May 20, 2004

Looking at "Wars of Conquest."

The iconic image of the Philippine-American War -- I'm posting it above because there's something hinky with Jim's java applet -- is of the massacre of Bud Dajo, where 900 Muslim men, women and children were killed in a mountain crater. The photograph was subsequently published by the Boston-based Anti-Imperialist League in a pamphlet, of which 3,000 copies were made and distributed to the press. (When Moorfield Storey, the first president of the NAACP, writes, "The spirit which slaughters brown men in Jolo is the spirit which lynches black men in the South," I'm reminded of Luc Sante's recent op-ed piece in the New York Times where he compares the Abu Ghraib photographs -- in particular, those dazzling smiles -- as similar to postcards of lynchings and the happy block party underneath.)

The photograph of Bud Dajo -- with American soldiers posed in victory over the corpses of the enemy -- and the image of Lynndie England dragging an Iraqi prisoner with a leash around his neck both raise similar questions: why were the photographs taken at all? Was it, as the privates now allege, part of a tactical program of interrogation? Or were the images meant to be incorporated into an official (or unofficial) government archive, a shadow archive of humiliation and homicide?

(One of the crucial differences is in this process of incorporation. The increased portability -- and most important, the novelty of the equivalences of the visual field of the camera and the viewer -- and the ideological function of the photograph in the visual possession / colonization of the Philippines are clearly contextually different. But the images are a nice bookend to the American empire -- one taken at its violent birth, the other at its similarly blood-soaked twilight.)

Barthes, following Benjamin, has famously written about the aura of the photograph and how, through the chemical process, "radiations" from the body of the photographed "ultimately touch" the viewer. But unlike Barthes' notion of the "punctum," the crucial, piercing part here is the sociohistorical conditions -- and their uncanny similarities -- upon which both photographs were produced.

In a superb series of essays, the Reverend Mykeru writes about all the hand-wringing on outrage -- and rank idiots being "more outraged by the outrage" -- and writes: "it's simply amazing that people are treating these incidents as if they are something new, as if ground is being broken with brutal photographic records of a brutal war."

Flashback to W.E.B. DuBois, who wrote that the photograph of the massacre was:

...the most illuminating thing I have ever seen. I want especially to have it framed and put upon the walls of my recitation room to impress upon the students what wars and especially Wars of Conquest really mean.
It's what war really means, but Bush and his sheep don't really get it.

Here's Storey again:

When a man is lynched the community which tolerates the offence suffers more than the victim. When we honor brutality in our army we brutalize ourselves. Our colleges have failed if they have not taught a better civilization than this, our churches have failed if this is their Christianity.

These Moros were robbers, it is said. Alas, what are we? We who went as their allies and friends, who made a treaty with them to be kept while it suited our convenience and then repudiated, and who now have robbed them of their country, their freedom and finally of their lives. Have they ever injured us that we invade their little island and kill them in their homes? "They do not know how to govern themselves." That is our excuse, and how do we govern them? We have shown them how little we regard our agreements, and when they "stir up a dangerous state of affairs" we exterminate them. Thus we teach the Filipinos what American civilization means.

And you'll no doubt be reminded of another leader doing a "superb job" after reading Roosevelt's letter of commendation to the commanding officer after the massacre:

I congratulate you and the officers and men of your command upon the brave feat of arms wherein you and they so well upheld the honor of the American flag.
Posted by the wily filipino at May 20, 2004 10:11 AM