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What War Photographs Leave Out

Haunting images from the Syrian crisis tell only half the story.

Nilüfer Demir’s photograph of Aylan Kurdi, the drowned Kurdish-Syrian three-year-old boy who washed up on a Turkish beach.
Nilüfer Demir/AFP/Getty Images

In early September, Nilüfer Demir’s photographs of Aylan Kurdi, the drowned Kurdish-Syrian three-year-old boy who washed up on a Turkish beach in his family’s desperate attempt to escape the Syrian war, appeared on the front pages of major newspapers throughout the world. The photographs immediately ricocheted across the globe, became instant icons, and inspired an outpouring of outrage, empathy, urgency, and shame. The Guardian’s headline—”Shocking Images of Drowned Syrian Boy Show Tragic Plight of Refugees”—was echoed by countless others. (The photographs also inspired a somewhat pointless social-media debate about whether they injured young Aylan’s dignity—apparently forgetting that it was Assad, Hezbollah, ISIS, et. al. who had done that.)

This image-inspired concern may be too glib and the resulting donations to humanitarian organizations short-lived; it’s easy to disparage all this as the self-congratulatory pity that the comfortable feel for the afflicted. Such disparagement has a respectable intellectual lineage. The political philosopher Judith Shklar regarded pity as an essentially negative reaction that can even be “mean-spirited,” while French philosopher and human-rights activist Pascal Bruckner argues that it encompasses “sadism” and “an ostentatious pleasure...derived from the pain of others.” I am deeply sympathetic to their critique. And yet the Syrian war also illuminates, with brutal clarity, what a world without pity looks like. In this case, I am inclined to think that a bit of pity—a desire by onlookers, however superficial, to alleviate even a modicum of suffering—is a good thing.

Still, it’s interesting to ponder why these photographs, of the many thousands published and circulated in the course of this four-year-old war, called forth such a response. For some observers, the answer is to be found in the semiotics of the photographs themselves. In a recent article in the New York Times Magazine, Charles Homans wrote: “For me, it was the shoes.” He went on to describe his own young son, who “shimmies along the edges of furniture like a fisherman,” and to argue that, from a parent’s vantage point, only “a few strokes of misfortune” separate his family from Aylan’s—a claim that is highly questionable. As the essay progressed, Syria itself became almost invisible, and Aylan was disembodied from the very catastrophe that had led to his death.

And so the question remains: why Aylan? I think of two photographs that appeared in the New York Times—which means they were seen by millions of people, including politicians and policy-makers—in the same month as Demir’s. On September 16, the newspaper ran a four-column, impossible-to-miss article on the front page entitled “All Over Syria, Enduring a Daily Nightmare.” It was accompanied by two photos taken by Abd Doumany, a Syrian photographer who has been producing some of the most arresting and devastating photographs of the war. One striking image showed an unnamed Syrian girl who faces the camera, and us, head-on. She is small, and looks to be about six. She stands in a hospital, her head wrapped in a striped orange gauze scarf with a white bandage. She wears a flowered shirt with puffy pink sleeves that drop off her shoulders, and what seems to be a tight blue skirt or pair of shorts. Her beseeching eyes appear to be lined with black kohl, her lips are smeared with an orange stain, and her face seems almost mask-like in its powdery whiteness. (The powder may actually be dust from an explosion.) Her face, neck, and chest are dirty and bloodstained. The cheerful, indeed garish colors of this image—the bright pink shirt, the orange bandage, the dark-red blood—clash with the somber devastation that it reveals; so does what looks like her “make-up.” This is a hard photograph to look at, and an even harder one to “understand.”

