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Warring on images

by Archives January 22, 2008

When he first saw the image of a hooded terrorist at Abu-Ghraib, art historian and author W.J.T. Mitchell said he realized the war in Iraq no longer had an justification. Mitchell said that the picture “tells the truth of the war which was tactically over when it was discovered that there were no weapons of mass destruction.”
Mitchell spoke to a packed room on Jan. 17 at Concordia about two inter-connected revolutions that have taken shape in contemporary America: the art of warfare and that of image production. Promoting his latest research, Cloning Terror: the War of Images, 9-11 to Abu-Ghraib Mitchell discusses the link between modern military conflicts and popular images.
Mitchell began by discussing the destruction of the twin towers, describing the evolution of images produced after 9/11 as being “circumscribed into a master metaphor … [This was an] indelible image designed to traumatize a nation and to announce a new epoch.”
[“The phrase ‘War on Terror’] exemplifies the impossibility of thinking clearly about who and what the enemy is . This indeterminate state of emergency allows the sovereign to act at will,” Mitchell said of the Bush administration’s tactics in warfare.
Mitchell believes the increased circulation, reproduction and mutability of images in our time has led horrifying images to be overlooked. To demonstrate, he showed an image of the hooded man from Abu-Ghraib placed into the infamous iPod ad which, he said, “shows why an image of terror like this couldn’t bring the war to an end. It was simply incorporated into a stream of images and forgotten.”
Another oft-used image to promote the war in Iraq is the one of the statue of Saddam Hussein being pulled down in Baghdad. The Al Jazeera media network later uncovered the fact that the crowd was much smaller than reported and that the people present were not Iraqi, but were shipped in by the United States military.
Another image that Mitchell uses to illustrate his idea is that of Hussein receiving a dental exam after being captured. “Someone in the defense department decided this would be the icon of victory, humiliation of the head of state. Indeed, Bush’s ratings went up drastically after this,” said Mitchell.
Often times, however, the truth is not uncovered and these images become circumscribed into the pantheon of propagandistic war memorials. Clint Eastwood’s investigation while creating “Flags of our Fathers” into the famous photo of the American soldiers raising the flag at Iwo Jima uncovered the rehearsed nature of this image.
“The American treasury was flat broke at the time, this image allowed the war to continue,” said Mitchell.
Although images of propaganda such as these are not a recent phenomenon, Mitchell said what has changed is the facility of reproducing, circulating and mutating these images, which he sees as a perilous combination.

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