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PICTURES AT AN EXHIBITION: IRAQ, MAY, 2004
by Henry Howard
When I saw the first photos from Abu Ghraib,
I nearly gagged:
A hooded man covered with electric wires,
Desperately balancing on a child-sized box;
Smiling soldiers beside a pyramid they made
Of naked Iraqi men,
Piled and bound in the rough stone casements
Of a desert prison where no one could hear them scream.
Like an exhibition of ourselves
Caught in grotesque tableaux,
The pictures make us look at things
We do not want to believe,
About the people we are told are given the power
To protect the whole free world;
Only nothing is free, and power often comes
At the expense of truth.
Then, too, the pictures make us ask questions
And seek answers perhaps we would rather not have:
Is all this the responsibility of one country and one time?
Could we be those very same soldiers,
In another prison and another war?
Everyone is scrambling to condemn the pictures
And distance themselves from their uniquely personal horror,
From the politicians who ordered this war
On down to the young men and women
Who eat the choking sand,
And dodge the mortars that come in fresh volleys of fire
Whenever new pictures of the abuse stream onto television
And newspapers throughout the world.
Our leaders and foot soldiers alike
Assure us that it is only the failure of “a few bad
Never an official policy that condones torture.
A “few bad apples?”
Have we forgotten the execution ditches of Vietnam and El
Ordered at the highest levels and dug by our own hands,
Or by death squads trained on our own soil?
The bones of My Lai and El Mozote shift uneasily
Beneath the charred grass
Whenever we say there is no “official policy”
That condones such things,
For the pictures are there to contradict.
One photo of the abuse particularly chills me:
That of a huge guard dog snarling at a naked and cowering
There were guard dogs just like that one
Who snarled at naked prisoners descending from the trains
Or snapped at the heels of black children
Running for their lives in Birmingham.
Some dear friends of mine,
Who lead lives founded on compassion for others,
Recently argued with my fury over the prison abuse scandal.
After all, they reminded me,
Saddam Hussein did so much worse,
And the world scarcely condemned him—
As if somehow that makes it alright
To use the same execution chambers and rape rooms
For interrogations, beatings and torture that is somewhat less
My friends were mostly angered
By the stupidity of photographing it all,
The arrogance of believing
That only the eyes of those on Tier1A
Would see the lurid images,
While the world’s image of us as liberators
Would go on unimpeded.
I worry about that, as well.
I, too, am an American, after all,
And I do not want to see our young men and women
Gunned down in ever greater numbers,
While those above them hide their guilt
From photos that display battered human beings
As war trophies.
So my friends and I battle
Over the meaning of the pictures,
Perhaps too loudly for too long,
Until their youngest daughter tells us not to talk any more
Because it’s giving her a headache.
It all gives me a headache, too,
Only I can’t forget that some politicians told me
We’re supposed to be winning the hearts and minds
Of the Iraqi people.
Exactly how, when their hearts break
And their minds burn with rage,
In a society where public displays of sexual humiliation
Are akin to cultural genocide?
When pictures in an exhibition
Speak louder than words,
There comes a moment when words themselves cannot be held
They come at first in a whisper,
No louder than violin notes carried by a breeze,
But relentlessly, until they are heard
By another person, then another, and still another,
Beginning always with one small voice that says,
“I can’t live with this anymore,
I will be silent no longer,
I will tell what I have seen.”
Such is the way the name,
Has come to be part of our collective vocabulary,
And our collective conscience.
We are not used to groping forward
Through exhibit halls of such dark self-portraits,
But this heartbreak may yet bring out
The best in us.
For the photos of Abu Ghraib
May force all people who have seen them
To look at themselves and at each other,
At the ways they see and are seen,
And learn a new way of knowing and feeling that may lead one
To far different pictures at an exhibition.