Abd Doumany’s photograph of a wounded Syrian girl at a makeshift hospital.
Abd Doumany/AFP/Getty Images

The second photograph to consider was taken in Yemen by Tyler Hicks, currently the Times’s most prominent conflict photographer. (Readers may remember some of his astounding photographs: of Northern Alliance soldiers in Afghanistan executing a bloodied Taliban soldier; of terrified civilians fleeing al-Shabab’s attack on a Nairobi shopping mall...) This photograph, datelined Saada, ran on page 10 on September 13. (Online the image appears in slideshow with the title “Yemen Air Campaign’s Heavy Toll.”) It shows a Yemeni baby, wearing a loose green diaper, being cupped in the black-clothed arms and large hands of what may be a mother or aid worker or nurse. But this is a baby who conjures no typical “baby” images—no images of plump rosy skin, adorable squishiness, or irresistible smiles. Starvation, almost certainly caused by the war, has deformed him in catastrophic ways. The loose, baggy skin on his arms shrivels into wrinkles; his already wary eyes suggest those of a very old man; his twig-like legs and arms look easily breakable; each rib, protected by only the thinnest membrane of skin, bulges with distinct, undeniable clarity; his head is bald, his forehead deeply creased. Mainly, he looks worried, as though he intuits that his future, if any, is not good. I bet that few readers of the Times (or the New Republic) have ever met a baby like this; I certainly haven’t. As I looked at this picture, other photographs, different yet similar, came to mind: of children in Biafra and in the Warsaw Ghetto. Like those, this is a picture that is physically repellent and speaks of great cruelty.

Tyler Hicks’s photograph of a severely malnourished child at the Al-Jumhori Hospital in Saada, Yemen.
Tyler Hicks/The New York Times/Redux

Demir’s picture, in contrast, is almost easy to look at; certainly it is “cleaner” than these others. There is no blood, no mutilation, no overt sign of distress; it is a deeply sorrowful picture, but not a disgusting one. Of course, Aylan had suffered greatly, and he too was a victim of much larger forces. But to the viewer, at least, he remained—he looked—unmarked by his trauma.

Yet the reason these three pictures had such different fates does not rest only in their internal characteristics. The key factor, I suspect, is location. Demir’s picture was taken in Turkey; Doumany’s and Hicks’s, in the midst of countries at war. Demir’s picture speaks of a refugee crisis; Doumany’s and Hicks’s lead us to consider these wars themselves. Demir’s picture suggests a possible humanitarian solution; Doumany’s and Hicks’s do no such thing. And, especially in the case of the Syrian war, the desire—even or especially among liberals and leftists—to find a humanitarian solution without a political/military one cannot be overstated. In fact, these three pictures perfectly illustrate Susan Sontag’s observation, in On Photography, that “Without a politics, photographs of the slaughter-bench of history will most likely be experienced as, simply, unreal or as a demoralizing emotional blow.” And in the case of Syria, a coherent sense of “politics” is precisely what does not exist.

Last summer I attended a conference on Hannah Arendt in Berlin. Because we were discussing Arendt, and because we were in Berlin, the discussion turned, perhaps inevitably, to questions of massive political violence in the present. I mentioned that, in the U.S., neither liberals nor the left have much interest in discussing Syria’s agony—aside from repeating the mantra that “we” shouldn’t “get involved.” A prominent journalist, who has produced some of the most intellectually and morally acute work on genocide, immediately responded with angry vehemence; he argued that this reluctance was the logical, indeed appropriate, response to the American invasion of Iraq. Though he and I eventually came to a meeting of minds—I allowed that Iraq was indeed a catastrophe, he allowed that Syrians could not simply be forgotten—I was taken aback by his fierceness. It occurred to me that American intellectuals are suffering from a kind of political post-traumatic stress disorder, and I wondered how long the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan will give us a “pass” from engagement with current world conflicts. I was reminded of an observation made by Eric Hobsbawm, a British Marxist historian, that though we cannot help learning from history, “We may learn the wrong things—and plainly we often do...” Those who previously scorned Francis Fukuyama’s “End of History” concept now seem to desire precisely that.

