War Images: Beholders' Eyes Matter

Nick Berg video footage
This Against the Grain commentary is written by CBSNews.com's Dick Meyer.

Americans have been gut punched by pictures of war in the past few weeks, pictures that have changed hearts, strained convictions, moved poll numbers and altered the debate about what to do in Iraq.

Tragic stories have come daily from occupied Iraq since last May: young American soldiers killed by homicide-bombers and mortars; Iraqi civilians caught in combat. It happened every day for a year and, as happens, we got used to it and were numbed. And mostly there weren't the awful pictures, usually by design. We weren't supposed to see images of the coffins bearing soldiers arriving back in this country.

Abu Ghraib changed that. The barbaric beheading of Nicholas Berg was transforming. Both were confusing. The abuse at Abu Ghraib was shameful, preventable and made it harder for many to justify a mission in a mess. But for many, the images of Nicholas Berg's death were reorienting, a reminder that an insane enemy with a medieval mindset is at war with us no matter what we think. Of course it didn't justify or vindicate Abu Ghraib. It is almost irrelevant to Abu Ghraib, logically, but it hard to feel that way. I have seen many, many hideous pictures and videos in 20 years at this network. Nothing compares to the death of Nicholas Berg.

Secretary of State Powell has complained that there, "should be a higher level of outrage" about the decapitation of Nicholas Berg. He's right, of course. But America is just one front in the image war. In Arab and Muslim countries, in Europe and Asia, people are fighting with different computer screens, televisions and front pages than we are.

I wish I could report firsthand on that, but it can't be done. But I do read foreign papers on the Web and I do read what foreign correspondents report about how the news is playing abroad. In this Internet age, everyone can do this and I urge you to do so. A few things have struck me.

The U.S. has tried to counter Abu Ghraib in some legitimate ways. On Wednesday of this week, the court martial trial of Specialist Jeremy Sivits was open to the press and Arab reporters, according to The New York Times, took 9 of the 25 seats for reporters. American officials hoped the Arab world would witness America promptly and publicly punishing their own.

But that day, television news in that part of the world was dominated, not by courtroom drama but by more awful images of war, this time from Gaza, where a demonstration of Palestinians was attacked by Israeli soldiers. Most Americans don't see that what the Israeli army does has much to do with us or with Abu Ghraib; most of the world sees it otherwise.

And later came reports, still unconfirmed, that the U.S. had attacked a wedding party near the Syrian border. These were the big stories.

Also on Wednesday, Al Hurra, the Iraqi television station backed by the U.S. broadcast video of horrific tortures Saddam Hussein's regime inflicted on its own prisoners including beheadings, amputations and floggings. The Washington Post reports that U.S. officials gave the video of Al Hurra and other news outlets to, again, counter the damage of Abu Ghraib. This was not the big story of the day.

An odd note: in the fall, I wrote a column about Army Lt. Gen. William Boykin, deputy undersecretary of defense for intelligence who was much in the news back then. He was, and is, in charge of the hunt for Osama bin laden. He also was waging a bigger war. He said, "The enemy is guy named Satan." Boykin was a war hero many times over. He led the fight against a Muslim warlord in Somalia, famously declaring, "I knew that my God was bigger than his. I know that my God was a real God and his was an idol."

Boykin became the poster-boy for Islam-haters. His bosses resisted loud calls for his head but did launch an investigation that is still dragging on.

It turns out that Boykin was number two in the chain of command that led to the military intelligence operation at Abu Ghraib, though we don't have any substantial information on whether he was involved at all. The controversial general's possible role is a non-story here but it's getting play abroad. Asia Times Onlinet out of Hong Kong wrote, for example, "Behind Rumsfeld's apologies lies an attempt to cover up a controversial character hired by him to pin down the "interrogation" process: Lieutenant-General William "Jerry" Boykin, a Christian fundamentalist and no lover of Muslims."

"It did not take a heap of naked bodies and other photographs to expose who Boykin is and always was," the article continued. "Arab-Americans and American Muslims have long complained about Boykin. The photographs are a confirmation of what the man was suspected to be as the man in charge of hunting down intelligence and tasked with, among other duties, catching Osama bin Laden."

This is unfounded conspiracy theory, obviously. But it is one consequence of the administration's decision to leave in place a high public official that publicly shunned the constitutional separation of church and state and the president's policy of cultivating tolerance for Islam.

There has been much analysis of how this is the first war of the Internet age: images and arguments zap instantly around the world; there is no news cycle, there is just news now. So it's well to remember that the war on our screens is but one front in the war of images and information.

Dick Meyer, a veteran political and investigative producer for CBS News, is the Editoral Director of CBSNews.com, based in Washington.

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By Dick Meyer