mr. zilla goes to town

Tuesday, June 01, 2004

the camera adds ten wounds

Last week a friend in Canberra asked me to compare how the images of returning coffins and abused prisoners were being received by people here in Washington.

The impact of the Abu Ghraib scandal, and perhaps also the US being forced to accede to negotiated outcomes in Fallujah and other hotspots, has had a much greater impact than the flag-draped coffins. These images are time-honoured, respected... known unknowns even.

Abu Ghraib was an unknown unknown. It is the first time I have heard a number of quite staunchly pro-Republican friends openly despair about the course of the war and talk about voting against Bush. This surprised me, as they have the option of just not voting at all, rather than delivering two votes, one in each side of the ledger, to Kerry. They remain quite pro-Republican on a range of issues, but the appalling execution of the war in Iraq - not the decision to go to war itself - has become a deal breaker for them.

I was at a Friday afternoon beery roundtable at a wonkshop down in the Penn quarter recently, and talked to a bloke who until recently was a union organizer for manufacturing workers at the Boeing plant in Seattle. He said the average age on the shop floor was about 48, and many were Vietnam vets or Vietnam-era vets. He said the one thing that hurt them most about Vietnam now, 30 years on, was not the comrades they lost. And it wasn't the anti-war sentiment they faced at the time. It was the fact that America lost the war. I think the greatest threat to Bush's re-election from that demographic is the perception that the US (under Bush) cannot 'win' Iraq - however the meaning of that term degrades and evolves. Should he one day be capable of thinking about his mistakes, Bush may yet rue the decision to support Rumsfeld to the hilt instead of telling him to fall on his sword.

The Abu Ghraib images have become the iconic images of the war in the West. (How tragic for us that we never saw the Al Jazeera's bloody footage during major combat ops? Are these images sanitized enough to stand in their place?) All the playstation missilecams and the like simply lack the short-circuit to our empathic humanity. In 10 years time, not even Saddam being checked for lice will be fresher in people's minds than a bag-headed black-draped figure on a box who crucified our pre-shrunk credibility.

Which, to put this in broader context, I think is a crying shame. The numbers are still coming in, but there are currently 53 confirmed mass graves in Iraq and 200 more have been reported. Estimates are as high as 400,000 killed (Tony Blair) or 290,000 'disappeared' (Human Rights Watch).

This is not to excuse the former in the context of the latter like so many rightwingnuts are prone to do. You might as well say that 40-odd deaths in US military custody over 2 years is not as bad as what Lt Calley and his company inflicted upon 500 people, two nations, and our one humanity, in one afternoon. You have to reject these ameliorating gradations of horror. Damnit, we set our bar higher. Nonetheless I am completely disgusted that the soldiers involved, and the failures of leadership from above, so stupidly and avoidably overshadowed their removal of a sadistic tyrant, and have sabotaged the political course of the exit(victory?) strategy.

I think Bush's chin-jutting doggedness in the face of the Iraqi uprisings is a poor approach. At the very least I hope that it is merely for domestic consumption. The CPA should be (and probably is) making very clear to Iraq's moderates like Sistani that the extremists are their problem, and that if they won't step up, take them on and deny them legitimacy, the US _will_ leave in short order -- leaving the moderates without even the current semisecure environment in which to build a new framework. The problem is that Abu Ghraib makes any semblance of cooperation with the CPA even more risky and radioactive: observe the recent assassination of the head of the IGC.

Update: Snap. See Road to Surfdom for a similar post about the views of Washington's republican real estate agents. E. J. Dionne in today's Post also talks about the conservative fragmentation.

My anecdotal evidence notwithstanding, I'm not sure this will be enough, not yet. As I previously mentioned, I think Kerry is yet to set the electorate on fire. Or at least have it warm to him. But speaking of asbestos underwear, check out Al Gore's recent speech at NYU on the CSPAN front page. It is well worth viewing rather than reading if you can.

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