Justice Potter Stewart once defined pornography by saying, “I know it when I see it.” Pornography and propaganda are closely related, as they are both cynical attempts at manipulation, rooted in a lack of respect for humanity. War Porn is one of the more disturbing developments in the new media, as people on both sides of the Iraq War get their kicks watching video images of death and destruction – as long as it’s their opponents who get killed. Whether it’s an Al Qaeda cell-phone video of an IED attack or the grisly footage of a Coalition air strike, War Porn is degrading and incendiary. Of course, some footage is newsworthy and informative and the public deserves to see it. There is also great value to soldiers in watching footage for training purposes and to better understand battlefields and weapons. But at some point, especially when the material is used to make political points, images of combat can cross the line into pornography. People die in war, but we must never forget that each casualty is a human being, even people as deserving of death as Al Qaeda. Denying our opponents’ humanity, we lose a little of our own.
When someone’s grandmother disseminates the photo of Major Beiger cradling a dying girl in his arms, I allow the usage because I feel she is trying to share the human tragedy. When Michael Moore puts that same photo on his web site, alongside images of George Bush, John McCain and Hillary Clinton, the clear implication is that Farah’s death is their fault. That is a misrepresentation of the facts on the ground, as well as the story of the photo. Farah was killed by a suicide car bomb in Mosul on May 2, 2005. Major Bieger and other soldiers literally risked their own lives to save many children and adults that day, but Farah didn’t make it. Michael Moore apparently does not understand – or refuses to acknowledge – the moral distinction between a man who would murder innocent people, and a man who would sacrifice himself to save them. The photo, as I took it, is the truth, but Moore uses it – illegally – to convey falsehoods. His mind is that of a political propagandist who sees Farah’s death not as a human tragedy, but a tool.
A photograph can be a signal event in a war. Think of the flag raising at Iwo Jima, the naked Vietnamese girl fleeing her napalmed village, prisoner abuse at Abu Ghraib. These photos were not just important journalistically, but also strategically – each one literally shifted the course of a war. Photographs can be immensely powerful because they are single images, deep with meaning, able to resonate with disparate audiences, straight through language barriers, at an emotional, even visceral, level. A picture can tell a thousand words in a thousand languages, but placed in the wrong context, a photograph can be turned into propaganda, and the truth becomes a lie.
We need to know the truth about the wars we are currently fighting. That’s why I went to Iraq in the first place. Sometimes the difference between War Porn and the truth can be subtle, ambiguous, even subjective. But I know it when I see it. And if Michael Moore learned to respect not just my work, but other aspects of the truth, not to mention respecting his audience’s intelligence, he would better serve his own cause.