.’” At least Yon was honest enough to say that “The image most completely embodies my experience throughout Iraq”—anyone’s experience there being that of a devastating war of choice started by the United States and dismembering, most of all, a society and its children. No amount of cradling by anyone will change the fact. And you can bet that Iraqis are doing their share of cradling, and don’t need American images, let alone American soldiers, showing them the way with their own children.

On Tuesday, the front page of the Times carried a picture that may come to be used for the same purposes. It was this:

The picture’s caption tells us it’s an Iraqi boy hiding behind an American soldier “as gunshots rang out after a car bombing in central Baghdad that killed 24 people.” The American soldier looks oddly calm. It could be his training. It could be that he recognizes the sound of gunfire: friendly. Either way, it’s a terrific photograph, equally for its composition as for its paradoxes and uncertainties. The boy isn’t hiding behind the American because he’s seeking out the American, but because it’s the bulkiest body there, because it’s a mobile mass of Kevlar, and the boy, who cannot be more than nine years old, has spent all his cognizant years in a state of war, aware of the devastation that began only when those men the likes of which he’s now hiding behind arrived in his country. The photograph is by the great Khalid Mohammed—no, not that Khalid Mohammed, mastermind of the 9/11 attacks and claimant to every terrorist attack since the Jurassic, but the Associated Press’ Khalid Mohammed, the Khalid Mohammed who, along with a few other AP photographers, won a Pulitzer Prize a couple of years back for work from Iraq. The picture above it turns out is part of a sequence. Here's the scene an instant before the earlier one:

Despite the format, you can see the dread in the boy’s face, the kind of dread that only seeks immediate shelter. He’d have hidden behind Saddam Hussein if he’d been walking about. The irony is that the shelter sought is the source, or one of the sources, of the bombings: A different kind of Stockholm Syndrome. But before we go Michael Yon on this picture, as some people undoubtedly will, let’s have a look at another AP shot that came over the wire over the same weekend (a weekend, incidentally, that claimed the lives of twenty-four American soldiers), this one by Nabil al-Jurani:

The caption, from the Philadelphia Inquirer: “An Iraqi boy throws a stone at a burning sports utility vehicle after a roadside bomb exploded in central Basra, Iraq’s second-largest city, 550 kilometers (340 miles) southeast of Baghdad, on Friday, May 25, 2007. The roadside bomb exploded, targeting a SUV belong to a foreign security company, injuring 3 security men, a source in Basra police said.” A foreign security company. Care to guess which? Of course the boy is throwing stones at the vehicle. Those “security” companies represent everything that’s wrong with the American presence in Iraq: the arrogance, the lawlessness, the violence, the daily humiliation of Iraqis. I don’t doubt even a few American soldiers would stone “security” SUVs if they could, knowing how more difficult those mercenaries are making the job for everyone else.

So out of those pictures, which would be the truest representation of the war in Iraq? On this side of the world, the answer isn’t in what’s being represented. It’s in the interpretation. If Americans like Ollie North can see dignity being protected in an American soldier cradling the bloody mangles of a child—cradling the consequences of the devastation the soldier carries in his wake—then obviously fiction has won out, and the dictions of, say, Michael Yon will continue to manipulate those susceptible to them back home. In Iraq and for the other two children (the one hiding behind the soldier, the one throwing the rock at the mercenaries’ SUV) it’s not a matter of interpretation so much as the way of life that began with the American occupation. Hope has been reduced to hiding behind a soldier, to desperation, and desperation has been reduced to throwing a stone at a burning vehicle.

The horror beyond the pictures is that, even though the mere publishing of those images suggests that the media have shifted wholeheartedly toward representing the war as the chaotic, traumatic folly it’s become (the folly it’s always been), those shots can still be interpreted here as illustrations of what’s wrong with Iraq and Iraqis, as opposed to what’s wrong with the American occupation. No amount of evidence, no amount of images, no matter how stark, can convince the fanatic otherwise. The fanatics are still in control, here as in Iraq.

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