|Image as argument: The impact of Mogadishu on U.S. military intervention
Author: Dauber, Cori Source: Armed Forces & Society 27, no. 2 (Winter 2001): p. 205-229 ISSN: 0095-327X Number: 71712726 Copyright: Copyright Transaction Publishers Winter 2001
There has been discussion in academic and popular sources for some time of the phenomenon of casualty shyness and its policy manifestation, casualty aversion. There is a presumption that for any given mission, the American people's support will be tightly linked to the number of casualties taken (or, at least, mission planners believe that to be the case).1 This article argues that the academic study of casualty shyness really conflates two distinct concerns that contribute to casualty aversion. The first deals with the absolute number of casualties the American people will support in a given instance. But the second is the assumption that those numbers are prejudgments, subject to radical collapse under the right (or, depending on your perspective, the wrong) circumstances.
The issue of visual imagery-especially visual imagery of the human body at its most vulnerable-is essential to the second concern. Casualty shyness is, in brief, a qualitative as well as a quantitative problem. The armed services believe that it is no longer possible (or desirable) to fight without the support of the American people.2 It is also believed that one of the problems with public support for combat operations is that the American public will not stand fast: the "body bag" factor is specifically mentioned when this phenomenon comes up.3 Public support is presumed to be extremely brittle, at least under certain circumstances.4 And, whether correctly or not, that brittleness is believed first revealed by the experience in Vietnam, in part because Vietnam was the war for which realistic combat imagery was first widely available.5 It is presumed that the same holds true today: not that reports of casualties have no effect, but that visual imagery can have a greater and more rapid one: photographs of American bodies can send poll numbers plummeting in unpredictable ways (or so the theory goes). Whether those fears are justified, whether the public will interpret those images as predicted, and whether those interpretations are inevitable, are the questions this article deals with.6
If casualty shyness is the fear attributed to the public, casualty aversion is the manifestation of a fear on the part of policy-makers and military decision-makers of the effect of specific types of visual imagery on the American public, as well as a concern for overall numbers. Specifically, it is the fear that presumptions made in advance about public support for casualties-even those based on hard quantitative data-can become irrelevant in an instant if the wrong image comes over the wires. For example, during the Kosovo bombing in April 1999, one reporter wrote:
In a sharp reversal of the usual pattern, public opinion in most of the key NATO nations has grown more hawkish than the countries' political leadership on the question of sending ground troops to Kosovo. . . . For Clinton, British Prime Minister Tony Blair and other NATO leaders, the unanswered question is whether their voters' new tolerance for ground troops would survive an extended conflict that produces more than minimal allied casualties. The early evidence suggests that, on both sides of the Atlantic, the key decision-makers remain unconvinced that the public commitment really runs that deep.7
This argument depends upon the distinction between one version of casualty shyness and the more traditional argument that polling figures indicate that the American people will accept only so many casualties before support for a given mission will falter. One is the belief that people may say they will accept thousands of casualties, but that they will not remember their assessment that a mission is worth that many American bodies once the coffins begin to arrive at Dover (in reality, in this day and age, when the photographs of coffins arriving at Dover begin to air),8 or when particularly graphic images of American casualties are shown around the clock on CNN. The other is an assessment that a particular mission is only worth so many American lives and no more; in point of fact, precisely the kind of calculated assessment military doctrine would seem to require.9 It may well be that Americans would not accept more than 1,000 casualties before support for the mission in Kosovo deteriorated-but that did not drive the extreme measures taken to protect the lives of pilots flying over Serbia. Every plane going down at once was unlikely to produce 1,000 combat casualties. But a single plane going down could have produced the kinds of images feared to have the potential to shatter people's advance judgments about what they would or would not support.
I have chosen to interpret "popular visual media" as photojournalism. This means looking at imagery, videos, and stills associated with news broadcasts and print outlets.10 There are unique analytical problems associated with such images. They are presented in the context of "authenticity," and thus tend to be read not as representations but as evidence. Thus while our guard is up, in a sense, when we encounter visual images (even photographic images) presented as advertisements or fiction (or even as photographic "high art," given the obviously staged quality of many of those images), we tend not to have such defenses while watching or reading the news.
This is the most important rhetorical aspect of interpreting these images and understanding the way the public and policy-makers interpret such images. Their very design encourages the reader" to forget that behind the camera someone was making choices, pointing at one thing and not another, choosing one type of lighting and not another. Even after that process is complete, someone else, probably very far away from the original events, chooses one image and not another, and then, at a minimum, frames that image, through cropping, placement on the page, or in the midst of other moving images, and through the words that accompany the image (either captions or news voice-over).12 We are open, therefore, to the power of the image in photojournalism in a way we are not in other contexts. If imagery is powerful, it is all the more so when presented as "objective," the human aspects of choice and composition occluded.13
Some photographs stand out and become, eventually, icons of particular events, including wars; they define the American experience of a particular conflict.14 Nonetheless, the power of such images will always be greater if they were experienced at first-hand, when initially aired, and the emotional experience and connection to the image were more direct.
