In a perfect TV moment, statue goes down

Anchors compare tumble with the fall of Berlin Wall

War In Iraq

April 10, 2003|By David Zurawik | David Zurawik,SUN TELEVISION CRITIC

The image of Saddam Hussein's statue being pulled to the ground yesterday in Baghdad provided television with a visual metaphor for the fall of the dictator that resonated with centuries-old symbolism. It also offered viewers emotional release after weeks of relentless war coverage.

"The huge statue of Saddam Hussein falling in Baghdad symbolically reflected the end of his regime," CNN anchorman Wolf Blitzer said yesterday in a telephone interview from Kuwait. "Watching the dramatic scenes in the streets of Baghdad yesterday flashed back memories for me of the destruction of the Berlin Wall and the subsequent collapse of the Soviet Union."

The movie-like moment, which occurred at 10:48 EST, could scarcely have been scripted more perfectly in terms of the popular American narrative of the war. It wasn't U.S. soldiers toppling the statue, it was U.S. soldiers using an armored vehicle to help Iraqis topple Hussein - just as the Pentagon has insisted that American forces are helping that nation's population express its will to be rid of Hussein.

The soldiers offered their help after Iraqis had spent several futile minutes hammering at the huge marble pedestal on which the statue stood. Then Marine Cpl. Edward Chin scaled the statue and placed an American flag over the statue's face.

It was a moment of super-charged symbolism and as, is often the case, multiple readings of the event were instantly obvious.

To some, the flag might look like an executioner's hood - an image of conquest and death rather than liberation. Furthermore, the flag might reinforce the idea that this was a struggle between America and Hussein, rather than Hussein and the Iraqi people, as the Pentagon has insisted. The American flag was quickly removed, to be replaced by a pre-Hussein flag of Iraq.

And, then, the statue was brought down. Not all the way at first: Interior supports that connected pedestal to statue held the giant sculpture in a weirdly limp position parallel to the ground but hovering above it. There was something almost comical about the position that made the statue's demise seem even more degrading for Hussein.

When the monument finally hit the ground, cheering Iraqis leapt upon it, many hitting its face and head with their shoes. ""Showing the sole" of the shoe or foot to the face of an enemy is an insult in Iraqi culture.

Finally, the head of the statue was broken off and dragged through the streets on a chain.

Television viewers were witnessing the re-enactment of a ritual of victory and defeat that can be traced as far back as ancient Babylon, according to Joseph Basile, an art historian at the Maryland Institute College of Art.

In Iraq, "the belief is that the ruler's power is in the sculpture itself," Basile said. ""So, when you attack the sculpture as we saw it attacked on television, you attack and gain power over the ruler himself."

Dragging the head of the statue is especially humiliating, as the head is thought to be the seat of the ruler's "animating spirit," Basile said.

Yesterday's images were called historic in their own right. "I think that image [of the statue falling] will come to epitomize this conflict. It will come to match the ultimate symbolic moments of other conflicts, wars and revolutions of our lifetime," Paul Slavin, executive producer of ABC's World News Tonight with Peter Jennings said.

Edward Worteck, a documentary photographer and professor of art and communication at Goucher College, said, "I was just talking with my students about images that come to stand for the war in which they were photographed. And I have a hunch this [Hussein's statue falling] is the one that we're going to remember.

"On the other hand, as a documentary photographer, a little signal goes off in my head when I see an event like this. If you look closely, it is hard to get a clear reading on the true context of what we saw."

For example, the scenes were shot at close range, which makes it hard to determine how large the crowd really was. Nor does the footage reveal how the crowd came together or who the members of it really were.

"All the words from the anchors and reporters implied that this was a real image of Iraqi liberation. And, so, that's the way it is likely to be seen," Worteck said.

"But such an image is also the perfect visual corollary to the sound bite, and that is the danger: Such images, if not questioned, can be ripe for propaganda."

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