The Man Who Wasn't There
by John Taylor
At the time of writing – the second week in November – the war against terrorism has no limit. According to the military and politicians, it may endure for years, or even never end. As in the Cold War, the present and future is filled with propaganda. As in the Cold War, pictures of actual events are stereotypical and contain little information.
The stereotypical images of leaders, mobs, hardware and refugees are a mix of familiar types. The pictures, like the leaders, create expectations and purport to show the gradual achievement of war aims, such as bombed airfields and ammunition dumps. The ‘degradation’ of the enemy is supposedly matched by the simplification of complex politics. That move in propaganda means that everything about the war, even as it deals out death to more innocents, appears in the West as a mélange of back-list, Cold War movies, in which ‘civilisation’ narrowly survives some horrible alien threat or other.
Yet nothing reappears in its former guise. Among the diverse American films recently released in Britain, the Coen brother’s The Man Who Wasn’t There seems especially apposite. One recurrent theme in the movie is the ‘uncertainty principle’ used in physics, which notes that looking for something can actually make it harder to find. There are many literary and artistic explorations of this idea, some created long before science made it a principle. The more world leaders look for Osama bin Laden the less likely they are to see him.
The West is very active, so it seems, sending in forces. However, its military endeavour allows it only to drift towards the goal, all the while creating unintended consequences. Just as the ‘hero’ in the Coen’s film is spasmodically active but essentially at the mercy of others, Western leaders are forced to drift towards their goal, which they may never achieve. They are heading towards a goal all right, but everything they do creates new aims as they go, which throw them off course. The purpose of pictures of world leaders speaking to one another, or bomb damage in Afghanistan, is to show the plan is working, but unfortunately these pictures only demonstrate how far off the original goal remains. It’s as if the Taliban Hydra has grown more heads without even losing any of them. Now the Western leaders are committed to new generalised war aims against terrorism everywhere.
If such war aims seem foggy, much of everything else is shrouded too. This is partly because the Pentagon has exercised ‘shutter control’ over civilian satellites. It has spent millions of dollars buying pictures of bombing to prevent them from appearing in Western media (Guardian, October 17). Censorship is unsurprising, especially at Ground Zero in New York, which is off the map. Language too throws a veil over everything. The term ‘September 11’ stands in for everything about mass death that is best left unsaid. The war that has followed is best covered in that kind of euphemism. Better drop ‘Infinite Justice’ for ‘Eternal Freedom’. The change of name makes war sound like a good thing, like motherhood and apple pie.
In a similar vein, it is better to see Western leaders, especially Bush and Blair, in action. They fly around reassuring the leaders of the jittery coalition. In photographs they seem to be visionaries and noble saviours. They look to the sky or the far horizon; they look stern, with knotted brow. They seem to swell up in their suits, fit to bursting with leadership. Blair and Bush stand in great halls in capital cities of immense wealth and make speeches, though it is their faces that are most memorable (See Guardian Editor, October 6). In his essay ‘The Romans in Films’ (1957), Roland Barthes wrote of Marlon Brando playing Julius Caesar, and how he had to remain dry while his enemies sweated. Blair and Bush, too, must look like men who can carry the weight of responsibility and, unlike ordinary men or Roman conspirators, they must not signify moral turmoil through sweat on the brow.
When the leaders look the part, they always appear better (to Western eyes) than the Afghan leaders, who seem to have no trappings of power, only a ramshackle stage or a backdrop of rock. The Afghans have no constant media stream, and everything they say is censored in the West. The Afghans, on the other hand, are forced to hear messages broadcast from the air, such as ‘You are condemned [to death]. Did you know that?’ The contrast between the different places, messages and appearances could not be greater.
Nevertheless, the above disjuncture in the media between rightful power and terror is fragile and is undermined from within. Consider ‘leadership’: everything seems concentrated at the top. The buffed-up and improved images of Bush and Blair are intended to look good against those images of Afghans, or those burning effigies in Pakistan. Pumping up the two top men and lessening the exposure of their colleagues has its dangers. Unhappily for Blair, especially, he has had to acknowledge in public, as we see in his face in photographs, that the leaders of Syria and Israel do not agree with him. Just as we sometimes see Blair full of confidence against a backdrop of splendour, we also see his undisguised grimaces when the grand plan is spurned (see Guardian, November 2). Bush is never exposed in that way. He has been designated a ‘good news’ president and has been kept in the background. We only ever see him reading high-flown speeches from an autocue. Yet his halting manner, even in this simple task, reveals him as somewhat shrunken inside his Presidential suit.