Because it is the case that the level of image saturation has increased enormously over the last ten years, this link between hearing the story and seeing the image has magnified. CNN itself is generally acknowledged to have come into its own with its coverage of the Persian Gulf War in 1991. CNN was introduced in 1980, and its "round-the-clock coverage made `anything less than instantaneous availability of breaking news seem as if [it were] hopelessly out-of-date.'"15 On the first night of the air campaign in Desert Storm, its audience jumped from 900,000 to 10,890,000 homes, a jump of 1,000 percent from the previous month's average.16 CNN's success during that conflict in turn influenced the decisions of other media outlets to adopt similar formats, with MSNBC following on 15 July 1996. At roughly the same time, the Internet has become a widespread phenomenon, enough so to arguably be the first outlet making specific visual images available to substantial numbers of people. Indeed, even those television networks without 24hour cable news services have 24-hour Internet services people can just leave on all day at their desks.
Further, many images have obvious links to one another. Working with those that clearly invoke one another makes it easier to discuss not just the images themselves but the discourse surrounding them, a critical aspect of analysis. The argument here centers on images of the human body. As a USA Today reporter wrote in April 1999,
Many Americans saw the TV images of the three soldiers [captured by the Serbians] as chilling reminders of other conflicts, when ordinary GIs captured by the other side helped personalize the conflict. Less than a decade ago, Americans watched as an image of captured Navy Lt. Jeffrey Zaun, his face swollen and wounded, was displayed on videotape during the Persian Gulf War. Six years ago, Americans were shocked when Army pilot Michael Durant's battered image was broadcast by his captors in Somalia. Similar images played out during previous decades. During the Vietnam War, POWs periodically were compelled by their captors to appear in propaganda films. During the Cold War, the crew of the USS Pueblo, captured by the North Koreans in 1968, was displayed this way. And in 1979, US diplomats and Marine guards were led blindfolded t27, no. 2 (Winter 2001): p. 205-229hrough angry, armed crowds shouting anti-American slogans in Iran.17
The fear of casualty shyness lies in presumptions about the public's interpretation of events, when confronted with such images, by a method of interpretation pundits and policy-makers use. It is also based on a series of assumptions about the relationship between words and images, which trumps which, when, and how they interact. This study, of necessity, will look not just to images, but to words about images. And each of the images I have chosen in some ways provides context for the later ones.
The Study of Visual Communication
Rhetoric and Argument is the study of the way symbols structure our perception of reality. Unlike history, for example, the rhetorician is concerned less with what "really happened" (although that is often critical background) than with how we perceive what those perceptions imply. While it is often the case that the rhetorician will focus on linguistic texts, on words themselves, in an increasingly media-saturated environment, ignoring visual imagery provides less and less satisfactory work.18 It would be difficult, for example, to provide an adequate explanation of the stories on Kosovar refugees and their impact on American public opinion without simultaneously examining the visual imagery that accompanied those stories. Even the examination of print media lacks something critical when accompanying photographs-much less layout and other aspects of graphic design-are ignored.
