A Symbolic Victory in Iraq

In war and in history, images matter. Powerful and accessible, an image can provide an enduring symbol, encapsulating the legacy of an entire war in a single shot. Alfred Eisenstaedt’s iconic photograph for Life magazine of an American sailor kissing a nurse in Times Square during a victory parade did just that, and it will forever be linked to World War II and its aftermath – the rise of the American century. The defining image of the end of the Cold War is the film and photographs of young Germans taking a sledgehammer to the Berlin Wall in 1989. Ordinary citizens hacked away at the Wall, both a tangible and abstract divide between East and West, literally tearing it apart with their hands and freeing their passage to the other side.

Coming at the end of each conflict, these images seem almost uncanny; as though historians had willed them into being, in order to help them perfectly encapsulate the tenor of their war narratives.

But which images will accompany the history of the Iraq War? As the last American troops prepare to come home after nine years, it remains unclear. Perhaps this anticlimactic ending to the war – a resolution absent rich, lasting images – is appropriate. After declaring victory in Iraq so many times and being proven wrong just as frequently, all America can do now is slink away, sheepishly, trying not to humiliate itself on the way out. Perhaps my outlook is cynical, but while some may look back on the Iraq War and see blossoming democracy and a people freed from the shackles of a tyrannical leader, I see an America disgraced—by our deceitful government, by our manipulative and manipulated media, by our inhumane violations at Abu Ghraib, by our permanently tarnished reputation abroad.

Iraq is certainly in a better place than it was nine years ago – it is undeniable that the present Iraqi administration, for all its faults, is a far better government than anyone even hoped for during the long, brutal regime of Saddam Hussein – but this transition came at a heavy toll for both nations involved.

For the United States, nearly 5,000 soldiers died. An estimated 20 percent of survivors have suffered major head or spinal injuries, 18 percent have suffered serious wounds, six percent are amputees, and over 7,000 veterans will require full-time care as a result of severe brain, spinal, and other injuries, not to mention the impact of the war on the mental health of veterans, who suffer a high number of suicides. The outlook is bleak economically, as, according to Nobel Prize winning economist Joseph Stiglitz, the war will cost the United States approximately three trillion dollars including delayed costs. The Iraq War also sapped resources needed for American efforts in the War on Terror. Additionally, the United States suffered a tremendous political cost, with its international image sullied and moral standing compromised.

For Iraq, around 16,000 Security Forces are dead, as well as 25,000 insurgents, and well over 100,000 civilians. According to the United Nation’s Children’s Fund, more than half a million Iraqi children have been traumatized by the war and need psychological counseling, and over two million children have been displaced from their homes. A 2007 report from OXFAM and the NGO Coordination Committee in Iraq noted that, “Iraqis are suffering from a growing lack of food, shelter, water and sanitation, health care, education and employment.” The persisting violence since then has only exacerbated these problems.

Perhaps the image from Iraq that provides the most apt symbol for the war is the toppling of the statue of Saddam Hussein in Firdos Square. The event, arranged by the American military, was sold to the public by both the media and the government as a populist uprising and a moment of victory. Mere minutes after the statue had reached the ground, Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld told the press, “The scenes of free Iraqis celebrating in the streets, riding American tanks, tearing down the statues of Saddam Hussein in the center of Baghdad, are breathtaking. Watching them, one cannot help but think of the fall of the Berlin Wall and the collapse of the Iron Curtain.”

But the toppling in Firdos Square wasn’t the end of a short war – it was the beginning of a long one, and news of the fallen statue was minor compared to the violence and looting occurring throughout Baghdad. Several reporters cautioned their bosses and editors back in the United States that the event was comparatively insignificant, but the reporters were told to cover it anyway. By the next morning, victorious images, cropped to perfectly dramatize the scale of the scene, were splashed across front pages around the world along with hyperbolic language to match. According to a 2005 study from George Washington University titled “As Goes the Statue, So Goes the War,” between the hours of 11 a.m. and 8 p.m., Fox replayed the toppling every 4.4 minutes and CNN every 7.5 minutes on the day that it occurred, continuously using the world “historic” when discussing the event.

That same week, 13 American soldiers died, but the American public wouldn’t have seen these images, as the Bush administration had prohibited the release of photographs of the coffins of American soldiers – a ban that would later be lifted by the Obama administration – in order to curb American unease over the war.

Meanwhile, government officials were using the footage from Firdos Square to saturate the public with images of false victory in Iraq. Three weeks after the toppling, President Bush delivered his infamous “Mission Accomplished” speech, in which he declared victory atop the aircraft carrier USS Abraham Lincoln. During the address, he cited the images of the fallen statue as an indication of “the arrival of a new era.” Without the narrative of a false triumph in Firdos Square, Bush would have had a much more difficult time trying to sell the idea of a “Mission Accomplished” to the American people. But with these images aiding its account of the war, the Bush administration was able to declare victory long before the war’s end.

Just as the Bush administration lied about Weapons of Mass Destruction in Iraq as a means of justifying the war, it lied about the importance of the toppled statue as a symbol of victory. And in both cases, the media bought into these falsehoods and sold them to the public as undeniable truths. In this way, the image of the fallen statue serves as a perfect embodiment for the Iraq War. The United States was able to take down the symbol of evil in the statue, and eventually we even took down Saddam himself, although he, too, was merely a symbolic figure by the time of his capture, despite all of his past atrocities.

Today, Iraq faces a troubling future. The country’s civil society has been shredded after eight years of sectarian civil war, and it is now home to a small but active al Qaeda franchise. The United States is withdrawing troops without having brokered a deal between the Kurds and Arab Iraqis, leaving that conflict still simmering, and without having established state borders for the Kurds. Meanwhile, the Sunni-Shia conflict rages on, Iraq’s oil industry is stagnating, and Iran has become increasingly influential.

Perhaps there is no enduring image of the end of this war because an enduring end to the war – for Iraqis, and for Americans – has yet to arrive.


Noah Remnick is a freshman in Saybrook College.

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