American military spokesmen are unintentionally revealing. They seem to have no media savvy. They speak badly, and look startled or robotic. These mild-mannered men are implicated not only in the bombing but also in the broadcasts from aircraft over Kandahar. They say to the Taliban, ‘The instant the terrorists took over our planes, you sentenced yourselves to death’. Military men do what they have always done, which is to blame the enemy for their own deaths. For powerful men, there can be scarcely anything as satisfying as knowing that no matter what deaths they themselves deal out, those who died asked for it. Better still, the newspapers will often agree. In the Gulf war, when a missile killed civilians, most of the popular press in Britain (but not the broadsheets) followed the American line and claimed that Saddam Hussein had condemned those people to death, just as he forced his army to commit suicide. In the current war, the Afghans are suffering because they allowed themselves to be overtaken by fundamentalists. They have only themselves to blame.
The newspapers are full of pictures that support the hopes and rhetoric of the top men and their aides. Great navies and air forces assemble. The armed forces turn their weapons on the Taliban and terrorists (but not of course on innocent Afghans). Photographs appear in the press of planes and eruptions. Simple maps are drawn up with helpful arrows and graphic explosions lighting up strategic sites. Pictures are printed of night attacks, none of which are easy to read but which glow green. Night war is always green – that’s how the pictures look authentic. However, green pictures of commandos on the ground are also staged for the press (see Guardian, November 6). That old deception seems to matter less than the ominous light which signifies stealth and sudden death.
In daylight, in harsher, natural light, pictures are taken of Afghan refugees, of craters, of grieving or stoical Afghans, of ruined food depots, of accidental hits, of rubble, of dying innocents. Sometimes an Afghan – or is it a Taliban or terrorist – will display a bit of American plane or missile, or invite journalists to point their cameras at the dead innocents. A wail goes up. The leaders regret the loss of life but emphasise the greater cause.
The Mirror is a good measure of opinion. It feels the mood of its readers, and its position on the war has shifted. It began gung-ho but has become less enthusiastic. Eleven days after September 11, its cover design was a picture of bin Laden caught in the cross-hairs of a rifle or missile (September 22). Bin Laden was unaware, smiling to someone out of sight. He was described as the ‘prime target’ who ‘retreats to cave’, but that was unlikely to benefit him because the SAS GO IN. The mock-up was a revealing dream.
Loose talk (even from the Italian prime minister) about whose culture was and was not ‘civilised’, led Blair and Bush to alter the original simple message. It had formerly been ‘those who are not for us are against us’. But the enemy adopted the same language, which spoiled it. Consequently, the Western leaders claimed that they had no quarrel with peace-loving Afghans, only with the Taliban and the terrorists they harboured. It seemed that every complication was ironed out by this formula, because the terrorists had already proved their desire to kill innocents.
On September 26, the Mirror published a front page that carried two photographs. The comparison was designed to make the real enemy clear. Taliban troops were seen holding weapons and were described as FANATICAL. Refugee ‘toddlers’ in Pakistan, on the other hand, were described as PITIFUL. The headline was ‘Blair Targets Taliban Not Their Afghan Victims’, and the sidebar declared OUR war’s with THEM not with THEM. Readers knew that although all the Afghans were THEM, some were definitely more THEM than others.
The clarification of the message made it easier to think that smart bombs would separate the enemy from the innocents. Unfortunately, many of the latter died, and the American military had not up-dated its language. High ranking officers continued to speak of how much they regretted ‘collateral damage’, as if they were recalling Vietnam and the mass slaughter of unarmed civilians (though back then such deaths had been policy). Along with most other British papers (except the tabloids such as the Sun and the Star, whose readers were bored with war) the Mirror sensed that no one completely believed the Americans any more. After all, things were going from bad to worse. Afghans were already starving and the crisis was getting out of hand. What was the point of bombing a bomb site? On October 12 the Mirror printed one of its great campaigning front pages. Over a picture of wreckage it printed RUBBLE REDUCED TO MORE RUBBLE. The editorial caption read, ‘Is this endless bombing actually getting us anywhere nearer to catching Osama bin Laden? Or is it playing into his hands by whipping up anti-West sentiment?’
Readers of the Mirror were learning that, despite the rhetoric, the war was already lost. Eternal freedom might become eternal war. The Mirror also announced FBI: NEW TERROR ‘IN DAYS’. Biological warfare had already arrived, though no one knew its source. The USA was put on high alert. From now on eternal freedom would mean eternal threat. Worse still, the war might be a confidence trick. After Pakistanis killed Christians in Bahawalpur and Americans killed more children in Kabul, John Pilger in the Mirror declared THIS WAR IS A FRAUD (October 29). According to Pilger, the war against terrorism disguised the continuing agenda of the United States – cultural hegemony via market forces and new colonies for cheap oil.
Most of the British press has picked its way through the thicket of propaganda, rather than simply mouthing it. Certainly the press operates under strictures of censorship and self-censorship, but this does not mean it is hidebound by government. On the contrary, the press has used the available photographs to chart a deeply ambivalent attitude to this war. As Martin Amis said, something was ‘sicked up’ over the world on September 11, and everyone’s moral world was degraded. Politics did not become flat, as the leaders claimed. Instead, it became visibly thicker and more complex. That is the new reality for photojournalism in the press.