29 November 2007

Bringing Home Iraq

Dawn Halfaker ~ Photograph © Timothy Greenfield-Sanders

I've appropriated the title for this post from an essay by Nicholas Mills that appears in the Fail 07 issue of Dissent. The essay assesses the recent portraits Timothy Greenfield-Sanders has made of wounded military veterans returned from Iraq. The project is called "Alive Day Memories" and you can find some of the work here. The photographer previously has made portraits of various political and artistic celebrities and, most recently pubished a book of portraits of porn stars - XXX: 30 Porn Star Portraits (Bulfinch, 2004). In many respects these more recent portraits of veterans resemble Nina Berman's Purple Hearts project. Here is a passage from the Mills essay that leaves me very ambivalent:

“'Alive Day Memories' is no substitute for the political analysis of the
Iraq War found in George Packer’s The Assasins’ Gate and
Thomas Ricks’s Fiasco, nor is it an alternative to Dan Baum’s brilliant
reportage on the wounded in his 2004 New Yorker article,
“The Casualty.” Still, when it comes to arguing that the time
has come to bring the Iraq War to a close, nobody has made the
case in a way more likely to convince the undecided than
Greenfield-Sanders. His visual politics forecloses debate."

I agree that these images are no substitute for political analyses of why we went to war in the first place and why, having done so, the invasion of Iraq has descended into the debacle that it has. I also agree that these images provde powerful reasons to end the war immediately. But I still have qualms about what Mills says. These emerge from the notion that Greenfield-Sanders' work "forecloses debate." That phrase makes me nervous, especially when it appears in the pages of a journal many of whose prime movers were vigorous supporters of the war. Yes, there is little reason to stay in Iraq. These photos depict sacrifice and loss that are a testament to political folly. But we should not accept them as an excuse to foreclose debate; we should assess why and how we got into Iraq and why (predictably) it turned into a disaster. This is crucial not just for the neo-cons who perpetrated the war and the larger public who willfully or otherwise acceded to their plans; it is crucial too for those "pro-war liberals" who should have seen this state of affairs coming - even ex ante. The latter should look at these portraits and ask not just how they could've been so mistaken but how they might avoid making the same mistakes in the future. It may not be that Mills is looking to pre-empt such a re-assessment, such an attempt to learn from a massive, costly error in political judgement. (I do not want to misconstrue his intent.) But the pro-war liberals do not need much of an excuse to avoid facing the hard questions. I have noted this here before and I am simply noting it here again now.

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