The Mourning Paper

David Simpson

America is in a muddle about mourning. The standard newspaper of record, the New York Times, registers this muddle in its national edition of 30 April with a depth and clarity that one can attribute either to a brilliant sequence of editorial decisions or to the happenstance of journalistic montage. It is, indeed, the mourning edition, the memorial edition. In Washington, the controversial World War Two memorial opened to the public for the first time. The controversy has been over the placing of the memorial – smack in the middle of the Mall, historically and aesthetically a symbol of the right of assembly and the power of assembly – and over its design, which has been called both Napoleonic and fascist. Its circular array of columns topped with wreaths does, it’s true, smack of triumphalism, despite the obligatory fountains and reflecting pool. Meanwhile a small town in Tennessee is trying to preserve what little is left of its Civil War battlefield from the clutches of the developers, partly in homage to the dead and partly because people feel it necessary to be able to walk where others actually died. (The phrase now routinely invoked for the World Trade Center site in lower Manhattan, ‘sacred ground’, was, we recall, coined at Gettysburg.) Elsewhere in the same day’s newspaper, we read that the developer of the WTC site has been handed a significant financial defeat by his insurers; that a critical stage has been reached in the case before a Brooklyn court concerning the compensation of Holocaust survivors; and that the broadcast of Ted Koppel’s television show Nightline will be blocked by TV stations in several major cities because his plan to read out the names and show pictures of the American dead in Iraq is deemed by the Sinclair Broadcast Group to be unpatriotic and subversive. As if this were not enough, Terry Nichols, the convicted Oklahoma City bombing conspirator already serving a life sentence, is on trial again, this time for his life. The names of two more dead soldiers are published – no pictures – making 718 American dead since the start of the war, more than half of them since the president declared that the war was over. Also reported is a study which found that the number of prisons in the United States has almost doubled since 1974, with Texas leading the way ‘in a league of its own’. Because these prisons tend to be built in rural areas, more than 30 per cent of the population of some counties is behind bars. Again, a Texas county tops the table, with 33 per cent of its residents in prison. Extraterritorial Guantanamo did not figure, as it fails to figure in many other ways involving basic accountability: this too has been recently in the news.

In some serendipitous postmodern way, all in fragments yet with an eerie coherence, this was a day for America to meditate on its past, on the deaths of soldiers and civilians in three wars and two acts of ‘terrorism’, on justice, on the obligation to remember and the manner of remembering. All of this on the eve of the first anniversary of President Bush’s declaring ‘mission accomplished’ in Iraq.

What lies most immediately behind this flurry of reported mourning and memorialisation is presumably the extraordinary uproar about the publication of photographs of flag-draped coffins leaving Kuwait and arriving at Dover airforce base in Maryland. For 13 years the Pentagon has had a policy of refusing press access to the repatriation of dead military personnel. This initiative of the first Gulf War was attributed to the desire to avoid a recurrence of Vietnam syndrome, where the wide circulation of images of the dead was held partly responsible for the vigour of the antiwar movement. This wasn’t the reason given: the claim has been that withholding such images is a mark of respect for grieving families, and accords with their own expressed desires. A First Amendment activist named Russ Kick petitioned the Defense Department for the release of the photographs under the Freedom of Information Act. To his reported surprise, permission was given, and 361 photos hit the internet at www.memoryhole.org. Newspapers all over the country reprinted the pictures. The New York Times was among them, with one on the front page (but discreetly, in a corner, taking second place to the front and centre shot of the Queen Mary 2 arriving in New York harbour), and one inside. But before the Defense Department released its photos, the Seattle Times had published a photograph taken by two Maytag employees loading coffins onto planes in Kuwait. The media discussion that followed from this was perhaps responsible for the official release, perhaps not. The two employees were fired (not because of any pressure from government, the Defense Department says), and the pros and cons of showing pictures of the dead became a major talking-point across the media.

Except that they are not pictures of the dead. The officially released pictures are of flag-draped coffins decorously arrayed in the cavernous holds of military transport planes, of the planes themselves landing and standing on runways, of tightly knit groups of uniformed men gathered around white hearses or the back ends of airplanes, or carrying coffins from one to the other. They have the too-far-away and asymmetrically composed look of amateur photographs taken in a hurry by people who cannot get close enough. But they are above all respectful. They suggest that every possible dignity is being extended to the fallen. There is nothing here to embarrass either the military or the grieving relatives, for who knows who is inside which coffin when all the coffins look alike and the photos carry no date stamp? That is perhaps the real scandal, the truth that needs to be hidden from view: these are not individuals but flag-draped boxes, interchangeable components of a process that functions mechanically in supposed defence of a culture that is obsessed with individuality. The dead men and women are not arrayed in such a way that their particular attributes matter or can be seen: death is always the leveller, but here the sameness of flags and boxes reveals the automated functioning both of military life and perhaps of our more general culture. The columnist Maureen Dowd has just caught Paul Wolfowitz in a serious underestimation or misremembering of the number of American dead: he was off by about 30 per cent.

