Iwo Jima v. Abu Ghraib

David Simpson

  • BuyNo Caption Needed: Iconic Photographs, Public Culture and Liberal Democracy by Robert Hariman and John Louis Lucaites
    Chicago, 419 pp, £19.00, June 2007, ISBN 978 0 226 31606 2

On 1 February 1968 Eddie Adams took a photograph of the South Vietnamese chief of police standing in the street and shooting a Vietcong suspect in the head. The picture is listed on the web as one of the ‘100 photos that changed the world’. For years I thought that it recorded the blood spurting out of the side of the man’s head as the bullet went into his temple. Looking again, I see that I must have imagined this, perhaps because the graphic intensity of the victim’s twisted mouth and tightly closed eyes seems to register the very moment of impact and instant death. Or did I somehow see a retouched image? The camera never lies, the camera never tells the truth. Adams himself, very sensitive to the power of images, was remorseful about the impact of his photo: he admired the executioner, General Loan, and felt that he had killed him with his camera just as surely as Loan had killed the prisoner with his gun. Susan Sontag claimed that the event was staged, that Loan deliberately led the man out into the street where he knew the journalists were waiting. Did he want the picture to be taken to show what happened to the enemy during the particularly tense time of the Tet Offensive? If there were any such short-term local benefits they were soon overtaken by the world’s response, which saw one more reason why this war was wrong and had to end.

Adams’s photo comes up in the dialogue of Clint Eastwood’s film about the 1945 Iwo Jima campaign, Flags of Our Fathers (2006). An old man is remembering his participation as a young marine in raising the Stars and Stripes on top of Mount Suribachi, a moment immortalised in another famous photograph, taken by Joe Rosenthal, perhaps the most reproduced photograph in American history. Late in his life, though, it is not Rosenthal’s 1945 photo but Adams’s 1968 image of Vietnam that the veteran recalls; he says simply: ‘That was it – the war was lost. We just hung around trying to pretend it wasn’t.’ No complex truths, intentions or explanations survived the publication of the photograph. General Loan’s effort to send a stern signal turned people against the war he was trying so hard to justify. The story told in Eastwood’s film of the Iwo Jima photograph and its afterlife is of the opposite kind: an initially controversial photograph had painful effects on the lives of the marines who appeared in it but acquired an unstoppable momentum as an icon of US patriotic virtue, serving as an advertisement for the sale of war bonds to a previously sceptical public. The controversy arose because the Pulitzer Prize-winning photo of the Suribachi summit (the only time the prize was given, by acclamation, in the same year a photo was taken) was actually of a second flag-raising, staged with a larger flag after the fighting had died down. Literally speaking, it was not so much a struggle against military odds as against gravity. This was known at the time, and was a sufficiently sensitive issue for both Time and Life (unlike the newspapers) to refrain from publishing it until it had become so ubiquitous as to be beyond complex questioning. That happened very fast. The photo became more or less instantly a leitmotif of American popular culture and a key item in the manufacture of consent by politicians and advertisers alike. The wartime government produced 3.5 million posters, 15,000 billboards and (by 1948) 137 million postage stamps. Since then it has proved useful not only to self-styled patriots but also to satirists, most recently in the New Yorker, whose issue of 28 May featured on its cover Barry Blitt’s redrawing of the Iwo Jima event with the flag at half-mast and one visibly black soldier contributing to the effort: Iraq, where the US is not doing well and where the army is made up of ‘volunteers’ from poor economic backgrounds rather than of conscripted citizens, is no Iwo Jima.

Debates about the authenticity of photographs, especially war photographs, have been commonplace since at least the American Civil War. In No Caption Needed, Robert Hariman and John Louis Lucaites are less concerned with these debates than with the ways in which iconic images have been used to propose and renegotiate various kinds of ‘democratic citizenship’ and ‘civic identity’. Here original truths matter less than accumulated traditions and assumptions. But not all images can sponsor a significant afterlife. For these authors the Iwo Jima flag works as an icon because it is aesthetically compelling (like the sculptures and statues it has subsequently inspired), because it converts military into civic action (raising the flag is a citizenly act), and because it effaces the personalities of the soldiers in the service of a common and anonymous effort (one of the flagraisers was Ira Hayes, a Pima Indian who left the marines and died a broken man, but there is no way to identify him in the photo).

The authors think that we have a ‘need’ for these iconic images, and often suggest that democracy is all the better for them. But it is a fine line (if there is a line) between the vigorous, deliberative debate conducted by empowered citizens, of the sort championed by political scientists like Jon Elster and Amy Gutmann, and the consumption of patriotic propaganda in the interests of the state. Hariman and Lucaites look back with some nostalgia to the ‘good war’ and its flag-raising as a high point of American public culture. They recognise that it misrepresents both military and social hierarchy in depicting everyone as equal beneath the flag, and they can see that its aesthetic appeal obfuscates the history from which it emerged and to which it spoke. But they cannot quite shake the belief that this was a golden moment in the history of the iconic photograph, and that positive republican values are somehow alive and well within it, making it a source of inspiration for the ‘coproduction of democratic public culture’.

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