American crusades, iconic images, and central authority


The iconic image, whether a photo or video clip, often shapes the perception of events in profound ways. As I am learning as a film producer, those who market films specifically look for that one still photo or freeze frame that not only captures the essence of the film, but creates dramatic power. In an article in the January 20, 2011, issue of The New Yorker, called “The Toppling,” author Peter Maass makes the point that the iconic images of Iraqis tearing down the statue of Saddam Hussein in Baghdad’s Firdos Square on April 9, 2003, was largely a media-staged event.

The significance of these images is that they seemed to convey a sense that Iraqis were ecstatic about the overthrow of the Saddam Hussein regime. Many commentators compared the statue toppling to the images of Berliners tearing down the Berlin Wall in 1989, or the Rumanians tearing down the statue of their totalitarian dictator Nicolae Ceausescu. However, whereas these other cases were largely spontaneous expressions of joyous citizens of Germany and Rumania reflecting their newly found freedom, the Baghdad celebrations were clearly premature and, as a result, reflected a strange mix of a few Iraqis, a few media people, and few military personnel. The power of the images of Iraqis celebrating the American liberation by the symbolic act of toppling Saddam Hussein’s statue may have kept Americans from questioning the wisdom of how the Iraqi war was conducted for quite a while.

Lest anyone think that staging of events to capture an iconic image is new, or was taken to a new level by the Bush administration, Maass pointed out that a media community hostile to President Truman edited the presentation of General MacArthur’s Chicago speech in 1951 after he was relieved of his command by Truman to make it appear that the attendees at his event were far larger in numbers and more enthusiastic than was the case. Even the iconic photo of Marines planting the American flag at the top of Mount Surabachi on the island of Iwo Jima in 1945 was a restaging of the actual flag planting.

We need to understand that major media outlets, whether they are more traditional media like newspapers and magazines, TV, or billboards, or newer outlets like YouTube videos, Facebook postings, or web page posters, derive their impact from iconic images. In fact, iconic images have a verbal equivalent in iconic quotes. No one remembers much about many speeches given by political figures, but certain quotes stand out for their powerful simplicity. Ronald Reagan’s famous line in his 1987 speech at the Berlin Wall contained many words and phrases, but what survives in memory is one challenge to General Secretary Gorbachev: “Mr. Gorbachev, tear down this wall.”

Iconic images and phrases end up crowding out everything that happens around them. As Maass pointed out, this crowding out is not only relevant to the way people remember events, but it is relevant to how resources are deployed around an event while it is happening. Many reporters assigned to Baghdad during the April, 2003, U.S. invasion commented that they were actually directed to redirect their efforts away from other time-sensitive and critical stories from the fighting within Baghdad, all of which arose from the U.S. invasion and which, cumulatively, would provide a more accurate and complete picture of the Iraq war than this one staged event. That did not matter: to those who decided where reporters were expected to spend their time, it was more important not to be left behind in covering this one event than it was to report on the whole invasion.

As paid reporters decline in number, their productivity is determined by their ability to capture a single defining moment than to build a story from the ground up. That’s fine, to a degree. It’s great to find the defining moment of a bigger story; it’s bad journalism to force the creation of an event where none actually existed.

There is one common thread to all these iconic images and the iconic words we remember most: they reinforce what author Dominic Tierney described as a “crusade” ideology deeply imbedded in American values, culture, and history in his recent book How We Fight, which does an excellent job explaining why Americans do so well in wars like the two World Wars, the military conflict in the Civil War, and the first Gulf War, as well as the early stages of the Iraq War. We are highly committed to getting rid of bad leaders and bad countries, and to winning military conflicts against other countries. Iconic images and words are most effective in capturing this inherent quality of Americans.

Even the Truman-MacArthur conflict and the distorted coverage of MacArthur’s speech can be understood in this light. MacArthur always said, “There is no substitute for victory.” He wanted to fight the Korean War to conquer North Korea and defeating China decisively, whereas Truman, who wanted a more limited objective of protecting South Korea, considered MacArthur to be disobedient and insubordinate, and fired him.

On the other hand, as Tierney points out, Americans are uncomfortable with the nation building and reconstruction of a society that follows a war or civil conflict. We have neither the patience, nor the skills, nor the values and culture to take sufficient charge of another society and impose the kind of centralized control over it that is needed for rebuilding. We also expect quicker payback on efforts to spread democracy to distant lands. Positive iconic images are harder to find when we do positive nation building, but negative images are abundant. Those who were alive during the Vietnam War can remember the many images of Vietnamese escaping American napalming efforts in villages, or the horrific image of a South Vietnamese police officer executing a suspected terrorist on camera. These are the kinds of messy, unpleasant iconic images that accompany nation building efforts. There are even messy iconic statements, such as the military officer who justified the destruction of a Vietnamese village with the statement: “We had to destroy the village to save it.”

There is an interesting between our attitudes toward nation building and are attitudes toward controlled and centralized communications systems in America. I am reading a wonderful book called The Master Switch, which is about the history of mass communications technology from the invention of the telephone to the present day. The book covers the evolution of the telephone, film, radio, TV, and Internet technologies. In each case, experts predicted that the technologies would create positive impacts on freedom of expression, education, culture, and unifying societies and creating the potential for peace among nations. In each case, there were significant periods of time during which these hopes were thoroughly dashed by the centralized control of these technologies.

For example, it is hard for people to think of radio broadcasting before the radio frequency spectrum was regulated by the Federal Communications Commission in 1934. In the early days of radio, almost anyone could buy radio transmission sets and begin broadcasting on any frequency to anyone who had a radio receiver. There were thousands of stations, many of which interfered with reception by other stations. While there was a need for control of the broadcast spectrum, the effect was to concentrate control over radio transmission in fewer hands.

Outside the United States, control was centralized in national governments. The BBC ended up building a powerful franchise based on a culturally uplifting programming, whereas radio became a powerful propaganda tool in Hitler’s Germany. The BBC became much more of a negative cultural influence when it attempted to shut down “pirate” radio stations operating in the 1960’s just enough offshore to be arguably outside British government control. These “pirate” stations were much more attuned to the emerging tastes of young people in the UK who wanted to hear music from the Beatles, the Rolling Stones, and other groups, content not readily available on the BBC channels.

The Internet has been perceived as a very open communications medium, which is allowing individuals the ability to bypass government control of communications and the manufacturing of propaganda-like iconic images. It appears to give individuals the ability to counteract government. However, information technology and supercomputing give governments the ability to monitor and control decentralized communications in ways that were not conceivable with other communications technologies. When my daughter studied in China in the Summer of 2009, her classmates were shocked to find that the Chinese government could not only block access to the American version of Facebook, which the government did not allow in China, but could also monitor the text of email messages to preclude students from commenting on Chinese government censorship.

The notion that individuals, governments, or any third party will have a permanent hold on communications and that there will be either a continuous and permanent move toward freedom or censorship is flawed. There is a constant tug-and-pull between forces that want to blast away at centralized control and propaganda, and forces that want to control the chaos of decentralized communication.

However, over our history, we have lurched between wanting simple, orderly policies and values, such as the good, simple war provoked by an evil adversary and being highly distrustful of giving any centralized authority the latitude to impose our policies and values on a broad range of people, including our own citizens.

Understanding this about ourselves is most useful in thinking through modern day political issues.