IMAGES THAT PREVENT US FROM THINKING… is the subject of an article in Le Monde Diplomatique of this month. The article starts with the the portrait of Bibi Aisha, on the cover of the july 29. issue of Time magazine, the Afghan woman with her nose cut off by her father in law because of an affront to his authority, an act supported by a local – supposedly Taliban – official. The display of this horrific picture triggered a fierce debate, because of the emblematic way it was used with the descriptive accompagning text: “What happens if we leave Afghanistan.” One may confront this implicit argument for Western involvement in Afghanistan and its continuation, with images of civilian casualties by NATO and American forces, especially the structural case of ‘collateral damage’ as a result of always imprecise air attacks.
In the words of Serge Halimi of Le Monde Diplomatique: “Will there be more mutilations “if we leave Afghanistan”? Well, “our” presence has not prevented the people of Afghanistan from being mutilated. The Taliban have plenty of pictures of civilians who have lost limbs or been killed by western missiles. Perhaps Time will publish one. Will it make the front cover? And what caption will it carry?”
The photograph of the Kabul demonstration has been published (just one example of its usage) by an American news web site cleveland.com with the header: “Holland bails out on Afghanistan war, adding pressure on Germany, UK to scale back.”
In Holland itself this news item on a demonstration against US Forces and NATO has – as far as I can conclude after 15 minutes of precise web searches – not been published. Which is in line with the general strategy of embedded journalism and evasive reporting on civilian casualties,during the years of military involvement of the Netherlands in Afghanistan. I can not recount any serious attempt of the Dutch press to come up with a civilian body count of the Afghan War. Quiet some money must have been invested in embedded reporting, but serious ‘open source’ research (which is much cheaper to do) of casualties of this war other than “our own” boys and girls have not been undertaken. A case of death by ‘friendly fire’ of Dutch soldiers in Afghanistan may be found back in the national Dutch news lines over weeks, but the fate of the the local population during all kind of disastrous incidents and the needed debate of how casualties are counted at all, just does not exist. It makes me remember the ‘news’ on the Vietnam War before 1975 (the Fall of Saigon) and how it was often implicit that when a town or village was under attack, the victims that fell in such an operation could only be ‘insurgents’, Vietcong or their allies. The same thing seems to happen now, with only another insurgent stamp: Taliban.
This being said does not mean that either the Vietcong or the Taliban were or are to be exempted from any criticism on their deeds. We may better try to be conscious of the underlying process of imposing an emblematic picture of ‘the enemy’, a phenomenon for which the German language has one single word ‘Feindbild’ (Ennemy-Picture). A ‘Feindbild’ is a generalised picture and mostly pre-cooked in written language and later on may get a visual expression. Often the caricaturist lends a helping hand to typify the ‘enemy’ by enlarging what is seen as typical features of the face, the rest of the body and the way of clothing. The racist and non-racist dividing line in the depiction of face and ethnicity is often hard to draw.