One of the primary insights contributed by Rhetoric and Argument is the claim that visual images can in and of themselves function as arguments. As noted before, the process of interpreting photographic images is complex enough that it should be considered a form of "reading" in its own right.19
We are all trained, in more or less sophisticated ways, to "read" political discourse. We understand that we need to listen to statements about an event with an ear to such issues as the partisan alignment of the speaker, or his or her self or institutional interest. Such sophistication does not, as a matter of course, come into play in the reception of photographs. Thus while many of the aspects of a critical reading of imagery make common sense when laid out explicitly, they are not yet "naturalized" or internalized parts of our encounters with images. Thus the argument-that photographs and other images have persuasive power in part because they are "non-linear"-describes not an intrinsic function of images, but an aspect of the way we have been taught to read images.20
Critical interpretations of images require slowing that process down, examining details, and the way those details interact to form an overall impression, including linkages between particular images and others that have come before. Multiple aspects of the construction of images are pertinent to such a study. Photographic images have a certain structure. They are taken from particular camera angles,21 cropped to include some elements and exclude others. Thus, when examining visual images presented in the context of photojournalism, two aspects must be kept in mind. The first is that the point of the image is to suppress the fact that it has been constructed. Visual images presented as news are presented as authentic and objective pieces of evidence, as reality and not as representations of reality. Seeing the image, we are led to believe that we are looking at "what really happened," precisely what we would have seen had we been there, and to forget that what really happened could have been represented quite differently had the photographer and those responsible for the production and dissemination of the photograph made very different choices. Clearly this is true for combat photography.22
Photography is understood as a form of "witnessing."23 This is, however, deceptive. For the bottom line is that, despite appearances, "war as represented by still photography does not really exist. . . Photographs, all war photographs, do not re-create life on the battlefield, they interpret it."24 The photograph, in a sense, contains a potential narrative account within itself, and while the reader provides the narrative (although, granted, there is only so much interpretive "give" in any particular image), far from "being a witness, [the photograph] is often a director of the way events are seen."25 The implications are potentially profound: "Censored and uncensored, photographers and their publications have controlled how the American public regards battle."26
The second aspect of visual imagery that matters in photojournalism is that, despite their potential power, images are interpreted within an already existing context. Images come with words; in video, the reporter's voice-over, in print media, a caption because "no image does have a single message. . .in the case of press photographs, headings, captions, associated texts, adjacent images, the character of the publication itself. all help determine a specific reading.... [These] direct, if they cannot dictate, how an image is to be understood."27 They come with historical baggage, both in terms of the particular event (it was impossible to avoid the story of the Kosovo situation, and any given image would have been read in the context of what the viewer had already seen and heard about that story) and in terms of previous events.28 "The cliche that the camera cannot lie is, thus, part of a deep but misplaced notion of the camera's veracity as an agent of recording. The trace of the past, the mark of historical significance, clings to such images, giving them an almost talismanic quality and presence as evidence of what was."29 Americans would not have interpreted imagery from Kosovo without reference to the wars in Croatia and Bosnia, and would not interpret images of the American military without reference to previous conflicts in Somalia, Desert Storm, Vietnam, or, in some instances, World War II.30
It is critical to remember, then, that despite the power images have to shape perceptions, they do not stand alone. Official channels respond to images as well. Political and military leaders attempt to contextualize them through words, articulating an interpretation that they would prefer the American people place on given ones, whatever interpretation journalists may promote. The argument made here is that focusing on the image alone, without acknowledging the interplay of images and words, is a mistake. So too is the presumption that any particular image can be read in only a single way. The words that accompany the images can provide the basis and grounding for interpretations; they do not determine in advance which interpretation must be read into a given image any more than the image itself does.
The United States first sent combat forces to Somalia in December 1992. Operation Restore Hope was heavily influenced from the start by media coverage, and many argue that the this influence extended to the decision to intervene. Policy-makers feared that disturbing images of starving Somalis, particularly children, were building pressure among the public to "do something."31 President Bush wanted to leave office with a "grand gesture."32 There is evidence that the military, desperate at the time to avoid similar pressures to intervene in Bosnia, felt that it was politically impossible to avoid intervening in both, and hence supported what they perceived as the "better" intervention.33 The initial troops to "hit the beach" did so only to find teams of photographers already there waiting for them.
Despite the regular cautionary stories on "if Somalia, why not Bosnia?"34 and "should the United States become the world's policeman?", the overall tone of the coverage was overwhelmingly positive. This was certainly true of the visual imagery, which focused primarily on young American Marines with smiling Somali children. It was the perfect feel-good Christmas story for Americans, still swelling with the pride for their military that was engendered by Desert Storm (despite the naysayers who claimed the worst of the Somali famine had already ended).
Eventually, the nature of the mission changed. As food moved inland and to rural areas, the bulk of the Marine force departed, the mission became less a U.S. show, and more a UN operation, and a new mission was added.35 Some have called it "nation building" (a pejorative term for today's military), others have referred to it as stabilizing the political situation on the ground. One way or the other, it led to the specific demand for various warlord factions in Mogadishu to be disarmed and brought to the peace table, and for Mohammed Farah Aideed, leader of one of the key clans in Somalia, to be captured. At some point the additional decision was made to bring in the super-secret "Delta" force, and the two units began to operate together in efforts to find and arrest Aideed.36
During this phase, information was received, and judged reliable, that a number of Aideed's senior advisors were to meet in a hotel in downtown Mogadishu. Forces were mobilized, as they had been on prior occasions, for a "swoop and grab" operation: Helicopters would drop the men in, they would "snatch" those that the UN wanted arrested, and quickly depart the scene. However, this time, unlike previous missions, several American helicopters were shot down. At that point, American troops were left vulnerable, as they needed to proceed on foot to the locations of the crash scenes in attempts to rescue and recover American personnel, which gave the Somalis time to mass in the area. Additional problems with the evacuation convoys on the ground developed, and the result was that many American troops were left to fend for themselves overnight with no hope of evacuation from the air, while attempts to form a large enough rescue convoy of ground vehicles took hours to organize and move.37
The battle has since been described repeatedly as "the most intense firefight since Vietnam involving American troops." Over 70 men were wounded, and 18 killed over the course of the night. What made this battle unlike any other in recent American history, however, was the imagery made available within days to the American public. The intensity of the fire was such that, in the end, rescue teams dropped to one helicopter were killed, and Somalis ultimately captured the pilot of that craft and the sole survivor, Chief Warrant Officer Michael Durant. The imagery, from videotape made by his Somali captors, differs little in detail from the other POW images dating back to Vietnam. But the bodies from that crash, which American troops were unable to recover, were paraded through the streets of Mogadishu by triumphant Somalis, stripped, dragged, and mutilated. The pictures remain shocking and disturbing today.
