Iraq as Panoptic War

Philip Kennicott offers a rather chilling take on the destructive effect of ubiquitous still and video cameras on the modern battlefield.

The Iraq war is the first major conflict fought in what might be called the age of the new Panopticon. The English philosopher Jeremy Bentham coined the term in the late 18th century to describe a prison in which the guard tower was in the center of concentric rings of cells, allowing authorities to exercise an “invisible omniscience.” Although the word emerged in the context of prison reform, it has become more suggestive over the years, capturing something essential about power and authority, from Big Brother’s pervasive surveillance to the more benign notion that government is always “looking into” things. But the new Panopticon is a digital phenomenon, a world of instant cameras, cellphone snapshots, e-mailed photographs, a world that produces a nonstop, immediate and ubiquitous visual record of itself — and it is breaking the government’s monopoly on omniscience.

Again and again throughout this war, amateur photographs have exposed the flaws of the military’s carefully constructed image of discipline. Photographs made Abu Ghraib a symbol of shame throughout the world. And photographs and video images are again undermining the military’s cherished reputation for calm under fire and heroic self-restraint.

The most horrifying images are not published or shown on TV, though they’re easy to find on the Web. But the ones we are confronted with are bad enough: A small child, a victim of a devastating and controversial U.S. airstrike in Ishaqi, is dressed in baby-blue, his eyes are closed, and his tiny, gently clenched hand rests by his side. He might be asleep, except that the photograph, which ran in Newsweek, shows a mangled, bloody arm next to him. The unidentified, shredded limb (does it belong to yet another child?) reaching into the center of the image might well stand for all the rest of these photographs that prick the conscience: They seem to come from the margins of our attention, they reach in and put their bloody imprint on a war that we wish had more innocence and calm to it.


Photographs are immediate. Investigations are by necessity methodical and often slow. These two different senses of time — the immediate and the methodical — are now in troubling conflict. A dead child cries out for immediate response; the military investigates. We see photographs of men doubled over with grief, tear-stained faces, mouths contorted in pain, and the pang is instant; the military investigates. A boy standing next to the bodies of his family or friends looks up at his elders with a blank stare on his face, an image that puts death and childhood in excruciating proximity; the military investigates.

Photographs may play an important role in some of these investigations. But it is the degree to which the photographs exist in a world of their own, apart from the military’s cautiously worded statements, that is increasingly perplexing. Throughout the war, the notion of two realities has dogged the warmakers. Is the president living in a world of good news and progress and missions accomplished, while our soldiers and the Iraqi population live in a world of chaos and death and uncertainty? Are the media presenting a world of antiseptic images, bloodless and vague, mere suggestions of a carnage they know all too well but dare not make explicit to the public?

Investigations are meant to create closure. But photographs, which can circulate forever, keep death and destruction open. Investigations are also meant to assure us that the war waged in our name is being fought with some measure of precision and dignity, but as photographs (and incidents) accumulate, and as investigations linger and overlap one another, they begin to lose their moral force. Investigation, a word meant to reassure us that the government is always “looking into” itself, is itself now subject to the blur that makes the nightly news coverage of Iraq seem like a tape loop.

And the only image that fades, as the war grinds on, is the one with which we prepared for battle: the fantasy, so beloved of Americans, of a clean, surgical, decent war.

How one perceives this “Panopticon” likely depends on one’s preconceptions about this war and our military. It is doubtless true, however, that the widespread availability of imagery of the horrors of this war will simultaneously clarify and mislead.

That the Ishaqi tragedy was almost certainly accidental and an outgrowth of a legitimate military mission will be permanently overshadowed by images of dead children. Even when the photos tell the truth, as in Abu Ghraib, the power of stirring images is such that anomalies get heightened emphasis. A handful of bad soldiers in that camp got far more coverage than the tens of thousands of decent ones risking their lives to bring a better life to ordinary Iraqis; the former simply make for more titillating news. And there are pictures!

Sayings like “A picture is worth a thousand words” or the old punchline “Who are you going to believe, me or your lying eyes?” highlight the power of the visual. We know, for example, that public perceptions of crime track local news coverage of violence much more so than actual crime statistics. The old saying that, “If it bleeds, it leads” might be restated as , “If it bleeds, it misleads.”

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James Joyner
About James Joyner
James Joyner is Professor and Department Head of Security Studies at Marine Corps University's Command and Staff College and a nonresident senior fellow at the Scowcroft Center for Strategy and Security at the Atlantic Council. He's a former Army officer and Desert Storm vet. Views expressed here are his own. Follow James on Twitter @DrJJoyner.


  1. legion says:

    While such images are easy fodder for pandering (by both sides), they can serve an important purpose: to remind us that war is still fought by human beings against human beings, often with innocent human beings caught in the middle. War is supposed to be the last resort, and we must not forget why.

  2. LJD says:

    O.K. suppose you have a war of last resort. How can you possibly win with cameras fighting for the enemy?