Picture of the week and of millennia

Image shows conquerers always defeat and deface


April 05, 2003|By David Zurawik | David Zurawik,SUN TELEVISION CRITIC

Television war coverage this week presented us with a moment in which modern technology captured an ancient truth - and then kept playing and replaying as a video image until it is well on its way to being part of our shared memory.

The moment featured a U.S. Marine in full combat gear swinging a sledge hammer against the nose of a giant portrait of Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein.

The assault on Hussein's portrait took place earlier in the week as the 2nd battalion, 8th Marines took over a factory complex in Nasiriyah. With the image of its destruction on television screens and in newspapers just as the war was going much better for U.S. troops in their drive to Baghdad, timing surely played a part in the way it jumped out of the pack of the tens of thousands of wartime pictures flowing into American living rooms day and night.

But timing alone doesn't explain the tremendous impact of a picture like this. The images of television are fleeting, and only when they connect with deeper and more permanent currents of history and human behavior do they have great resonance. The picture of the Marine in full battle gear triumphantly destroying a public symbol of the enemy's power sends an unmistakable message of victory - and defeat - to all who view it.

"This is about defacement. You alter the face of some ruling identity as you are conquering the land or taking over the authority of that ruling identity," says Gary Vikan, director of the Walters Art Museum.

"In the ancient world, the image of the emperor was thought to partake in the power of the emperor. So, if you beat up the image, you are essentially taking power away from this mythical figure.

"And you can be absolutely certain for the people who live in the area, that this action by the Marine is a huge statement of disempowerment through defacement. It's the disempowerment of this Saddam guy who likens himself to some mythic Nebuchadnezzar figure."

That the center of the portrait's face, particularly its nose, is the focus of the Marine's attack carries significance, as well.

"Did you ever wonder why so many noses are missing from ancient Roman statues?" Vikan said. "It's not because they fell on their nose when they fell off the pedestal. Conquering people come by and whack off the noses. It's an ancient practice."

The museum director noted similar attacks were made against statues and portraits of Stalin, Lenin and Hitler as they lost their hold on power in more modern times.

Iraqi TV yesterday seemed to be trying to counter the assault on Hussein's image by releasing videotape of the dictator (or a lookalike) walking through the streets of Baghdad. But was it Saddam, or was it Memorex?

It might seem misguided for Iraqi officials to be so concerned about the media image of Hussein as the very real threat of total military defeat arrives at the gates of Baghdad. But maybe the deeper meaning of the television image of that Marine swinging a sledge hammer on CNN has registered in their minds, too.

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