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MONDAY, JULY 15, 2019
American Troops Bombing the Iraqi Information Ministry, March 2003
The image above is a photo of the first bombings on Baghdad, Iraq as American troops reached outskirts of the city in early 2003. This isn't one of those tired defenses for whether the image you see above should be called art or not. Just consider the role of the visual.

At the onset of the US- Iraq war this photo was shown frequently on the major American news networks, (particularly CNN,) the week American troops reached Baghdad. It was used as a backdrop for commentary on the invasion, plastered on the screen as commentators read out updates. There's a weird sense of awe in the sharp contrasts of the fire and night sky that emphasizes the American military prowess as they entered the city. One has to think of this as a promotional image for the (then) emerging war on Iraq.

Besides the fiery display, what's being shown? Subject matter is essential to an image's message. What's being bombed here is the Iraqi Information Ministry that, housed archives and manuscripts of one of the oldest civilizations in history. Not far away is the Saddam Manuscripts Library and various university libraries both holding countless objects of art, artifacts, manuscripts and books dating back to Mesopotamia, the world's first urban community.

The Guardian reported that US Central Command decided to target the ministry to "reduce the command and control capabilities" of the government of Saddam Hussein. It isn't just destruction of a building, but an entire history and culture. These things can't be rebuilt the same way you might patch up a building. History is the cultural capital a nation builds its identity on. After people have begun to recover from the trail of death and physical destruction, the strike on cultural heritage will linger.

We have to consider the arenas that images are produced for. But you would be hard pressed to have found commentary on CNN covering the use of these photos. The news commentary, for which this image served as a backdrop, hardly addressed the image itself. There was no discussion over the significance of eradicating a country's history. Instead, people watching heard the great things of American soldiers were accomplishing, bringing down an 'evil empire.'

Why do we read images that we see in the news differently than those hanging on gallery walls? Part of the explanation is that our culture applies artistic analysis to a narrow definition of what art should be. Secondly, images from mass media almost always carry with them some written commentary explaining what we are meant to see in the image and we're not asked to look at images on their own.

Any image, be it a news photograph, painting, sculpture, etc doesn't exist in a vacuum. The visual always has a cultural context it serves and we can't separate our readings of images from that context. Sure, a Monet or a Picasso might seem timeless in an abstract sense but they always served cultural or social anxieties of the time they were produced in. Images on the news do the same thing.

Our modern day-to-day life is so saturated with images from advertisements, the Internet, television, news, books, etc. it's difficult to detach ourselves to ask why might that specific image have been chosen. But the point is that image selection, (especially in mass media reaching millions of people,) is a carefully constructed process with specific intents. What connotations they carry, and how are people are intended to read them is what we should ask ourselves. What is it we're asked to see and what are we asked to not to see?
Comments

Alamir

Alamir

2009-01-14 20:56:05

It's weird that I've seen that image before and knew that their libraries holding historical manuscripts were bombed but I never correlated the two together. I always thought it was just a picture of some place in Baghdad, somewhere where the "smart bombs" missed again. It's very interesting that you gave that image some historical context. I almost want to say the image is more relevant, but what bombing isn't relevant? They should all be.

claudia

claudia

2009-01-15 14:22:11

The area was apparently also targeted because Saddam's brother was believed to be hiding out around there. That's the 'command center' that I mentioned the Guardian reported on, but I couldn't find out whether they actually got his brother or not.
What's interesting about the bombings of the libraries and museums in that area that isn't directly related to the image is that the amount of artifacts lost increased exponentially AFTER the bombings occurred. Looting (some of it believed to be by staff who would know the most valuable artifacts) is a huge problem due to lack of security. Museums and libraries are obviously not top priorities when you're trying to secure whole cities, but this has made documenting lost material and efforts to recover them that much harder.

Hogan

Hogan

2009-01-27 14:44:23

I've been meaning to read and respond to this for a while. So, here she goes...

I remember thinking as the war started, and as reports of the damage to, and looting of, the irreplaceable ancient artifacts came out, of (as I often am) a line of Oscar Wilde's: "If we are tempted to make war upon another nation, we shall remember that we are seeking to destroy an element of our own culture, and possibly its most important element."

The destruction of the ancient artifacts is not just a loss for the Iraqis, or for the descendents of Mesopotamians of course (since we're almost all heirs of that culture), it's a loss for humanity as a whole.

Following the line quoted above Wilde wrote, "As long as war is regarded as wicked, it will always have its fascination. When it is looked upon as vulgar, it will cease to be popular."

The sexy TV images of the "shock and awe" tactics certainly had its fascination, even for those against the war. Your article even suggests that such an image is artful. The Futurists would have agreed, though in an extreme and evil way, which I'm sure you didn't mean at all.

And as a side-note, one Iraqi department that the U.S. did protect was the oil ministry. Nothing of a "shock" there.

I also remember, just prior to the invasion of Afghanistan, Bush giving the heads up to everybody about how they were 'going to see many images on their TVs of bombings' and the like (I'm paraphrasing).

The Gulf War of the early 1990s, under Bush Sr., was generally regarded as the first "television war", and it was consciously managed with TV in mind (they learned from Vietnam). Remember those spectacular glowing green, night-vision shots of scud missiles firing through the sky? Almost beautiful.

The "imbedded journalists" of the new Iraq war was in the same spirit of optimizing "optics", and a further safeguard against Vietnam War-stye brutal (that is, truthful) media coverage.

One small thing, Claudia: Mesopotamia literally means (if I'm remembering right...why don't I just google it?...okay, just did, I was right), "land between the rivers" (from the Greek), as in the whole area between Euphrates and Tigris. Anyway, you call Mesopotamia "the world's first urban community." Not to be a stickler, but I think it should read, "Mesopotamia, where the first urban communities developed", or something like that, because the whole area wasn't a city.

Besides that, nice article. I'm always down for the media analysis. And sorry about the delayed response.

claudia

claudia

2009-02-06 14:42:20

Hogan, I too wanted to respond to you and have now gotten around to it.
I found it really interesting that you mentioned the Futurists in regard to this article. The fascination with the machinery of the technological age, the energy and movement of the machine is reflected clearly within their work. I'm not sure about the 'evil way' with which you said the Futurists would view this image. I think their perceived reverence for the machine could be interpreted as evil if it had the potential to destroy, however I have always interpreted that reverence as a bit of an idealist notion, a belief that the machine would solve the world's problems. Even though some of their ideas were a little more abstract I think that the fascination with the military machine still lingers. I would even argue that the advancement of military power is still seen and used as a point of pride, even though this is done in a very covert manner. These objects of 'power' contribute to a country's prestige and position in the international community. The image, I think, reaffirms the whole notion of the 'greatest country in the world' that is attributed to the United States.
However, we must ask at what cost is this identity? It seems that you have to be willing to do anything to preserve that notion.

Also, I stand corrected on the Mesopotamia issue, thanks for clearing that up.



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