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Not Every Picture Tells a Story: A Death in Falluja

This article first appeared in The New York Times.

All of life seems to be about denial--the denial of death, the denial of reality, the denial of everything that is convenient for us to deny. Photography, because of its causal relationship to the world, seems to give us the truth or something close to the truth. I am skeptical about this for many reasons. But even if photography doesn't give us truth on a silver platter, it does make it harder for us to deny reality. It puts a leach on fantasy, confabulation and self-deception. It provides constraints and borders. It circumscribes our ability to lie-to ourselves and to others.

We can imagine, in the privacy of our thoughts, that war is heroic and honorable-even noble. Photography can make it difficult for us to maintain these illusions. Take the recent videotape of the Iraqi insurgent in Falluja being shot and killed by a US marine. It does not tell us everything we need to know about what happened. It does not tell us what the marine was thinking or what his prisoner was thinking--that is, what he was thinking before he was shot dead. But it does tell us that something happened. And, as a result, it makes the shooting, the killing, much harder to deny.

No doubt, there will be an investigation--an attempt to provide context--to fill in the details: why the prisoner was there and who he was; whether the marine was acting on instructions from his superiors and what those might have been; or whether he acted in self-defense. One central question remains: What are we looking at? And that question will not go away. No more so than the pictures of Abu Ghraib went away. Pictures are physical evidence, and as such, they are part of an effort to understand what really happened.

Pictures force us to collect our thoughts. They make us think about motivation, intent-they make us think about how we interpret our experiences, how we think about the world, how we try to understand the motives of others. (Maybe it's in our DNA. We look at pictures of other people and we want to know: what were they thinking?) And when it's a photograph of a crime or of violence, we think even harder.

Such images make us care because they make us part of the mystery of what happened. We are not merely spectators; we are investigators. We are involved. What do the images mean? What do they show? What led up to these events? Are there mitigating circumstances? Is it a bad as it looks?

Pictures provide a point around which other pieces of evidence collect. They are part of, but not a substitute for, an investigation.

There are real questions to be answered. That's why we have international law, rules of engagement and codes of military conduct. 

There is a fact of the matter to be determined; whether this was done in cold blood and therefore constitutes a war crime and who, if anyone, should be held responsible. The Abu Ghraib photographs turned out (following an investigation) to be what they seemed to be-pictures of torture and abuse. They were as bad as they looked-even worse. 

Some of the soldiers involved were held accountable. But accountability did not proceed very far up the chain of command. And, of course, there were those who felt that the torture and abuse were justified.

Unhappily, an unerring fact of human nature is that we habitually reject the evidence of our own senses. If we want to believe something, then we often find a way to do so regardless of evidence to the contrary. Believing is seeing and not the other way around.

For many people, the interpretation of this videotape will devolve into general questions about Iraq. People will interpret this videotape according to their ideological dispositions. Are we looking at the face of freedom on the march, or at the footprint of an our-of-control behemoth leaving a trail of bodies in its wake? For the true believers in the war in Iraq, these images will make little impression. For them, the ends of which this war is being fought justify the means. War is bloody, brutal; the enemy is vicious. But the objective of extending freedom redeems what has to be done to achieve it. In this view the war is unfortunate but necessary. 

For people, like myself, who are deeply skeptical about this war, it is not clear what the "ends" of this was might be. It doesn't seem as if Iraq is freer or will be freer in the near future. Call me a naysayer or a skeptic, but what I see in the newspapers all seems evidence of mayhem. And with no end of the war in sight, the terrible means-the manner in which this war is being fought-seem, at best, misguided and at worst, deeply wrong. 

John Keegan, in The Face of Battle,writes about the Battle of Agincourt. Henry V has invaded France out of political ambition. He would like to be more than just king of England. (Shakespeare gives Henry the line: "The signs of war advance, no king of England if not king of France.") At a point of crisis in the battle, Henry orders the killing of his French prisoners. There are too many of them. And if the tide should turn against the English, the French prisoners represent an unacceptable threat. Keegan writes about Henry's decision: "Comprehensible in harsh tactical logic; in ethical, practical and human terms, much more difficult to understand."

In many ways, we haven't progressed very far in six centuries. 

Presumably, shooting an unarmed, wounded prisoner is not an example of humane treatment afforded under the protections of the Geneva Conventions. And so, I find myself thrown back on my ideological predispositions. I have worried for some time that we are going down a rabbit hole in Iraq, much like the rabbit hole we went down in Vietnam. It's not that Vietnam is Iraq. The geopolitical situations are completely different. And yet, there is a common element-our capacity for self-deception, for denial and for evasion.
Videotape or no videotape, that still remains.

About Errol Morris

Errol Morris, a filmmaker and director, won an Academy Award this year for the documentary "The Fog of War: Eleven Lessons From the Life of Robert S. McNamara."

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