2009/03/21:Two Americas, Part II: Picturing war - Ronna Swift

Two Americas, Part II: Picturing war
'We don't have an image that compels people to get involved'

Post Crescent
By Steve Wideman • Post-Crescent staff writer • March 21, 2009

 It was Feb. 4, 2007. The plane was parked outside the Maxair terminal at Outagamie County Regional Airport in Greenville. A short distance away, Jon St. John, his wife, Kay, and daughter Sonja stood watching from a private hangar as the cargo door lifted, revealing two U.S. Army soldiers hastily adjusting an American flag draped over an oak casket.

The jet had landed moments earlier after a 900-mile trip from the Charles C. Carson Center for Mortuary Affairs, at Dover Air Force Base in Dover, Del. Inside the plane was precious cargo: the body of Jon and Kay’s son, Army Pfc. Jon B. St. John II.

St. John, a 25-year-old Vinland soldier killed a week earlier in a roadside bomb blast near Baghdad, had come home one last time.

A phalanx of emotions, ranging from sorrow and frustration to anger and guilt, ran through the elder St. John’s mind as a nine-member honor guard saluted the coffin and it was pushed onto a polished chrome cart.

“I was so sad, but also glad because Jon was back home with us, even though he was dead,” St. John said. “That will always be my image of the Iraq war, along with kissing my son’s cold forehead before they closed the casket. It is burned in my mind. I don’t need a camera to remember the image.”

St. John’s experience underscores the benign divide between those who are invested in the war because of their connection to the military and the growing number who increasingly are disinterested in news out of Iraq.

While the image of St. John’s son’s casket is forever etched in the memories of his family, no single image of the war in Iraq has emerged that resonates with the public at large like some of the haunting iconic photos that focused attention on past wars.

Photo gallery: Iconic photos of war

Inspiring images of war, like World War II’s Iwo Jima flag-raising photograph with its message of victory, can galvanize people and break through apathy, said Jerald Podair, a history professor at Lawrence University in Appleton.

But the Iraq war lacks the galvanizing image of victory, and it may be too late to change that, Podair said.

“There is no image of the war on terror. Even if we captured Osama bin Laden, who is the only person capable of giving us an iconic image of the war on terror, the war would go on,” he said.

“The Iwo Jima flag-raising photograph is compelling because the war ended months later. If the war had dragged on, the flag-raising photograph would have been relegated to the dust bin of history.”

Final victory is critical to finding a galvanizing image of the war, Podair said. “If there is no final victory, there is no iconic image of the war on terror.”

Ronna Swift of Appleton, who, for the past 18 years, since the start of 1991’s Gulf War, has participated in war protests on College Avenue in downtown Appleton, also believes the lack of a strong galvanizing image has been a factor in the public’s waning interest in Iraq.

“We don’t have that one image,” she said. “You don’t see the planes bringing the flag-draped caskets back. We don’t have an image that compels people to get involved.”

'What's the big deal?'

The Iraq war by its very nature doesn’t lend itself to compelling iconic photos rich in symbolism, Podair said.

“The war on terror is sort of a battle in the twilight rather than in the open,” he said. “It’s a war against an enemy you can’t see or define.

“The only image we might get that will define the war on terror is Osama bin Laden in handcuffs or dead.”

By comparison, in World War II, America had clearly defined and visible enemies.

“Considering our culture,” Podair said, “(a galvanizing image of the war in Iraq) is going to have to be a dramatic photograph. Take World War II as a comparison. World War II was a much more popular war. During World War II there was much more understanding of, and uniform support for, the war.

“If people are on the same page about what a war is about, they will be on the same page about its images.”

Photos such as Joe Rosenthal’s Pulitzer Prize-winning image of five U.S. Marines and Navy corpsman John Bradley of Appleton raising an American flag atop Iwo Jima’s Mount Suribachi on Feb. 23, 1945, stood as galvanizing symbols, enabling the public to understand and become emotionally invested in war.

So did photographs of U.S. Navy ships sunk and burning at Pearl Harbor.

Defining a compelling image in the war on terror depends on a person’s pre-disposed position on the war, said Lawrence University government professor Jason Brozek.

“A number of images could be claimed as ‘the’ compelling image of the war,” Brozek said.

“For a supporter of the war, the image might be that of the New York City firefighters planting a flag in the rubble of the Twin Towers or President Bush landing on the aircraft carrier or Bush declaring ‘Mission Accomplished’ with a big banner in the background.

“For war opponents, the iconic image may be the picture of a hooded prisoner at the Abu Ghraib prison in Iraq standing on a box,” Brozek said, referring to a prisoner who was wired and told he would be electrocuted if he fell off the box.

“The power of those images depends on an already established position on the war.”

Imagery of the war on terror has been politicized, Podair said.

“Images are being fought over by various sides,” he said.

An example, he said, is the ongoing controversy over whether to allow media photographs of flag-draped coffins of war casualties. The government is concerned “because it would be bad for the war effort.” People opposed to the war want the photographs publicized to make their point, Podair said.

