The Atrocity Exhibition

A war fueled by imagery


In 1993, a photographer named Kevin Carter went to Sudan to capture images of that nation's dismal and unending civil war. One of the pictures he took was of a starving little girl: She had collapsed in the bush, and a vulture nearby seemed to be waiting for her to die. The photo was reproduced all over the world, touching many thousands of people, becoming an icon of African misery, winning a Pulitzer Prize, and, a year later, apparently contributing to Carter's own suicide.

Carter, a white South African, spent only a couple of days in Sudan. According to Susan D. Moeller, who tells Carter's story in Compassion Fatigue: How the Media Sell Disease, Famine, War and Death, he had gone into the bush seeking relief from the terrible starvation and suffering he was documenting, when he encountered the emaciated girl. When he saw the vulture land, Carter waited quietly, hoping the bird would spread its wings and give him an even more dramatic image. It didn't, and he eventually chased the bird away. The girl gathered her strength and resumed her journey toward a feeding center. Afterward, writes Moeller, Carter "sat by a tree, talked to God, cried, and thought about his own daughter, Megan."

When the image of the prostrate girl and the patient vulture appeared, many people demanded to know what had happened to her. The New York Times explained in an editors' note that while she resumed her trek, the photographer didn't know if she had survived. Carter stood accused; callers in the middle of the night denounced him. The girl began to haunt the photographer. In June 1994, Carter, beset by difficulties, killed himself. His suicide note speaks of the ghosts he could not escape, the "vivid memories of killings & corpses & anger & pain," and the "starving and wounded children" ever before his eyes.

This death of a messenger is a cautionary tale for an age of atrocity imagery. Terrible pictures of agony and murder have come to America from Lebanon, from Somalia, from Haiti, from Rwanda, and now from Kosovo, and they have unleashed the most powerful of emotions. Yet these emotions emerge from pictures that tell inevitably distorted versions of their awful realities. Their concrete representations suggest a moral imperative to act, to intervene with force against evil. Yet the resulting interventions have, one after the other, revealed the illusions of mercy: There is no such thing as military humanitarianism. Such action, despite its moral incentive, is always political, and always results in political consequences and responsibilities. When these assert themselves, the atrocity imagery changes: It often features Americans.

In Carter's case, Western newspaper readers saw a little girl. Carter, in the Sudanese village where he landed, was watching 20 people starve to death each hour. Perhaps he might have laid aside his camera to give the victims what succor he could (and thus never have encountered the girl in the bush); perhaps his photographs could have led to greater help than he could personally give. Should he have carried one girl to safety? Carter was surrounded by hundreds of starving children. When he sat by the tree and wept, it was beneath a burden of futility. But his was not a photo of futility, nor of mass starvation, nor of religious factionalism, nor of civil war. Readers saw a little girl. In part, at least, Carter died for that.

While Kevin Carter was in Sudan, American forces were not very far away: They were in Somalia. They'd been dispatched there by George Bush, who specifically cited the "shocking images" of starvation and violence from that collapsed nation when he announced a humanitarian intervention. The use of America's military power for such purposes had broad public support; indeed, Bush was actually under pressure to act as a result of the deeply disturbing imagery. The Cold War was over; history had ended with the collapse of ideological challenge to liberal democratic capitalism. America's enormous military power could become an arsenal for decency.

But it turns out that war is fought on history's nether side. The post-historical urge to rescue, as it emerges from dangerously sentimentalized atrocity imagery, is considerably weaker in practice than is the historical urge to power that it confronts on the ground.

American forces, under Bill Clinton, altered their Somali mission from one of alleviating hunger to one of "nation building," thus involving the U.S. military in a local political struggle that policy makers didn't take seriously. The result was that the United States, in all its might, was driven from Somalia by a local militia leader whose followers dragged the despoiled corpses of some American soldiers through the streets. Somalia remains the "failed state" it was before American troops arrived, its people living in the continuing misery that results from total national dysfunction. But what little imagery emerges from Somalia has seemingly lost its moral dimension; for Americans, at least, such imagery now has political content, and is judged politically when it is displayed at all.

This intervention was itself a replay of the American misadventure in Beirut in 1982, when, in the wake of the massacres at the Sabra and Shattila refugee camps, Ronald Reagan sent in the Marines while citing the terrible pictures of suffering. Though seemingly engaged in a humanitarian effort aimed at policing and stabilizing the volatile situation, Americans actually found themselves enmeshed in a complex political struggle for the control of Lebanon. The Marines were of course pulled out the next year after their barracks were bombed, killing 223 soldiers. The perpetrators of the bombing have never been identified; Lebanon today is controlled by Syria.

The NATO intervention under American leadership in Yugoslavia, over the issue of Kosovo, is the apotheosis of this pathos-driven moral imperative reduced immediately to political dross. In a notoriously rambling March 23 speech intended to frame the issues involved in the Kosovo conflict and to garner support for American military involvement there, the president cited a variety of reasons to take military action, and evoked the horrible pictures of Balkan bloodshed that had appeared in the press for years. He told the country that he wanted to create a world "where we don't have to worry about seeing scenes every night for the next 40 years of ethnic cleansing in some part of the world." With likely images of dead Americans no doubt in mind, the president made it clear in advance of the bombing campaign that there were no plans to send in ground troops.

