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June 11, 2008

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Abstraqtion

Via 3QD, George Packer in World Affairs Journal brings us one of the most textured essays I’ve read about Iraq in the war’s five years:

For all the television news coverage, Americans have the slimmest sense of what the war actually feels and looks like—crumbling deserts, blasted buildings, angry crowds, random firefights. The image of Iraq is flickering and formless. Each year of the war seems like the last, and the patrols and meetings with Iraqis that soldiers conduct every day don’t make for good television ratings. With the exception of Falluja, there have been no memorable battles. The mundane character of counterinsurgency, the fact that journalists have become targets, and the media’s sheer lack of imagination have combined to make this most covered of modern wars one of the least vivid. Iraq is more remote in our consciousness than Vietnam ever was. It has been strangely difficult for Americans even to picture the place. I’ve been asked more times than I can remember, “What does it look like over there?” If you think of World War II or Vietnam, a dozen photographs immediately come to mind. But Iraq has not been a photographer’s war. What are its iconic images? Digital snapshots by military policemen in Abu Ghraib, footage of beheadings posted by jihadis on the Web. There was no shortage of superb photographers taking extraordinary risks in Iraq, and perhaps time will sort from their work a handful of images that will define this war in the same way that, for example, Robert Capa’s photographs of Omaha Beach and Nick Ut’s of children fleeing napalm defined earlier ones. But almost five years into this war, there is only blank space where America’s picture of Iraq should be.

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Posted June 11, 2008 at 3:36 | Comments (2) | Permasnark
File under: Briefly Noted, Journalism

Comments

SUPER good. George Packer is my favorite writer on Iraq, hands down.

Sheesh, how do we really grapple with the central problem (at least in Packer's estimation) -- our collective public inability to grapple with complex realities, w/ things that are "a little bit from column A, a little bit from column B"?

I wonder if it's not like campaign finance reform, where the solution turns out not to be *less* money but *more*. Big donors are only a big deal when there are few small donors; conversely, when millions of people each give $100, suddenly the $10,000 donations aren't so special.

So likewise, maybe more people in the muddled middle -- those of us who are at least interested in the complex reality, even if we're not particularly conversant or comfortable with it -- need to stand up and simply say we're here. It might balance out the class that (as Packer puts it) "generates and consumes opinion on a regular basis" and dilute their influence on the public sphere.

Whaddya think?

I don't know. Is it really fair that Packer's friends, bad manners aside, are more invested in a President who lied to them than a doctor that Packer met in country? Likewise, the criticism of The New Republic's anonymous soldier and the Brookings Institute's pro-war scholars doesn't seem like fanatical partisan behavior on either side, but rather pretty rational behavior given what was presented, the politicization of the coverage, and the media's track record on this war.

We live in a moment of heightened skepticism of the news media, a skepticism that's been churning long before the emergence of blogging, fed by talk radio, cable news, alternative news outlets, and political spin experts. We may have never been as hyper-aware or as fragmented. Packer's article straddles a defense of some aspects of the media and criticism of other aspects of it.

Fragmentation and skepticism carries a price, and part of that price is that we share few of the same iconic memories. But as Errol Morris has shown, the Abu Ghraib photos do have that kind of psychic hold on us. They may not be images fair to everything that has happened in Iraq, but neither were/are many of Vietnam's most iconic photos, or for that matter the iconic pictures of World War II.

Packer is right that what we need are better stories and inconvenient facts, and his writing has helped to provide them. But I don't think they've been wholly missing, and while it's always fun to bash Hollywood types and overheated bloggers who "haven't been there" and "don't get it," I just feel like it's beneath Packer to do that. Especially when he's held in such high respect, his book has sold like hotcakes, and he's not a lone, cranky voice in the wilderness.

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