Defense Department officials announced in late February, over objections from some military families, that the news media would be allowed to photograph flag-draped caskets arriving in the United States, but only with permission from the dead soldier’s family.

Retired University of Wisconsin public affairs professor David Littig recalls the images of World War II, when he was a young boy.

A cardboard-mounted map of the world hung on the family’s living room wall, towering over 5-year-old Littig.

Dozens of colored pins, some clustered in certain spots, covered the map, marking the front lines of battles raging in the European and Pacific theaters of conflict during World War II.

“My mother and father used to follow the movement of the front lines. They used to let me move the pins as the front lines changed. It was fascinating to me. I’ve never followed a war as closely as I did when I was 5,” Littig said.

Littig finds it more difficult to follow the war on terror with its lack of images and information.

“It’s amazing today, with all the technology and information we have access to, that most people know very little about the war and are increasingly apathetic. It seems to be out of sight and out of mind, but then that’s the kind of war it’s been. That’s the kind of war the military wants it to be,” said Littig, who attended UW-Madison at the height of Vietnam War protests when tear gas, the sounds of breaking glass and screams of protesters filled Madison streets.

Gary McGoey of Appleton attended classes at UW-Fox Valley after his retirement as Outagamie County Veterans Service officer in 2008.

“I walked around with a war protest sticker on my jacket and the students would say, ‘What’s the big deal?’ There was never any debate of the war in classes or on campus.” McGoey said.

With no draft threatening college students or compelling images of the horrors of war, the motivation to protest, or even have an interest in the war, is nonexistent, McGoey said.

“This generation is detached from the war because they are personally not threatened by it.”

No rousing conclusion

In the last couple of years, at least, one reason for the lack of compelling images from the war is a lack of news coverage, said Tom Rosenstiel, director of the Washington, D.C.-based Pew Research Center’s Project for Excellence in Journalism.

Rosenstiel said coverage of the war on terror came to a pivotal point in January 2007, when Bush announced his “surge” strategy to increase U.S. military strength in Iraq. As news organizations struggled to report on and cope with a collapsing economy, “the thing that was going to go was foreign coverage,” Rosenstiel said.

By the end of 2008 most major news networks effectively pulled out of Iraq, he said.

Whatever dramatic photos or footage of the war that now exist may be all we’ll ever have, observers say.

Some may remember the staged toppling of Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein’s 24-foot-tall bronze statue in central Baghdad on April 9, 2003, which became one of the more public images of the war.

Others might recall televised live images of the March 22, 2003, shock and awe bombings of Baghdad, or the November 2004 Los Angeles Times photograph of U.S. Marine Lance Cpl. James Miller, dubbed the Marlboro Marine. Miller was photographed after a battle with a sweat-stained, war-weary face and a Marlboro cigarette dangling.

None of these images has risen to the level of icon, Podair said, because none has any deeper resonance. A clear, dramatic or decisive U.S. victory in Iraq might have imbued the Saddam photo with greater meaning, for instance. But there is no such rousing conclusion to the story of the Iraq war.

WAR IRAQ US MILITARY: PFC Joseph Dwyer, 26, from Mt. Sinai, NY, carries a young Iraqi boy who was injured during a heavy battle between the U.S. Army's 7th Cavalry Regiment and Iraqi forces Tuesday, March 25, 2003 near the village of Al Faysaliyah, Iraq. (AP Photo/Warren Zinn, Army Times) Warren Zinn


Photo or no, the lack of an inspiring end to the war is a big reason for public apathy, observers say.

Apathy is reflected in countless small ways, including the decline in sales of one very visible symbol of the war: the yellow magnetic ribbon, many of which once could be found displayed on automobiles.

The magnets, bearing the slogan “Support Our Troops,” symbolized patriotism and a sense of helping the military for tens of millions of Americans during the past six years, said Chris Weeks, director of operations for Magnet America of King, N.C., the largest manufacturer of yellow ribbons.

Weeks said sales peaked at 1.2 million in August 2004. Today, sales are about 10,000 a month.

Dwain Gullion, a Christian bookstore owner, founded the company in April 2003, during the invasion of Iraq. Within a year it had nearly 200 employees and barely could keep up with demand. Magnet America now employs 15 workers making ribbons and plastic wristbands for more than 1,000 different causes.

Another reflection of public apathy toward the war is the lack of a memorial in the Fox Cities to female military veterans, said Mary Bosveld of Grand Chute; plans for such a memorial are on hold.

Bosveld’s plan for a memorial began after the death of her daughter, Army Pfc. Rachel K. Bosveld, in Iraq. Bosveld was 19 when she was fatally injured on Oct. 26, 2003, during a mortar attack on the Abu Ghraib police station where she served as a military police officer.

“I haven’t got much of a response, so I gave up for now. Everything is on hold,” Bosveld said.

The lack of interest from the public bothers Bosveld.

“There is still a war going on, but we don’t see any images of the war or of the good things being done over there. That’s one reason why people tend to forget,” she said.

“We just don’t hear that much about the war anymore. The war is kind of out of sight, out of mind.”

Steve Wideman: 920-993-1000, ext. 302, or swideman@postcrescent.com