There are many reasons to not think about Syria, for here is a case where immense human suffering, political values, political possibilities, and military realities decisively clash. The Syrian war—which is now both a “civil” war and an international one, and a revolution in the eyes of some—challenges the Pavlovian responses of every political persuasion, though of course those responses continue to present themselves. Here we find a ruthless, mafia-fascist regime that is opposed both by a bevy of relatively weak “moderate” rebel militias and by far more powerful fundamentalist terrorist groups of shocking barbarism; the widespread use, by all sides, of rape as a tactic; concerted, continuous attacks on journalists, doctors, and humanitarian organizations by both government and rebel forces (even Doctors without Borders has left ISIS-controlled areas); and a feckless, or at least fatally disorganized, civilian opposition in exile (this is not the African National Congress). Caught in the midst are millions of Syrian civilians: bombed, jailed, starved, tortured, mutilated. Many no doubt remain committed to the uprising’s original, democratic demands, and may even be attempting to build alternate institutions; yet they have failed to coalesce into any recognizable or unified political force. All this takes place in the dead center of what is euphemistically referred to as the world’s “most troubled” region. And since trouble attracts trouble, a lot of countries—including Iran, Turkey, Lebanon (via Hezbollah), Saudi Arabia, Qatar, Russia, Israel, Iraq (especially Iraqi Kurdistan), the United States, France, England, and Jordan—have inserted themselves into the conflict with varying degrees of resources, intensity, commitment, and enthusiasm. Take a look at a map and you will quickly see why, from geopolitical standpoint—not to mention a political, moral, and temporal one—this is not Bosnia or Rwanda.

It is also not ... well, anywhere else. The Syrian war is not, of course, unique, and the desire to learn from past political conflicts and wars is natural and, to a point, intelligent. But the Syrian situation is not simply a replica of other times and other places. Syria is not Spain in 1936, Vietnam, Libya, or Egypt. It is not Iraq (a conflation that many Syrians bitterly resent). Nor is it Sierra Leone, Liberia, East Timor, or Kosovo. An overthrow of the Assad regime by foreign forces would not be akin to Tanzania’s deposing of Uganda’s Idi Amin or to Vietnam’s ousting of Cambodia’s Khmer Rouge. Yet all of these false analogies have been made by journalists, analysts, and political commentators. And the frequency with which they are made is a sign of how hard it is to think about Syria as Syria—that is, in specific and original ways.

Of course there is a debate—many debates—about the war. They are as convoluted as the conflict itself; “strange bedfellows” does not begin to describe the landscape. (The Syrian oppositionist Yassin al-Haj Saleh has said in a recent issue of New Politics, “Honestly, I’ve failed to discern who is right and who is left in the West from a leftist Syrian point of view.”) Thus Daniel Pipes, president of the arch-conservative Middle East Forum, shares the position of Slavoj Zizek, currently the world’s wackiest Marxist. In 2012, Pipes argued that “the continuing Syrian conflict offers benefits to the West” because the opposing groups’ “lethal rivalry lessens their capabilities to trouble the outside world.” (Pipes continues to hold a bizarrely cheerful view of the war; an article of his from earlier this year was titled, “Syria’s Civil War Could Stabilize Its Region.”) Slavoj Zizek has loftily dismissed Syria as an “obscure conflict” that is “just a complex network of religious and ethnic alliances overdetermined by the influence of the superpowers”—in short, “nothing really special.” Neither man gives a whit for the suffering of the Syrians or the future of the country; a pox on all their houses is the best they can muster. Former interventionists such as David Rieff (in Bosnia) and Thomas Friedman (in Iraq) now urge a stay-out position: Rieff has argued that any intervention, even in the case of chemical weapons attacks, would be “pointless . . . stupidity,” while Friedman urges Obama to “have the courage of his own ambivalence.

