Politically Inspired Fiction: The War Is Over

Politically Inspired is fiction inspired by current events. A new short story appears weekly on AlterNet.

You try to explain later why you did it. The desert is so hot, so endless, flat and wasted all the way to Jordan. And I was on assignment. I had asked to be on assignment here, in this stupid war, the war for oil, part two. This is where you make your reputation when you are a journalist, by being shot at from jammed rifles hidden behind scrub bushes, but the war is over for me.

We rolled through clay and rocks toward Basra. The residents of the city were fleeing. Some were being shot in the back as they ran. There weren't enough Marines to keep them safe. The Marines had no intention of keeping anybody safe. But that was a week ago. I took a picture of a woman lying face in the ground. Blood poured from the wound in her neck, crusting and pooling around her scarf that had fallen up toward the top of her head, stray curls of hair framed her cheeks. Except that she was dead and covered in blood, she was dressed the way most of the women were dressed, in a long, flowing, shapeless dress. Her skin, where not painted red by the blood, was only slightly darker than the desert floor. And she was hunched, her body bent, as if she had fallen on a large stone. But it wasn't a stone, it was her baby, and the baby was of course dead. Here is your abortion, President Bush.

Of course, the papers didn't want it. The American paper I work for, on the western edge of my own country. All of the pictures I shot of this woman. I shot hundreds of pictures of this woman, her white clothing folded around her waist and legs, her black scarf, the wheels of an American jeep just barely visible on the horizon. The dead were everywhere as I rolled, embedded in the machine, toward the second largest city in this parched and ravaged country. I took hundreds of pictures of her and sent them home and they were denied. They were not even sent across the wires. They were not syndicated, I was not reprimanded, they are not my property. There are other photographers here, hundreds of them. My images are good, they knew I would get them something better next time.

At night we slept in canvas tent cities, rapidly torn down and set up again. Sticks with roofs and walls to protect us from the elements. There are hundreds of tent cities along a supply route. I was diverted toward Baghdad, a POW had been rescued, the coalition was attacking the airport, making quick strikes into the capital, things were looking up. Saddam may or may not be dead. Peter Arnett was fired for granting an interview with Iraqi television. In his interview he thanked the Iraqi government for being so open with the media. What a joke. They expelled the journalists. They have not been open with anyone, no one is open, except perhaps for a boy in an apartment in Baghdad, sending blogs into cyberspace until his connection gets cut.

Poor Michael Kelly, the editor of The Atlantic Monthly, is killed when his Humvee rolls, trying to avoid sniper fire. He drowns with the driver, their heads dipped under water for hours before being towed out. Danny Pearl of the Wall Street Journal is on all of our mantel pieces, neck slit open for the video cameras. "I am a Jew, my mother is a Jew." Everything changed with Danny Pearl. In Kosovo we would watch the war from cafes, that's over now. The story of the journalists in this war is an interesting one. It will be written. Maybe I will write it, between shifts back home waiting tables, because nobody will ever buy my photographs again.

Here is a secret that everyone knows: Pictures lie. Remember that when they play loops of crates found full of white powder on the evening news. How angry everyone was when Al Jazeera showed dead American troops. Oil fires make for spectacular back drops. Framing is everything. I have always had an eye for good composition.

Sometimes, with bombs dropping, when you haven't showered, when you're not careful to drink enough water, you have a lapse of judgement. Maybe you black out. I lost over $200 in a poker game with a colonel from the Third Cavalry. "You're not thinking straight," he told me. "What do you think a pair is worth in seven card stud?" His good humor made me angry but I didn't let it show. The lines across his square face were void of concern. I envy people who have made all of their decisions already so they can stop thinking about things. I've had meltdowns before. Nothing the colonel needed to know about.

I took the images, the soldier pointing his gun, the Iraqis surrounding him, careful not to get too close. The two images are moments apart. The day before, another suicide bomber had destroyed himself near Saddam International Airport, recently renamed. No one died except the bomber, a wasted effort. Reminded me of my time in Israel, covering the Intifada. The bomber walked into a cafeteria filled with people in Haifa. This was August of 2001. The waitress came to take his order. He raised his shirt, bombs packaged around his waist like muscles. "Do you know what this is?" he asked. The waitress screamed, "Terrorist!" Everybody loves that word. The owner threw a chair. The customers piled out into the street. Nobody died except the bomber. In the pictures I took later, the restaurant was destroyed. The foundation cracked, cement like Play-Doh, beams twisted, pipes burst, metal from furnaces rolled into giant slinkies. The bomber from a refugee camp in Jenin, he would have taken everyone with him except that he had to impress the girl. Touch my bomb. "Do you know what this is?" I hate you I love you. "Terrorist!" she screamed.

I took the pictures that would end my career 50 miles from Baghdad. I had been embedded for four weeks. I know that American soldiers are as good and as bad as every other person in the world. Equality proves itself in this terrain. Mistakes are made. Together the two pictures were perfect but separately they were boring. So easy to cut and paste. I combine the images and I have an American soldier pointing his gun at a man holding a small child with a crowd on either side. But some people in the crowd had shifted so in the picture they show up twice, giving me away. The pictures run on the front page of six newspapers. The papers print apologies two days later. The photographs I've been sending home have been altered. I've been sending lies and they've been publishing them in the largest newspapers in the country. But this is obvious, and, unfortunately, I have been caught after the fact.

No one will ever trust my photographs again, and all of the pictures I have ever taken are now suspect. With computers the way they are why even send photographers? We could have written and photographed this war from home. We don't even need to be there. There's a novel thought. I tell everybody back home that I was exhausted, I am exhuasted. It was a moment of insanity, as opposed to a pattern. And only in my girlfriend's apartment near Chinatown in Los Angeles do I let the whole story unfold.

She lives in a loft and we can see across the brief skyline to Alameda park. I'm sitting on her leather sofa we picked together from a thrift store nearby in the art district. "Everyone is crazy over there," I say. She has taken my photographs from her wall and replaced them with paintings as if I wouldn't notice.

"Here you are watching college basketball and checking your email in Starbucks. I gave them pictures, I gave them real, unaltered pictures of a dead woman covered in blood hunched over her baby and the baby was also dead. When I gave them something real they didn't want it. So I gave them what they wanted. Don't blame me for the media's lies."

I spit on her carpet. She is indulging me, nodding carefully, her blonde hair stroking her collarbones. She wears jeans, a tight sweater, her legs crossed, waiting for her opportunity to end it.

"Do you want another beer?" she asks. "I have to be up early." I can tell from the way she looks she thinks I am unstable and dangerous. She will move soon. She knows nothing of danger, because in the morning she will drive to work and our highways will be congested so she will sit in her car listening to the radio and nobody will be shooting behind her, trying to put a bullet in the back of her neck for leaving a city under siege.

Author's Note: This week's story was inspired by the Los Angeles Times.

Stephen Elliott is the author of the novels "A Life Without Consequences" and "What It Means To Love You." Peruse the Politically Inspired archives, or subscribe to receive Politically Inspired each week, inspired@stephenelliott.com.

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