We have had some images of the dead: those internationally circulated pictures of a charred body hanging from a bridge, and a largely vaporised body with only a boot left intact. These were the American ‘security employees’ – the word ‘mercenary’ was never used – whose remains were theatrically displayed after the men had been killed in an ambush by Iraqi insurgents/militia/ resistance fighters/terrorists (the choice of term tells all). And, on 30 April, television networks carried pictures of naked (and airbrushed) Iraqi prisoners being abused and/or tortured (we have yet to be clear on this) by American reservists administering a prison, images apparently so unambiguous that the supreme commander himself admitted to finding them disgraceful. Images from the Vietnam years have also been circulating recently, some of them apparently to be trusted (the young John Kerry standing with the crew of his gunboat), others notoriously faked: the young John Kerry on a podium with ‘Hanoi Jane’ Fonda at an antiwar rally. A half-hour before midnight on 30 April, far from prime time, Ted Koppel read out the names of ‘the fallen’ and flashed up their photographs, two at a time, about three seconds each, for 30 minutes or so, interrupted by three rounds of commercials and glossed by Koppel himself as intending ‘to elevate the fallen above the politics and the daily journalism’. He stressed the programme’s neutrality, neither for nor against the war, but insisted on the right to ask questions. These were pictures of the living, some smiling and informal, some grim-faced under oversized military hats, mostly men, some women, who are now dead. But not pictures of the dead.

The full-face frames of Nightline’s photographs, many provided by the army and the marine corps, echoed the reiterated images of the dead of 9/11 which dominated the newspapers after the attack on the World Trade Center. Koppel’s narration carried no information: no home-towns, no family members, no hobbies – just names and faces. The New York Times’s ‘Portraits of Grief’ went on for weeks and weeks, were reissued in a hardbound volume, and syndicated in newspapers all over the country. Every face carried a story, and the stories were almost all versions of the same story: happy people, fulfilled in their jobs, fountains of love and charity, pillars of their families and communities. The assembled miniature biographies told the story of a flourishing civil society indifferent to race, gender or economic category. Everyone, under the roofs of the Twin Towers, was happy and getting happier. They had just got engaged, just got the job they wanted, just got their feet on the ground. The life stories were written by teams of journalists using information provided by the families of the deceased. The effect of these hundreds of abbreviated biographies was, for all the details, much the same as that of the flag-draped coffins, one of sameness, of a very limited range of differences. But these pictures and narratives of the living who were now dead became a site of national mourning and reflection. The entire photographic archive was reprinted (in miniature and without the biographies) in the Times on the first anniversary of 9/11. Then, on 9 March 2003, almost on the eve of war, 15 more Portraits of Grief were published, commemorating those whose families had at first not chosen to participate. More full-face photos on 21 March, this time of First Marine Division combat troops poised to go into battle, six men and six women. On 30 March and 2 June, the faces were those of the now dead – along with a photo of a British coffin being unloaded at RAF Brize Norton. The Times’s running headnote, ‘A Nation at War’, echoed ‘A Nation under Attack’, which ran in the days after 9/11. In between was the eerie iconographic emptiness of Afghanistan, now largely forgotten.

The war has been about the control of images as well as of oilfields and territories. Al-Jazeera’s broadcasts from Iraq have been threatened and often pre-empted by the US armed forces. Meanwhile here at home, again as reported on 30 April, George Bush and Dick Cheney went together to face the 9/11 inquiry commission in a meeting that was not aired to the public but which, according to George Bush, allowed the committee to ‘see our body language, how we work together’. Not so the rest of us: it was, according to one television anchor, as if the event had taken place in the 18th century. The captured Saddam Hussein, briefly fixed in the bright lights of international media attention, has more or less vanished from sight. Some images, like those of the planes hitting the towers, are shown over and over again. Others, like those of people jumping or falling from great heights onto the streets below, have been removed from circulation. It is not news that all images are subject to both direct and self-imposed political and ideological control. Private Jessica Lynch, who had the independence of mind to resent the falsifications of her captivity narrative for propaganda purposes and the courage to say so, has also quietly disappeared from major-media sight. But the recent discussion is almost entirely limited to the rights and wrongs of exposing our dead to various kinds of public attention. Nightline managed to incur right-wing ire and thus gather to itself the mantle of radical heroism simply by showing pictures and reading names of American dead, completely occluding any reference to the many thousands of others who have perished in Iraq.