Conversely, Syria has forced the leftist academic Richard Falk, who for decades has opposed virtually any U.S. use of force, to become “dissatisfied” with his Chomsky-like anti-interventionism: “Human solidarity with the ordeal of the Syrian people was being deeply compromised by the advocacy of passivity,” he wrote after attending a 2013 conference on the Syrian crisis. Speaking of Chomsky, the usually well-informed (if often wrong-headed) professor has been led into some magical thinking by the Syrian dilemma. He has argued that Assad remains in power because the U.S. and Israel have failed to depose him—though Chomsky would, of course, be in the very forefront of vitriolic condemnation should such regime-change come to pass. He has been quoted as saying:

The fact of the matter is, that were the United States and Israel interested in bringing down the Syrian regime there is a whole package of measures they could take before they came to the arms-supply option ... including, for example, America encouraging Israel to mobilize its forces along the northern border, a move that would not produce any objections from the international community ... But this has not happened, nor will it, so long as America and Israel remain unwilling to bring down [the] Assad regime.

These statements haven’t the faintest relationship to reality, which I take to be a sign of how crazy Syria is making just about everyone.

This craziness is not confined to the West. Many prominent secular Arab intellectuals, some of whom are in exile, are also tied up in knots; this is especially true of those who, for entirely admirable reasons, revile Assad. Their long-standing resentment of America as the great imperialist power who intervenes in, oppresses, and controls the world now battles with their newfound resentment of America as the vacillator who refuses to intervene—yet which, somehow, is still all-powerful. (None of these men look to fellow Arab countries for assistance.) Kassem Eid, a anti-Assad fighter who was the victim of a gas attack, writes that he expected the U.S. “to do something, anything” to protect Syrian civilians, though he fails to say what, and he blames Obama for the repression of democracy activists in Iran, Egypt, Libya, Iraq, Syria and Ukraine. Gilbert Achcar, a noted Lebanese Marxist scholar who teaches in London, argues for emergency air strikes by the West in situations of imminent massacre and for Western delivery of arms, but stresses that “direct Western intervention should be opposed”; nevertheless, “the U.S. has a big share of responsibility in the huge massacre inflicted on the Syrian people and in the destruction of their country.”

Achcar scorns the U.S.’s obsession with “the ‘lessons of Iraq’” and its current queasiness about military intervention, yet also berates the U.S. as “counterrevolutionary in the full sense of the term.” Fawwaz Trabulsi, another influential Lebanese Marxist, scoffs at “the acrobatics of the American administration’s position” but insists that, in any case, democracy is not “part of any U.S. program.” Al-Haj Saleh, who as a communist spent 16 years as a political prisoner in Assad’s inferno-esque Tadmur prison, criticizes the Western democracies’ unwillingness to support the anti-Assad opposition. But more than that: he charges that Syria’s current political-military stalemate “is something engineered by our putative American ‘friend’” and that “Washington destroyed our cause far more than Iran and Russia did.” Yet he also “adamantly oppose[s] the American military training of Syrians,” which would simply convert opposition forces “into cheap local mercenaries without a cause.” One can’t help but ask: what is to be done?

Many of these writers insist that America owes support to the Syrian resistance regardless of the political stance that the opposition takes or the kind of country it will build. Achcar admits that “there is no left wing presence in the armed struggle” and that the civilian uprising lacks “a political leadership.” Nevertheless, he insists, “If we believe in the right of people to self-determination ... then even if we had an uprising where Islamic forces were leading, this shouldn’t change our position [of support]—as it didn’t for example with Gaza and Hamas.” This is hardly an inspiring precedent. Al-Haj Saleh resents “the Western-centric approach” which demands that the oppressed proffer convincing evidence of “the righteousness of your cause.” Nader Hashemi, a Canadian-born academic of Middle Eastern descent who has written frequently about Syria, argues that “military intervention” by the West “is the only way to stop Assad’s killing machine” and that the West must support the “right to self-determination of the Syrian people.” Not one of these writers has realized that the bloom on the rose of self-determination withered long ago, and that every tyrant—including Assad—defends his regime precisely on the grounds of self-determination and national sovereignty.

