Reading The Pictures: You Lost Your Face And Your Legs, But I'm Here Now


Oops, sorry for the blasphemy! ...Here's the real version.

I'm sure most of you, by now, have seen the pictures from George Bush's photo-op last Thursday at the Brooke Army Hospital in San Antonio. (If you're a regular HuffPost reader, the images were on the home page all weekend, garnering almost 900 comments as of this morning.)

So, why the smiley face?

Well, with the sophisticated PR manipulation practiced by the White House, it seems almost necessary, as the "visual opposition," to employ as many counterinsurgent techniques as possible to illuminate the kind of visual tactics being deployed here.

What smiley is designed to bring out, in this image of Bush posed with Army Sgt. James Kevin Downs, is the cultural propaganda strategy that this Administration applies to catastrophe -- no matter whether nature caused it or they did.

A week or so ago, I did a post about Bush's California firestorm photo op. In that piece, I cited the work of widely-respected NYU Media, Culture, and Communications Professor Marita Sturken. You can read and see it here (and, don't miss the video), but in brief, Sturken's thesis is that post 9/11 America (led by the Consoler-In-Chief) has morphed into what she calls a "comfort culture." Bottom line (and playing up the wounds and the insult we suffered at the hands of al-Qaeda), the function of this executive branch is not to make things better, but just to make people feel better.

It's a tactic that goes a long, long way. For example:

..It is this mentality that obscures how George Bush can walk into a high tech rehab center in San Antonio which, although situated on a U.S. military base, is completely funded by private donations, and rant about the state of the government's support of injured veterans.

...It is this mentality that overshadows the fact that Bush's visit (the cost of which was offset by the taxpayer) was sandwiched in between two fat cat Republican fundraisers.

It is this mentality that allows George Bush the ability to actually seek out a photo op with soldiers whose faces have been mutilated or their legs blown off in his elective war, and perceptually neutralize his culpability (and even, the visual horror) because he is there to comfort and console.

It is this mentality that allows Bush to chuckle and gaze into the eyes and, I assume, the soul, of Marine Lance Cpl. Isaac Gallegos while accepting an Iraqi Freedom t-shirt with (unbelievably enough) the picture of a wolfman on it.

In this Rovian-guided, mind-messing, pictorial era we're living in, however, you wouldn't expect that "Bush love" alone would be the only strategically applied to smooth the rough edges off these rough pictures, would you? Another way the American viewer is being comforted, as well as bought off here, is through the mojo of technology.

Take Bush-navigated Marine Lance Cpl. Matthew Bradford, for example, who lost both legs and one eye (and was blinded in the other) by an IED. The demonstration Bush witnesses shows Bradford scaling a two-story climbing wall as if, through super-rehab, he's been turned into Spiderman.

Or take Army PFC Nicholas Clark, who figured prominently in the day's picture show. Posing in this laboratory-like setting "wearing retro-reflective markers to measure his body movements under infra-red cameras" (as AP authoritatively informs us), how much easier is it to lend one's heart (as the President lovingly lends his jacket) to a bionic man who will likely be re-engineered even better than new.

Photographer Nina Berman -- recognized earlier this year with a World Press Photo award for her incredibly disturbing (and not at all comforting) portrait, Marine Wedding -- addressing this photo of PFC Clark, as well as the one I first linked to, writes:

Look at those great computer legs. Look at the great battlefield medicine. See what we can do to patch up bodies. Meet the great doctors and staff who tend to our boys. They can house skulls in torsos and make toes into fingers. These images smooth everything over. People get excited and upbeat by the gadgets (just like the video simulator) and never look at the reason for the gadgets.

So, my apologies again for sticking a smiley face atop the President of the United States, especially while he's providing comfort to our worst maimed troops. But then, if these images now look a little harder to you (meaning, a little more unspun and real), then at least I feel a little better.

Original Reuters slide show.

For more of the visual -- including two more angles on San Antonio -- visit

(image: Gerald Herbert/AP. San Antonio. Thursday, Nov. 8, 2007)