This attempt to sell a military action on humanitarian grounds, yet split the difference between the two kinds of atrocity images, has had serious consequences: a military, political, and humanitarian miscalculation of historic proportions. NATO's air attacks provided cover for Serbian leader Slobodon Milosevic to begin an expulsion of ethnic Albanians from the Serbian province. Hundreds of thousands of persons have been driven into the fragile countries bordering Kosovo, straining their limited resources, threatening their political stability, and submerging the entire conflict in staggering suffering.

Indeed, although the bombing campaign was originally intended to force Milosevic to sign a NATO-brokered treaty involving Kosovo, the scale of the humanitarian emergency–including reports of murders of Kosovar men–recast him as an unofficial war criminal. That threw into doubt the air campaign's moral underpinnings. After all, what kind of moral victory would it be if a such a perpetrator was forced to sign a treaty, but otherwise retained political power?

Politically, the air campaign seemed to unite Serbians behind Milosevic, although most of them had disliked him and had wanted to get rid of him. Many Serbians felt unfairly targeted: Hundreds of thousands of them had recently been driven from Croatia, suffering great hardship with little or no attention from the United States or NATO. Indeed, many Serbians argued that during the Tito dictatorship after World War II they had been driven by the thousands from Kosovo, which they consider their sacred homeland, by the ethnic Albanians who then had power over the province.

As a result of the bombing campaign, NATO seems to have traded its relationship with Russia (where nationalists were threatening to radicalize a fragile political situation) for a marriage of sorts with the Kosovo Liberation Army, a group that the United States had until recently called "terrorists" and provocateurs. The KLA's backing is as murky as its agenda, which reportedly calls for the creation of a "Greater Albania" along the lines of the rump state created by fascist Italian occupiers during World War II. That would appear to require the dismantling not only of Yugoslavia but of Macedonia as well. Yet some members of Congress have called for the arming and support of the organization.

While the bombing campaign became focused increasingly on the refugee problem it had itself seemingly exacerbated, the Clinton administration fell into visible disarray. The White House appeared completely flummoxed, claiming to have foreseen the expulsions, though obviously failing to prepare for them. Meanwhile, persons in the CIA, the Pentagon, and the State Department leaked stories to the press intended to pass the blame for the stunning mess. It was a singularly dismaying performance.

Yet American public support for continued military action–and even for the introduction of ground forces–actually grew. The power of atrocity imagery continued to assert itself.

In fact, attempting to respond to such images is entirely appropriate; if the United States can alleviate suffering with aid, sanctions, or even military action, then it should debate doing so, determine if it is willing to accept the foreseeable consequences, and act. But misunderstanding and sentimentalizing these images is an invitation to disaster. For all their inherent emotional content, they remain ultimately political in nature. They arise from political circumstances, and one cannot "stop" them without accepting the inevitable political consequences of intervention. The United States cannot pretend that it is the Red Cross with a Pentagon, though a succession of presidents have acted as if it were.

In Haiti, American forces have become virtual prisoners of pathos. They were sent there by Clinton in response to pitiable images of Haitian bloodshed and chaos, and in support of a reform president, and they are now reportedly unable to leave their barracks. Haiti has made no discernible progress toward real democratic practice, and its government–made possible by this American act of militarized humanitarianism–stands accused of murdering its enemies. It is unclear what moral purpose is served by the continued presence in the country of U.S. troops. They remain under close confinement, however, to ensure that they do not become yet more targets of Haiti's endemic political violence, and the subject of more atrocity photographs featuring Americans soldiers.

In Rwanda, President Clinton took no action at all to forestall the true genocide that occurred five years ago, although the United States, France, and Belgium were all forewarned that many thousands of persons would soon be hacked to death by their traditional tribal enemies. However, the pictures of piles of bloody corpses that soon emerged from Rwanda were horrifying, and a massive effort was made to care for the many refugees who soon filled camps outside the country. There were many pitiable images to emerge from these camps as well; these pictures seemed to portray the remnants of a targeted people who had somehow escaped slaughter, and who were now reduced to the misery of refugee camp life. Having failed to stop the murders, the West surely had a moral obligation to give succor to the survivors.

But the details that eventually were reported from the camps were very different. Many of the people in the camps were not survivors of the slaughter; they were either perpetrators of the slaughter or members of the tribe that supported it. They had crowded into the camps to escape retribution. What appeared to be a morally necessary act of sanctuary was revealed to be–in large part, at least–aid and comfort to murderers.

And what of Kashmir? Tibet? The Kurds? Indeed, what of Iraq, where the deaths of many thousands of children have been attributed by the United Nations to the sanctions policy imposed by the United States? "Because we cannot do everything everywhere," says Secretary of State Madeleine Albright, "does not mean we should do nothing nowhere." True as far as it goes. But it also means that when we do choose to act, it should be in full appreciation not only of mercy's limits but of its consequences.

Charles Paul Freund (cpf@reason.com) is a REASON senior editor.