These writers seem to have misunderstood another crucial point: in a democracy, it is incumbent upon the government to (truthfully) convince its citizens that an intervention has an ethical political value—that there is, in fact, a democratic political project to support and even perhaps to die for. That hasn’t happened in Syria. As Michael Ignatieff has observed:

The Syrian opposition has failed in making their cause a universal claim ... There are no good guys, no victims whose cause can be sold to reluctant publics to ennoble a humanitarian rescue.

So though the Syrians are victims of others, they are victims of their own political choices and political failures, too. It is the height of hypocrisy—or, one might say, chutzpah—for intellectuals (or anyone) to insist that the West owes the Syrian opposition unconditional support while simultaneously deriding Western values; if such support comes, it will be precisely because of those values. It will not, and should not, be unconditional; “self-determination to what end?” is a vital question, not an impolite or imperialist one.

Intervention, of course, does not necessarily mean sending ground troops—unless you are Iran, Hezbollah, or Russia, which recently announced the arrival of its “volunteers.” (Putin is, clearly, not spooked by the Soviet Union’s previous disaster in Afghanistan, and he is now being hailed as “Sheikh Putin” by admiring Shiites.) But the nasty truth is that even so-called humanitarian intervention can’t be accomplished without military support. A no-fly zone, which has been suggested by some as a “compromise” position, needs sustained and vigorous air support; Assad would certainly view this, correctly, as an assault on his sovereignty (just as Saddam did when the U.S. protected the Kurds). Even a humanitarian corridor, suggested by Mary Kaldor, Anne-Marie Slaughter, and Hillary Clinton, could only be protected by somebody’s troops. Any volunteers?

Can all this get worse? Indeed it can, for the war in Syria isn’t only the war in Syria. It can only be understood, can only be seen, within the context of the widespread political, economic, and moral implosion/explosion of the Arab world that we are currently witnessing. Unlike Pipes and Zizek (who are joined, to a greater or lesser degree, by others of various political tendencies—including Fareed Zakaria, Rand Paul, and Donald Trump), I believe it is urgently necessary to stop the Syrian war, prevent the deaths of other Aylan Kurdis, and stem the tide of torture, slavery, rape, and blood. Yet it is inconceivable that the cessation of that war would put an end to the Middle East’s humanitarian agonies and political pathologies, which have been many decades in the making. The refugee crisis is not the result of a flood or earthquake. As Ari Shavit recently wrote in Haaretz, it is the result of the Arab world’s political failures, in which “a reactionary monarchy, a military dictatorship, an Islamic theocracy or murderous chaos” are the offered options. (One can oppose the U.S.’s invasion of Iraq, as Shavit did, without adhering to the fairy tale that the Arab world’s troubles started there.) Here is a region that has no “normalcy” to return to—unless you consider regimes like Assad’s and Saddam’s to be normal.

A Turkish police officer stands next to Aylan Kurdi’s dead body off the shores in Bodrum, southern Turkey.
Nilüfer Demir/AFP/Getty Images

Like everyone else on the planet, I have no solution to solving this conflict. I do believe, however, that only force will defeat Assad (and his cronies) and ISIS (and their cronies), and that the Syrian people have no hope of a remotely decent future, or even national survival, until both those things happen. At the same time, a military “solution” is impossible—and, furthermore, highly undesirable, since the victory of either side would mean the triumph of a grotesque political project. (The paradoxes continue to pile up.) Negotiations can and should be urged—except that the key Syrian players have made clear their utter lack of interest in this option, and the U.S. has virtually no leverage with which to change that equation. Staying out of the whole mess is a valid and rational position—though not without admitting that this means abandoning Syrian civilians to continuing horror and, perhaps, extermination. But it is not defensible to use our past in Iraq as an excuse to avoid making choices in the present and future, or to pretend that we can save future Aylan Kurdis while keeping our hands clean of the larger conflict. (Isolation, too, is an active choice, though it often pretends otherwise.) In international affairs, there is no Virgin Mary.

The refugee crisis, which the photograph of Aylan Kurdi represents, is real and pressing. But it is the result of the far more fundamental calamities in Syria and the greater region. We should look at the pictures—and at the facts—which speak to those, too.