We’ve all seen them - the photographs of malnourished children with big bellies and thinning reddish hair; the pictures of babies with horrific harelips, the sad and lonely faces of AIDS orphans. These photos, tugging at our heartstrings until we write checks to assuage the guilt of affluence, have been dubbed ‘the pornography of poverty.’ They are seductive. We can’t divert our eyes. They stimulate something in us, perhaps compassion vs. passion, but still, they make of us voyeurs as we look upon other people’s suffering and humiliation.
There is another kind of pictorial pornography - the pornography of war. You know its poster child too: A “wounded warrior” learning to walk with a prosthesis (or two); a female officer incapacitated by depression, perhaps induced by guilt for what she has seen or done, or by what has been done to her; a child wrapping her arms around a dad who no longer has the mental capacity to recognize her, a homeless vet wandering aimlessly.
And that’s just in our own country. We seldom see pictures of children wearing the faces of conflict, bearing wounded bodies, bereaved beyond repair in places where wars are actually fought: Iraq and Afghanistan, for example. These photos are no less seductive. We look upon them with broken hearts, perhaps wondering why there is something horribly compelling about human suffering, and when we’ve had enough, we look away.
These photos make me immensely sad, and angry. I cannot bear to look upon limbless bodies, shrapnel misshapen heads, or blank, staring eyes when they are used to garner sympathy in order to foster a simplistic, faux nationalism that calls itself patriotism.
Let’s be clear: Our troops did not march into Iraq to save us from weapons of mass destruction, or to protect democracy. They went to Iraq, as they did to Vietnam, because of a lie told to them (and us) by their own government. All the loss of life that followed, on both sides, happened because Iraq had something we wanted (oil) and because George W. Bush wanted a war. Saddam Hussein was a bad guy for sure but what have we got to show for our bravado? A country torn apart and full of suffering souls because of our dishonest invasion. As for the so-called wounded warriors of Afghanistan, what were they actually fighting for in a country whose culture we don’t begin to understand, and so rife with corruption that no one knows where the money went, although a large chunk of it is likely in the pockets of President Karzai and his cronies, all of whom have turned against the ally we thought we were. (If you think the American military was welcome there, talk to some Afghanis. You’ll get a different picture than the ones used for propaganda.)
So let’s be clear about something else. President Obama is not, as politicians on the right would have us believe, a wimp on war. He is not clueless, inept, passive, stupid, or weak in foreign policy. His devotion to diplomatic solutions aimed at ending conflicts that cause so much pain to so many people – often with unanticipated consequences - is courageous, intelligent, active and sensitive to complex realities. Unlike his predecessor and the hawkish Republicans who continue to live in some kind of Reaganesque LaLa Land, Mr. Obama recognizes the costs of war in human as well as geopolitical terms.
Like Jimmy Carter, also unfairly pilloried for his political posture, the president knows that difficult but safer solutions often reside in the conversation between two people, both with a stake in the outcome of actions they take. The president is not the inexperienced ingenue some people believe he is. He’s simply trying to exercise caution, and a modicum of wisdom, from this side of the brink. That he keeps his wits about him and maintains his dignity while critics hit him hard for believing in alternatives to war is something we should all be grateful for.
To be clear again, I am not a knee-jerk Democrat (although I am always and forever an independently minded one). I don’t always agree with the president’s decisions or actions. I am a harsh critic when criticism is called for. But in writing this commentary, what I want to know is this: How many more limbless, lifeless, lost soldiers will it take before we come to see that war is not inevitable, not desirable, not always the solution, and should never be undertaken on the basis of lies – or false notions of patriotism.
How many more pornographic pictures must we view to see that violence is always trumped by vision, and that suffering is the last, worst solution to conflict. If you doubt this, ask any one of those poster people promoting nationalism– or the parents and partners who now weep over their dead bodies.