Phillip Knightley: Fake or real, shots define this war

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The Daily Mirror's admission that its photographs of British soldiers abusing Iraqi prisoners were fakes only highlights the importance of images in this war. It was the Mirror's demand for visual evidence to support its informants' claims of abuse by British soldiers - claims which are likely to prove correct - that led to the faking of the photographs. We should have seen it coming because in no other war have iconic images played such a major role in the outcome or changed public perception so radically.

The Daily Mirror's admission that its photographs of British soldiers abusing Iraqi prisoners were fakes only highlights the importance of images in this war. It was the Mirror's demand for visual evidence to support its informants' claims of abuse by British soldiers - claims which are likely to prove correct - that led to the faking of the photographs. We should have seen it coming because in no other war have iconic images played such a major role in the outcome or changed public perception so radically.

Of course, each side has had different icons. For the Americans it was the toppling of the statue of Saddam Hussein and the "rescue" from an Iraqi hospital of Private Jessica Lynch. For the Arab world it was an Iraqi woman scratching a shallow grave with her bare hands so that she could bury her dead husband and son. And the Iraqi boy who lost his mother and father and his own limbs to a Coalition bomb.

But until now what the public knew of the face of battle was dictated by Western news organisations, often in collusion with governments. There was an unwritten agreement that nothing too horrific made it on to the screen or the front pages. Take the photograph of a weeping Iraqi grandfather cradling in his arms his little granddaughter, severely injured in a Coalition bomb attack on Basra on 22 March 2003. You cannot recall it? I am not surprised. The shot, which showed the girl's horribly mangled feet, ran in the Arab press in its entirety. But in the West, editors took it upon themselves to crop it - on the grounds of taste - so that the bones and shreds of flesh that were once the little girl's feet were not visible.

So, although the Western media were good at covering the military side of the attack on Iraq, it deliberately refrained from covering the "shocked and the awed". There were lots of images of missiles taking off, but few showing what happened when they arrived. The first sea change was the arrival on the scene of Arab TV networks, especially the Qatar-based al-Jazeera with its BBC-trained reporters. These networks concentrated on covering the victims of the war and had no qualms of showing the dead, wounded and maimed. "Why not?" says Maher Abdallah Ahmad, an al-Jazeera correspondent. "It's time people learnt what war is really about. It's about killing and maiming people."

This attitude infuriated the Pentagon, whose media strategy was to concentrate on the heroism of war as seen through the eyes of its soldiers. It did its best to discredit and shut down the Arab TV networks. Then came the second historical development. Only the most naive believed that the Coalition troops observed all the Geneva conventions on the treatment and interrogation of prisoners of war. That they might torture and humiliate them and that this might be confirmed by photographs taken by the Americans seems incredible. But these demeaning images were published around the world.

An American woman soldier is photographed leading a naked and injured Iraqi man on a dog leash. The same woman soldier is shown gesturing at naked Iraqi men forced to form themselves into a mound on the floor. A woman is depicted forming a gun with her hand and pointing it at an Iraqi man's genitals. And these are the milder images. Others held by the Pentagon and yet to be released are said to include the sexual assault of Iraqi women. The Iraqis struck back with their own terrible images: the execution by beheading of the American hostage Nick Berg.

Again we have a media landmark. The Iraqis choose beheading as the means of execution because they knew this method of murder caused most distress to Westerners, and that by recording it on video and posting it on a website they were assured of a huge audience. So all parties in a modern-day conflict know the propaganda value of iconic images, no matter how terrible. The result could be a period of atrocity and counter-atrocity, a descent into barbarity. But something positive has occurred. Despite the Daily Mirror's unfortunate lapse, the veil is being lifted on the real face of war. With any luck, people's natural anti-war sentiments will be strengthened.

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