The frame surrounding an image of Abu Musab al-Zarqawi's head, revealed to the world as proof the terrorist is dead, is bizarre. When the picture was displayed at a U.S. military news briefing, Zarqawi's face was seen inside what appeared to be a professional photographic mat job, with a large frame, as if it were something one might preserve and hang on the wall next to other family portraits. One function of frames is to bound an image, and close down its open edges; frames delimit, both physically and by extension, metaphorically. But that was the last thing this frame was doing.
Even as the news was greeting a sleepy America, bursting forth on the morning talk programs and racing around the Internet, the meaning of Zarqawi's death was anything but closed. Virtually no one outside the Iraqi insurgency and other jihadists thought his death was a bad thing, though reports came in that members of Zarqawi's Jordanian family, who had publicly distanced themselves from the killer after he brought his violence to hotels in Amman, were grieving.
In this country, a familiar dynamic played out. Supporters of the war cheered, and criticized the war's opponents (by now a sizable majority of Americans) if they didn't cheer, too. More cautious voices broached the idea -- though at the peril of having their patriotism questioned -- that this may not be the desired turning point in the conflict. They reminded us that we had already seen similar photographs of Uday and Qusay, Saddam Hussein's dead sons, and that Saddam's capture was also supposed to be the beginning of the end of the mayhem.
A strange dignity
So will this image, given a strange dignity by its prominent frame, be a defining image of the war? Not likely. Its primary function is forensic. It proves, in an age of skepticism (heightened by a three-year history of official claims about the war turning out to be false), that Zarqawi is indeed dead. But beyond that, the image has little power. Indeed, as with so many images in this war, it is loaded with the potential to backfire.
Among the dissenting voices in the hubbub yesterday were those worried about Zarqawi's status as a martyr. And here, again, the frame plays a very odd role. In many traditions, a framed picture of the deceased suggests something like an icon, something to be venerated. Photographs of journalists photographing the image at the news briefing showed Zarqawi's face looming above them. One might believe, for a moment, that they had gathered to bask in its exalted presence.
The image itself, a disembodied head, connects this event to the abject misery that Zarqawi had brought to so many people in Iraq over the course of his deadly career. He was the one who reportedly sawed off the head of Nicholas Berg, and now Zarqawi's head was appearing, lifeless, eyes closed, as if it too were somehow detached from his body. For those who want revenge, the head of Zarqawi is a welcome sight; but it reminds others how much this war has been about cycles of killing, retribution, tribal and sectarian violence, and the most primitive destructive urges.
When the White House decided to "roll out a new product" (former chief of staff Andrew Card's phrase) three years ago, the looming war was sold as urgent, with little doubt that it would be fast and clean. We would be liberators; the war would pay for itself. And now we gaze on Zarqawi's face one last time, as he reminds us that the new product wasn't so new; the war turned out to have all too much of what wars have always had in them, death, destruction and chaos. Zarqawi's head forces us to confront once again the most primitive dynamic of war: It's an eye for an eye, or a head for a head.
The framed image of a head also has a disturbing sense of the trophy to it -- proof of another small victory brought home from battle -- which connects it to what might be called the ultimate self-destructing image of victory: the "Mission Accomplished" photo-op staged on an aircraft carrier on May 1, 2003. Even before the war had definitively turned sour, that single image established a pattern. The war would be politicized.
What began as a war of necessity, premised on the slam-dunk certainty that Saddam Hussein was staring us down with weapons of mass destruction, eventually became a war of ideas. If there were no weapons, then at least it was a war of liberation, bringing freedom and democracy to a land in desperate need of both. And when that war devolved into clouds of dust and pools of blood as the country broke into religious and ethnic factions, and the rule of law was extinguished by terrorists and militias, the war of ideas began to seem more like another thing -- a war of trophies.
We may not have victory. Iraq may be a living hell both for those who are fighting to make it better and for those who live there. But we bring home the occasional politically expedient marker of "progress." Major combat operations are over. We got Saddam's sons. We got Saddam. Now we have Zarqawi. The trophy case fills: elections, a constitution, a new government -- everything but peace and stability for an exhausted nation of Iraqis who have died by the tens of thousands during the evolution of this war.
Zarqawi is gone and good riddance. But there's nothing in the image of his face that deserves a frame. It's a small thing, to be sure. But it suggests a cynicism about this war that is profoundly distressing. Our political and military leaders simply can't resist packaging the war and wrapping it up in a bow.