Witness

Whether it's the stills of Khmer Rouge victims or the portraits of dead American soldiers, we need to witness both sides of death to understand what war has wrought.

Witness

Thousands of stills taken of Khmer Rouge victims at the notorious Tuol Sleng prison collectively document the systematic torture and killing of an estimated 1.7 million men, women and children. Looking into these victims' eyes by examining the morbid, meticulous portraits taken before each and every one was murdered, is probably the most direct connection we will ever have to Cambodia's mass killings between 1975 and 1979.

The head photographer behind these portraits, Nhem Ein, says he shot each individual within hearing range of the prison's torture chambers. The victims were sometimes delivered by the truckload. One by one, he removed their blindfolds and posed them for the camera, forbidden to speak with them or answer their questions about why they had been rounded up or what was about to happen to them.

Today, hundreds of Nhem Ein's photographs line the walls of the former torture house, which is now the Tuol Sleng Museum of Genocide. The majority of these portraits have since been lost or destroyed, as have the identities of many who were photographed, but about 6,000 of the remaining negatives are held in the museum.

And although the collection is incomplete, the photos captured details of Pol Pot's victims – the full lips of a young girl, the sloping shoulders of a thin boy, the fearful, wide-eyed stare of an old man – that add up to some of the most terrifying evidence this world has ever seen.

At the close of many American news programs, we regularly witness some of the most poignant moments provided by television today: the ongoing Honor Roll, which flashes slowly through an unornamented display of portraits showing US soldiers who have fallen in Afghanistan and Iraq.

"And here, in silence, are 18 more," we hear the news anchor solemnly announce.

The fresh, mostly young, mostly proud faces of men and women who've lost their lives march silently into our homes. Some appear upright and in uniform while others are shown in smiling snapshots. Names, ages and hometowns are consistently noted.

And yet these portraits only document one side of the story. The other side – the faces of Iraq's dead – remains invisible. We see images of chaos and bloodshed but very few portraits of fallen Iraqis. We see grainy mug shots of terrorists on the news but no posed stills of the shopkeeper killed by a car bomb or the mother who fell under an errant American missile.

Imagine if every week a televised roll call memorialized Iraq's civilian casualties with individual portraits. If this were possible, we would witness, in full, the staggering human costs of Iraq's occupation on a personal level. The politics of history dictate who is remembered and who is not, and most countries prefer to honor only their own dead. Perhaps, if we were confronted with those we've killed, face-by-face, we could better question the notion of "us and them" and address the abstraction of death that skews our understanding of war.

52 comments on the article “Witness”

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Eoghan

This is not an antiamerican essay. I don't understand how one could think that it is, perhaps someone could enlighten me?

Charlie

Great article. The life of an American soldier is no more valuable than that of an Iraqi civilian, or those murdered by Pol Pot. Each death is tragic, each life is equal. If anyone thinks it's Anti-American to say such a thing, they have a vastly overinflated sense of their own worth.

Jill

Heather, I don't think you understand that no one is disrespecting American soldiers anywhere in this article. It merely points out the fact that it is far easier to care about the lives of American's rather than the people of Iraq, that seem so strange and foreign to us. Also, the people of Iraq had absolutely nothing to do with 9/11. Saddam Hussein did not have Sunday brunches with Osama discussing their plans for terrorism. If you still believe this, please stop watching fox news and pick up a book like The Assault on Reason.

Andrew

I am Scottish and on the news the other day they were sadly recounting the new total of soldiers that had died fighting in Iraq. It amounted to something along the lines of 19. Obviously parents would favour their children. The loss for them hurts more than the death of any Iraqi civilian could. However, I can't help but feel bitter hearing this without the caveat... and 90,000 Iraqi civilians died. Not out of disrespect for the soldiers, but to ever get past these unecessary wars we need to shift our consciousness a little and recognise that there is a greater picture. During the Second World War, war was a reality faced by every citizen everyday. Modern TV wars negates the responsibilty for our own actions. To recognise the other side is part of confronting this reality and making our decision of when and how to go to war much stronger.

Krs

How do you value one life over another? How can you say that being born in a certain place or in a certain race makes you better or worse? Nations are created by men and upheld by drones who believe everything they are told. You better check yourself or just plug back in.....

Amanda

Great article. I think what a lot of people may forget is the news channels are just showing us what the vast majority of people want/pay to see. In order to give the Iraquis in this casethe same consideration as the fallen American soldiers, the mindset of everyone would have to change.

Yahzi

This is the most anti-american thing i have read in a long time although this will not be posted because the mod will not allow anything other than full support of the article. How dare you compare the lives of the fallen American soldiers to the wrong doings of pol pot.

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