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July 15, 2008

Sleepwalking Out of Iraq


by Robert Hariman

There has been something strange about the recent coverage of the war in Iraq.

Privately I’ve been complaining that the war has all but disappeared from the papers, or that the photos are soft news shots, or that everything has becoming numbingly repetitive. There is some truth to all of that, but not enough. It finally hit me today after a friend suggested that I was giving up too easily. So I looked again and there it was: the US, across the board, is already disengaging and moving on, but as if in a dream, as if none of this is really happening.

To see what I mean, you might look at the photograph above.

Iraqi civilians are queued up for food and medical aid in Sadr City. We see, front to back, the civilians, an Iraqi soldier, and then an American soldier. The details tell a familiar story not without irony: As the Iraqi military steps up the US can drop back into a supporting role.  Although the US troops are occupying a school that had to be abandoned, the Iraqi soldier is masked because of sectarian violence, and kids are already armed, albeit with water pistols.

But these are distractions from the real truth of the photograph. The American is already well in the background, behind a barrier, peering out as though from a door that he is about to close. He is looking on a scene of his own making, but one that now clearly is separate from where and who he is. The interaction is all on the other side of the barrier. Soon he will step back. After all, he is in the vanishing point of the picture.

Any one photograph can be but a fragment and not representative of a larger pattern. So let’s look at two more.


This one is yet another shot of US soldiers searching a family’s home in Iraq. You might contrast it with others which were images of close encounters that could be terrifying and confusing for all concerned (such as this one posted at No Caption Needed). This picture, by contrast, could be a study in alienation: The scene has an eerie feel to it, as if it were a still from some European film where dream and reality get mixed together.

He is preoccupied in the background, she is waiting in the foreground, and they are separated by the long viewing angle as well as a concrete partition, as if they were in separate zones of feeling. She is tense, alert, even colorful; although frightened and wary, this still is her home. He is distant, relaxed, even laconic–just going through the motions. He stands by a door. On close inspection it appears to be a closet, but it does double duty as a portal to the some symbolic other place. He will look around, go through his check list, and then go out the door. Why not? He already is far away from those around him in Iraq.  And besides, he might be redeployed to go on patrol in Afghanistan:


This is supposed to be our new and improved war against terror, but old habits are hard to break.

The photograph captures the near-complete separation between the US military and those living under the occupation. The troops are walking in one direction, set on their mission, while the Afghani civilian walks in the other. Once again, the troops are a muted presence in the background while more colorful domestic life goes on as best it can.

Purely military rather than political, cultural, or economic engagement means that the US is there but not there. The unreal quality of American empire makes it easy to send the troops abroad, and easy to let it all melt away without really admitting mistakes and counting the cost.  The war in Afghanistan initially was justified and may still be necessary. The war in Iraq was neither. That war began in a condition of collective–though not total–delusion.

Perhaps it is too much to expect it to end any other way. One would like to think the US could face up to the tragedy and learn from its mistakes. As these photographs suggest, however, it could be that we haven’t learned a thing and that we will leave Iraq in a haze of denial, perfectly capable of making the same mistakes again.

Cross-posted from No Caption Needed.

(Photographs by Andrea Bruce/Washington Post, Damir Sagoli/Reuters, and Rafiq Magbool/Associated Press)

  • marabunda of 1


  • black dog barking

    All of these images capture the asymmetry of our engagement, no, occupation is the better word. When walking through the world in which Iraqis live their daily lives we’re armed and armored to the teeth. Otherwise we’re behind blast walls. The “enemy” is one of them, looks like all the rest of them, therefore all the rest must be treated as hostile. Leaving, we’re told, is losing.
    Yep, nightmare.

  • ratfood

    The lessons the U.S. learned from Vietnam prevented a long term occupation of another country for over 25 years but only after suffering a huge public humiliation. Since it appears we will slink out of Iraq, perhaps the best way to make a lasting impression on the public would be to present every U.S. taxpayer with a bill for their share of the financial burden incurred.

  • John H.

    In addition to the other comments, the top photo’s placement of the single, slightly blurred boy with a toy gun in a large crowd of unarmed adults going about their daily business also communicates the message “there are only a few boys running around playing with guns,” thus negating the full horror of the war.
    The next photo appears to show a US soldier inspecting a typical home in relatively good condition, as a home remodelor / builder in our culture might inspect their work on a typical US home — i.e., the doors are true, etc., — before leaving. The woman — i.e., “the homeowner” — merely needs to pull herself together, psychologically, and “own her space,” etc. The message is thus appears to be: “the US has fixed your home, now you simply need to take responsibility for it.”

