The public concept of war is far from reality

November 22, 2005|By MICHAEL OLESKER

All the news reports say the war's getting pretty ugly in Washington. Last week a Democratic congressman said we should get the troops out of harm's way in Iraq, and then a Republican congresswoman said real Marines don't quit, and right away civilization as we know it disappeared in front of our eyes. Across the political aisles, people raised their voices at each other. One congressman even pointed an angry finger in another congressman's face. Gosh, war really is hell.

Sometimes it's hard to remember. A building in Baghdad blows up on television, but that's just television, where thing are blown up every day just to entertain us. In the safety of our homes, where we witness the war in comfort, it's hell if the dinner's overcooked. The war is mostly brought to us now in words parsed by political leaning, in pictures of well-dressed people in television studios debating the calculated ethics of CIA leaks and grand jury investigations and questions whether the White House was intentionally lying or merely incompetent when they sent us into war.

But the war's like anything else in our modern consciousness: After a while, we grow numb, we get distracted. If it doesn't directly touch our lives, we lose touch with it and wonder what exploding buildings might entertain us at the local movieplex.

You want a reminder of war's reality? Spend a few minutes, before it's too late, at the University of Maryland, Baltimore County, at the Albin O. Kuhn Library and Gallery, where photographer Tyler Hicks' exhibit Histories Are Mirrors: The Path of Conflict Through Afghanistan and Iraq now heads into its last few weeks.

Here is your war, in pieces of its awfulness: charred bodies, severed limbs, human beings reduced to Neanderthal living. Hicks has documented the war since the Sept. 11 attacks in New York. From there, he went to Afghanistan and Iraq. The 88 photos at UMBC show us the barbarism we never saw, or managed to forget: soldiers from all sides, destroyed cities, human savagery, acts of salvation.

In accompanying notes, Hicks writes:

"Soon after Sept. 11 ... I found myself in Afghanistan, in the carpeted living rooms of modest cement homes where al-Qaida's actions had been planned. Initially I felt anger toward the country. But I soon understood that the people of Afghanistan were a different story. It's easy to blame a nation, but it became clear to me that the only people who loved the Taliban were the Taliban themselves. Afghans wanted to enjoy the simple comforts of life that we take for granted: the ability to express their religious beliefs, freedom of speech, the right to send their children, daughters as well as sons, off to school."

From Afghanistan, Hicks went to Iraq, where he was an American behind enemy lines. "Iraqi civilians," he writes, "expected to get hit - yet again - by American bombs. ... The night the war began, we photographed the first cruise missiles crashing into the Palace of the Republic. By day we saw the terrible aftermath: large numbers of Iraqi citizens also hit by the bombs ... people whose lives were shattered, and so quickly forgotten."

Hicks' photos remind us what we forgot, or what we simply don't want to think about.

An Iraqi boy gazes up from a hospital bed, his hand over his upper chest as though in awkward salute, what's left of his body swathed in bandages. Both of his legs are gone. They were blown away in a bomb strike in the boy's neighborhood in eastern Baghdad. Whose bomb? Who knows? And what difference does it make to the legless boy?

In Najaf, Marines watch over 29 detainees after an early-morning raid on a gathering place for Mahdi militiamen. Some of the detainees say they were hostages there, held because they wouldn't cooperate with the militia. Who knows who's telling the truth? The detainees are held face down, in the dirt, with their hands bound behind their backs. While this goes on, the politicians in Washington will speak empty words about winning Iraqis' "hearts and minds."

In a series of photos, Hicks shows us a Taliban soldier, lying motionless and bleeding on the side of a dirt road. Soldiers from the Northern Alliance see that he's been shot in the upper leg. They search their prisoner's body for belongings. Then they haul him to his feet; his face is a grotesque with fear. The soldiers drag him along the dirt road to a trench. The prisoner's blood-soaked, loose-fitting pants fall to his ankles, and now he lies there humiliated and naked from the waist down. The soldiers raise their rifles and shoot him in the chest. As they walk away, the dead prisoner's arms reach imploringly upward.

These last photos stop you short: not only for the raw humanity, but the location. Oh, yeah, it's Afghanistan. That's where Osama bin Laden's hiding out, isn't it? Wasn't he the one behind the Sept. 11 attacks? So, can you tell us again why the fighting shifted from Afghanistan to Iraq? Can you tell us again about Iraqi weapons of mass destruction? Can you tell us again about ties between bin Laden and Saddam Hussein?

Because over there in Washington, they're shouting at each other across the political aisles. And right now, this is what passes for war: a bunch of people in suits hollering at each other about CIA leaks and White House briefings, while the killing continues half a world away, and the true barbarism of war lies halfway out of our consciousness.

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