11.16.2008

The most beautiful, horrible, disgusting, pristine, perfect photograph

Note, before you go clicking any links in this post, this is not a PG-13 post. Some of the images are disturbing enough to, possibly, cause nightmares. Only recently have I started following, actively, the blog of Andrew Sullivan at the Atlantic, who today posted a very stirring image from Iraq. Leaving aside the content of the image, for a moment, this picture was a moment of artistic genius, akin to the migrant mother photograph from the Great Depression, or the famous photograph of Settela Steinbach enroute to the concentration camp. The monstrous yellow of the body bag billows like the river fro Ophelia, the bloody bandages radiate from the tiny face like an halo, and even the death shroud across the child's nakedness look like the billows of a wedding gown. The face is tipped just backwards, like the averted face of an enraptured saint. The man, the living, grieving man, feels almost like an afterthought, almost irrelevant, a trick makes us suddenly, painfully aware of his relevance. The scene has a Poe-like quality, violence contrasted with peace, purity and corruption, happy death and miserable life. Only, that's just it - you can't leave aside the subject matter. Remember for a moment, this is a little girl (I think), someone's daughter. There is an immediate feeling that it could be your own daughter, or son. When you next feel inclined to say 'they've been killing each other over there for thousands of years, we may as well just leave', you must remember this photograph, that this is what your statement means. This isn't a nation of mindless sub-human barbarians, intent on suicide bombing each other just long enough to pack a plane full of terrorists to hit tall buildings. This a nation of human beings, mothers, fathers, children, beautiful sacred human beings, that you have just declared as unsalvageable. Somewhere in there, there is a tiny seed lodged into me, that whispers out, that no man is unsalvageable, no people is without hope, that the very vigor and pallor of this photograph is a grim, aching reminder of that hope. I support the troops: when I hear about a soldier dying in Iraq, it hurts in a real, personal way. My father is a retired military medical warrant officer, it's not difficult for me to imagine his deft fingers fishing around the meatloaf flesh of a soldier blasted by an IUD, trying to cincture the death out of his body, to wrangle his blood back and forth from his heart, it's not difficult even for me to imagine it was him there on the pavement of some dusty street. This isn't a statement of patriotism, or an excuse to flag-wave down someone else with a differing opinion, it's simply a strong desire to see America's children come home. It's why it pains me, I think, to see the Iraq War become so semantic. At some level, then, photography, with it's brutal clarity, is an element of much needed truth in an argument that's come to surround buzzwords and partisan politicking. It's about human being, found dead, tortured, or forever broken on a battlefield that doesn't even have the name battlefield anymore. It's both cold and pointless, and eminently important. And what is America to do? It was stupid to go in the way we did, I think that's a pretty popular opinion, now, but it's also an irrelevant one - it's not a good reason to leave. Saddam Hussein was a terrible man, but that's irrelevant as well - after all, we're doing such a great job of bringing security and democracy that the Iraqi government that we have stood up in the name of democracy is asking us politely to tell us when we'll get out of the way. And that's just it, that's the dilemna. On the one hand, to leave now would probably result in thousands and thousands of photographs like this one. On the other, staying is an artificial solution, one that cannot exist forever, and one that forever acts as a goad to other, unknown and unpredictable death. As human beings who love other human beings, we have a duty to these children of the invasion, as human beings who love other human beings, we also have a duty to these suffering American kids forced to dissolve their identities into either physical death, or PTSD induced self-destruction, when we hardly have the resources to take care of the veterans we already have. What are we to want? Our troops home, to watch the dissolution of the people they've grown to protect and love? Ourselves home, as we are now, watching the slow dissolution of our troops? There are so many easy answers: America doesn't cut and run. We don't have any obligation to teach Iraqis to like each other. We broke it, now we have to fix it. We're just making things worse. The greatest honor to our soldiers is to let them do their jobs. The greatest honor to our soldiers is not to leave them in a war with no mission, or a mission with no end. The Iraqis have billions of dollars, and should be able to take care of this themselves. The Iraqis just need more training. None of these answers is the truth. The truth is much colder, much simpler, without the comfort of surety or the balm of hopelessness, it's the photograph of a dead child, sinking slowly into the murky waves of a bodybag, her eyes turned to a God we Americans only argue about, a man kneeling beside her, and silently, eternally, crying out the cry of the damned. The problem is, we expect the truth to point to an answer. There is none.