  • Larry C

    This post got me thinking about an article in last month’s Esquire about a cyinc’s view of the Obama candidacy:
    What made me connect the two was this paragraph: “That is the election that the cynic thought we’d have in 2008, an epochal choice of wisdom over stupidity, energy over apathy, grimly serious business over shiny trivialities. He was no less a sucker than any of his countrymen for appeals to the better angels of his nature. But this time around, he wanted those angels to be carrying flaming swords. He thought he’d measured the wreckage, walked through the ruins, and counted the cost. He didn’t think he was smarter than his countrymen or shrewder about his politics or wiser in the ways of the world. The cynic simply thought he was adequate to the times, and he didn’t want to be “moving on” just yet. He didn’t want an election that offered absolution without confession, without penance.”
    So, is this what we’re facing in Iraq? Absolution without pennance? Leaving Iraq without learning a thing, capable of making the same mistakes again? Is this a function of the US as a nation, or a case of a nation reflecting the character of its “leader” – a child in the world of adults. Basically, we broke a smaller kid’s toy and tried half-assedly to fix it, but since we’re the big bully on the block, we basically gave up, said “tough!” to the smaller kid, and left him with his broken toy. And now, it’s not our respsonsibility. We didn’t learn that it’s wrong to break someone else’s toy, that if you do break something that it’s your responsibility to fix it, and next time we find another smaller kid with a toy we want, we’ll take it away from him, not caring about the consequences.
    I can only hope that it’s the latter, the US reflecting the character of a child-president, and when the adults take over, we’ll share, and say please and thank you, and not throw temper tantrums…

  • Karen

    M: if you haven’t read it yet, you might find John MacArthur’s Second Front: Censorship and Propaganda in the 1991 Gulf War (1992) interesting.

  • Rafael

    The truth about U.S. presence in Iraq is simple, it is irrelevant. Things are happening that the U.S. can not change or influence in anyway. The U.S. is riding shotgun on a truck that went over the cliff face a few years back. The only thing it can do is hope there is a parachute in the back seat.

  • Rafael

    Of course, the U.S. can always make things worse, by for example, attacking Iran.

  • swarmofkillermonkeys

    The plain fact of the matter is that, despite whatever too loud denials by those clamoring for power, there is a date nearly-certain to begin significant withdrawal from Iraq: January 20, 2009. You and I know it, the presidential candidates know it… so does the military command structure, the Iraqis, Europeans, etc. That Bush failed so often in brining up a durable political and security infrastructure in Iraq for years is sad, sure, but that date remains a significant demarkation in time. The status quo is simply untenable beyond that point for myriad reasons. This is the reality that the first photo displays to me. Wishful thinking vs reality… reality wins.
    I would not be surprised if Bush is even seeing pressure behind the scenes from the supposed “100 years in Iraq” McCain campaign to achieve a more stable situation by that date (ie. reduced troop count and transitioned domestic security responsibilities). That way he can have his cake and eat it too, by spouting forth just another disingenuous hypocrisy to appear “tough” on foreign policy issues, while wanting no part whatsoever in prolonging this misadventure outside of maintaining isolated bases they’ve scattered around to “protect our interests in the region”.
    But let’s be fair, this is what was supposed to happen. What we wanted to happen. Ideally not in such a last minute, rushed fashion admittedly… But that die was cast by stacking the deck with corporate pigs of war to profiteer at will, by installing incompetent cronies uninterested in real intelligence into positions that called for experienced administrators with vetted realistic strategies at hand. Since that first year left the country looted and lawless, this was more and more the inevitable sloppy conclusion. That Bush can and does wield the press to propagandize this mixed result and hasty drawdown (at best) into a Glorious Victory for the Peoples of the Revered States of Merica… I find completely unsurprising. That’s exactly how they ramped up for war in the beginning! This evidence of spin is just more mortar to cement his place in history as a bumbling petty dictator that slipped into power in the U.S. instead of nation less relevant at this time, his path greased the entire way by the ivy league old money aristocrats and his fellow wealthy scions installed at the helms of big business and big media.

  • cenoxo

    America in The Gap.
    Disconnectedness defines danger” may not mean what the author intended.

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