Before the Abu Ghraib prison photos it had been almost impossible to find in the US images of dead or suffering Iraqi civilians of the sort that the rest of the world had been seeing: equivalents of the famous Vietnam photo of a girl running screaming from a napalm attack that is thought to have done so much to affect the hearts and minds of Americans during that war. The parsimonious use of a few images over and over again – the towers under attack – continues to seem to legitimate a connection between Osama and Saddam that even George Bush has, when pressed, had to disclaim. Derrida and others have written perceptively of the degree to which ‘they’ are already ‘us’ – trained by us, often previously supported by us – so that the attack of the other is also significantly an attack by the ‘self’, an aggression that can be seen as coming from ‘them’ only by a political rhetoric committed to improbable absolutes. To speak of Hollywood in relation to images of the falling towers is in an obvious way tasteless, and yet it doesn’t seem impossible that such a connection should have shaped the fantasies of terrorists able to conjure up with malign wit the emergency number 911, as well as the anniversary of Allende’s assassination in 1973, of the US invasion of Honduras in 1919, of the beginning of the British Mandate in Palestine in 1922, and of the defeat of the Ottomans before the gates of Vienna in 1683.

In On the Natural History of Destruction W.G. Sebald asked himself whether among the reasons for the silence surrounding the bombing of German cities was a sense among postwar Germans that criminals and victims could not be properly differentiated: that they felt they deserved what happened. Hence the ‘well-kept secret of the corpses built into the foundations of our state’: our corpses but also theirs, all those we (Germans) created. The implacable recalcitrance of Sebald’s prose – like Gert Ledig’s before it – registers something of the horror of shrivelled corpses, boiling and congealed blood, a new underworld of bloated rats and flies, and of the manner of death itself. Whatever this might mean to German readers there is no doubt of Sebald’s power to communicate the almost unimaginable horror of both the long-drawn-out anticipation of death by weapons of mass destruction and the microsecond – or was it longer? – of unthinkable agony that brings it about. Such a capacity to respond cannot, however, be tolerated if war is to be waged without serious opposition: war cannot easily survive the capacity to imagine oneself in the body of the other as well as in the bodies of our dead and dying. Back in November 2003, at least one American soldier did just that. Sergeant Georg Andreas Pogorny faced the possibility of being court-martialled for cowardice after he’d panicked at the sight of an Iraqi cut in half by machine-gun fire. Pogorny was overcome with what he described as ‘an overwhelming sense of my own mortality’. The most troubling implication of this story is that it appears to be untypical. Few of us in the homeland are given any materials for imagining ourselves in the place and body of the other, a place where in so many ways we already are: this is the real symmetry between 9/11 then and Iraq today. The Brookings Institution and the Associated Press do their best to keep some tally of the Iraqi dead, but their findings are not deemed particularly newsworthy. The images of 9/11, broadcast worldwide in real time, produced an outpouring of sympathy and identification from the most unexpected quarters. Some of this was routinised homage to the wounded global behemoth, or fantasised identification with a life not being led by oneself, but some of it was not. Now we live in a world of largely incommensurate images, some seen on one continent and others in the rest of the world. The tendency to political isolationism is reinforced and perhaps significantly enabled by an aesthetic isolationism that allows the debate about images of our dead to seem like the only debate to be had.

Images even when diversified mostly do not, however, speak for themselves. If there is a ray of hope here, it is that the behaviour of those American reservists in Abu Ghraib prison will not be dealt with as merely exceptional and as such piously unacceptable, as it is currently being treated even as more incidents are coming to light, but as part of the dynamic of military culture and the experience of war. That would be a lesson worth learning and pondering. These pictures, which mingle ‘them’ and ‘us’ in unpredicted and startling ways, are worth more than a thousand words, but words must accompany them. It may well be that the importance of the photographs of the Vietnam War has been overemphasised, so that it sometimes seems as if they alone brought the war to an end. If this is indeed the society of the spectacle then mere exposure to more and more images will not of itself guarantee any meaningful sympathy with and for others. The photodocumentary task is not an end in itself, but it is a beginning. We will never know whether we are already numb, or need to numb ourselves, before images of death and duress unless we see them. Here it is important to register the red-herring quality of the controversy over Nightline and over the flag-draped coffins (which Nightline also used to stand in for those whose photos were unavailable). The breaching of this first line of censorship is not the victory it has been taken to be: what is revealed is just another set of simulacra. Or could it be, in a society that has already avowed its own susceptibility to what has been called ‘compassion fatigue’, that it is only the effacement or displacement of the image, whether by outright censorship or by common consent, that could create an urgent imagination of the deaths of others? Can this still happen? To find that out calls for both more images and more words. The signs are that both are coming thick and fast.

7 May