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Faces of death
Why that video of a Marine shooting an Iraqi insurgent has already begun to fade

It was A little more than two weeks ago that NBC News broadcast a piece of video from Fallujah that was both startling and sickening. US Marines are seen walking into a mosque where several injured, unarmed Iraqi insurgents are lying on the floor. Although NBC censored the audio, we now know that one of the Marines excitedly said, "He’s fucking faking he’s dead. He’s faking he’s fucking dead." The Marine aims his rifle — and shoots the insurgent in the head.

For a few days, at least, the video clip — taken by freelance journalist Kevin Sites, a veteran war correspondent — seemed certain to become one of the signature images of the war in Iraq. And perhaps it will. An investigation is under way, and if and when the young Marine who pulled the trigger is publicly identified, the image may take its place in the pantheon of wartime horror. To this point, though, something odd has happened, or rather hasn’t happened. Because so far, it seems, the clip is already fading from memory, and has not joined such terrible images as the torture photos from Abu Ghraib, or those of the American contractors who were butchered and mutilated in Fallujah a year and a half ago, or the heart-stopping photos of casualties, many of them civilian, on display at falluja.blogspot.com, or even the unseen but easily imagined execution of Margaret Hassan, killed in cold blood after a lifetime of helping the Iraqi people.

Why this should be is hard to say. But here’s a guess: we know too much to let the clip stand alone, without context. In Susan Sontag’s 2003 book on photography and war, Regarding the Pain of Others, she writes that "to photograph is to frame, and to frame is to exclude.... A photograph — or a filmed document available on television or the internet — is judged a fake when it turns out to be deceiving the viewer about the scene it purports to depict." There was a time, perhaps, when Sontag’s insight would have been regarded as a revelation. Today, though, it’s commonplace. In introducing Sites’s report on the November 15 NBC Nightly News, anchorman Brian Williams said, "It illustrates how complex and confusing life can be on the front lines of this war," thus setting the stage for an ambiguous interpretation of video that appeared, on the surface, to be pretty unambiguous. Sites provided more context, reporting that American forces had been killed or injured by the booby-trapped bodies of dead insurgents, and that the Marine who shot the injured Iraqi had himself been shot in the face the day before.

Thus, rather than being cast as a symbol of all that’s gone wrong in Iraq, the Marine has been treated almost as an object of pity. To be sure, that has not been universally the case. Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch have both called for an investigation into whether the Marine may have committed a war crime. Human Rights Watch executive director Kenneth Roth, on Fox News’s The O’Reilly Factor, went so far as to say that "there is a prima facie war crime here that deserves court-martial." And yes, Arab news services such as Al-Jazeera and Al-Arabiya, not to mention Web sites that spew flat-out propaganda on behalf of the Iraqi insurgency, have reportedly been showing the video constantly. But among the American media, even staunch anti-war critics have been subdued.

The reason, I suspect, is that Sontag’s lesson was internalized a long time ago by a generation of Americans who grew up learning about atrocities committed by US troops in Vietnam, who blamed young American soldiers for a failed and immoral policy, and who later realized they were pointing the finger in the wrong direction. What that young Marine did in Fallujah was horrifying. But it didn’t take place in a vacuum. Rather, it took place in the midst of days upon days of street-to-street fighting, of exhaustion, of fear, of split-second decisions that could mean the difference between life and death. What happened in that mosque was a tragedy, but who among us could say that we wouldn’t have done the same thing? The real tragedy is that a scared young man made a mistake, while there are no consequences for the far more serious mistakes committed by the likes of George W. Bush, Dick Cheney, et al.

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Issue Date: December 3 - 9, 2004
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