The first set of images was of Durant: from the waist up, dirty, in obvious physical discomfort, attempting to prop himself up by his hands (he had injured his back in the crash). His voice faint, he appears to be giving little information other than the fact that he is an American and that he is a pilot. The stills are frame-grabbed, shown with much closer tight-up on the face, making clear the bruises and scars he has suffered. (The angle and the location of his facial injuries make this photograph amazingly similar to the one taken of three soldiers captured by the Serbs during the Kosovo conflict.) The image was the cover for each of the three major newsmagazines that week (Time, Newsweek, and U.S. News & World Report). Interestingly, while all three covers look identical, it is only when they are placed side by side for careful examination that it becomes clear that each is from a different frame of the video. The photographs hearken back more to those of Vietnam POWs then to those of the Gulf War, simply by virtue of the contextual fact that representatives of a clan in a chaotic scene have captured Durant, not an organized army during a traditional battle. Because the setting is only visible in the video, given the close cropping of the still images, the contribution of the setting to this interpretation is available only in the video. But there it is clear that, rather than being in an antiseptic television studio, he is on a dirty floor somewhere in a house in Mogadishu. Because of the terseness of his comments, and perhaps because he is the only prisoner, any shame associated with the images is not linked to him, but to the nation. How did the world's mightiest army allow one of its own to be captured by a disorganized band of urban fighters? Durant again provides a heroic image of an American captive, certainly a captive who must be returned. The nation is shamed as long as he is in captivity-another subtle reference to Vietnam.
The other set of images, in each case shown, but inside the relevant newsmagazines, is still shocking today.38 In one, an American body, face obscured, is shown from the waist up, stripped, being pulled through the streets by a group of Somalis with their backs to the body who appear fairly nonchalant about the entire affair. In the other image that received wide play, a body, clearly American only because it is stripped and therefore obviously white, is hog-tied, surrounded by celebrating Somalis. Consistent references in captions to this as a "humiliation" again appear to refer to the nation, not the dead men. Besides the story's prominence in print media, it was the lead story on all three networks 5, 6, 79 8, and 9 October. (On the 4th, CBS had it second.)39
Closer examination reveals a wide variety of compositional elements that are of interest in both these photographs. The racial difference between the bodies and the Somalis is Vietnam redux. The photographs work as enthymemes; that is they are arguments that invite the reader to supply the final and missing conclusion, in this case that the circumstances mirror those of Vietnam. The Somalis in the crowd are dressed in civilian clothes, and include women and children, reminiscent of the problems Americans remember from Vietnam, where there was no way to tell combatants from noncombatants, friend from enemy. Once again the people we came to "save" engaged in the most savage behavior against American personnel. Our best efforts seem to be met not with gratitude but with rage. Why continue if that is the case? (As Senator Phil Gramm was repeatedly quoted as saying, "the people who are dragging around the bodies of Americans don't look very hungry to the people of Texas").40 Unlike Desert Storm, this was no "Nintendo war."
Press reports about the impact of the photographs are quite astonishing. "The American public was right to want to scuttle the Somalia expedition as soon as American corpses appeared on the television screen."41
Yet two years later, in October 1993, pictures of a dead American soldier being dragged through the streets of Mogadishu revived some of the same fears and concerns evoked by Vietnam. The Clinton administration's decision to withdraw US troops from Somalia as soon as possible was the more immediate result. As The New York Times put it, ". . the pictures of a dead American soldier being dragged through the streets of Mogadishu seem to have made it all but impossible for Mr. Clinton to change many minds."42
In October 1993, when pictures taken on a portable hi-8 video camera-not, significantly, by a professional journalist-of a dead US serviceman being dragged through the streets of Mogadishu, "switchboards to the White House [were] jammed with callers, most favoring tougher restrictions on the media and calling for an immediate US withdrawal from Somalia." President Clinton duly obliged. Operation Restore Hope, which had been launched amidst a media blitz on the Somalian seashore, collapsed on the sword of unpalatable media images from a back street in a place few of those callers to the White House had heard of before.43