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Downing

The power of the photograph is finally opening everyone's eyes to the nature of U.S. involvement in the Middle East

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The publication of the souvenir photos from Abu Ghraib seems to have been a turning point in the war. Suddenly, only war enthusiasts, extreme Bush-idolaters and war profiteers are entirely pleased with our Middle East adventure. All that even the most fanatic neocons can find to say publicly is that the images have been "overemphasized."

The pictures were dismaying enough to finally make a number of long-ignored aspects of the administration's conduct of general interest. Reports of abuses and deceptions that had bothered only human-rights weirdoes and Godless lefties before are now of public concern. And the many editors and columnists who've marched along like Good Germans are having second thoughts: Last Wednesday, The New York Times published a long apology for the paper's trusting coverage of the WMD scam. Looking back, the editors are embarrassed. They should be.

The last few years have been dread-filled and bewildering for those of us who never believed. I remember wanting to drive off a cliff a month or two after the invasion when I caught part of a radio discussion about whether there might be some differences between World War II and the war in Iraq. And this was NPR.

Now, it looks like dreamtime may finally be over. Even Congress has found the nerve to ever-so-cautiously get up on its hind legs, a position that unfortunately exposes the place where its long-lost cojones ought to be. Our elected representatives are shocked, shocked to learn that the United States started flouting the Geneva Conventions as soon as it began arresting foreign nationals after Sept. 11; that the value of Halliburton's no-bid, no-oversight contract with the government has gone from $100 million to $6 billion since 2001; and that Ahmed Chalaby, a man despised by his countrymen and once convicted in absentia for embezzlement and fraud, is--holy cow!--a liar, suck-up and thief. They're even more astounded to learn that war is hell. They had no clue.

So the visual has proved its incomparable power once more. The White House's corruption and arrogance have not been what you'd call a secret, but for some reason, it took the revolting souvenir snaps from Abu Ghraib to get us all on the same page. Now we understand the administration's preoccupation with managing images of the war. They were smart to bring those coffins in at night: It's so hard to spin a picture. You've got to give them credit for sensing the danger.

I grew up during the Vietnam War, which was splashed in jungle green and arterial red all over Life magazine every week. Photographs of that war steadily eroded Americans' support for it. Three famous shots, in particular, changed public opinion: The napalmed little girl running down the road naked and screaming, the point-blank execution of a Viet Cong soldier by the chief of the South Vietnamese police, and the Buddhist monk's self-immolation at a Saigon intersection. They were just too hard to take.

Outsiders, professional photographers who were both brave and lucky, captured those images. But at Abu Ghraib, it was the people farthest inside the war who wielded the cameras. This is something new in the history of the world, and it may be important. Can war survive the coming of the small, cheap digital camera?

The popularity of wars of aggression has always depended on blissful ignorance. As long as a conflict is far away and cheerfully presented--and casualties don't get too bad--all its promoters need is competent PR to keep the funds and foot soldiers coming. It is crucial, though, that the homefolks have only a hazy, heroic picture of what's going on.

So. Will war be possible when everybody on the ground can record and distribute images of the unpleasant realities? The Internet is a monster of communication, and anything that gets on it is out: Does anyone think the Pentagon would have released the Abu Ghraib photos if they weren't already beyond recall? It could be that the fog of war is lifting to reveal the intolerable truth in a form impervious to either censorship or rhetoric.

The veterans of all previous wars have had to carry the burden of memory alone; it looks as if all of us may have to share their knowledge from now on. Here's hoping we won't be able to stand it.

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