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”

Displaying 31 - 40 of 52

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Ronald

Why wait for the mainstream media to do it? Why not up a section on your home page that links to a page where pictures of civilian victims are kept with their stories?

Heather

This is the 2nd article I've read where someone is more concerned with the deaths of Iraqi's than that of our soldiers. I mean everyone is aware that innocent people die over there but innocent people died here too! Do you think Iraq gave a elevised roll call of every person we lost in the 9/11 attacks?! Our soldiers are doing the job that everyone else does not or will not do...they deserve our respect!

Rich

To those who say this is anti-American. Think for a moment if we lost close to millions of our own countrymen and those on the other side lost only thousands. We would have nuked them or got the hell out. The fact of the matter is war kills everything, it comes down to who has the best resources. The soldiers who die are the same as the civilians. We are all human and if we learn to stand as a people we would then have a chance to obtain the peace we all have dreamed about. And not let government officials send our people to the slaughter house.

UNO

I think brad pitt's charecter achilles in the TROY movie said it best imainge a king that fights his own wars, that would be a sight. Have we given a role call for every iraqi murdered for the past 20 years or so thanks to our foreign policies? as a matter of fact have we given a role call for any other country our foreign policy is FU## over
I thought so. You know we are told that this country could not be so powerfull if we didnt have this poeple to excploit and some of you belive that.

Carter

How is it anti-American to suggest looking at the consequences of American policy realistically? Winter does not suggest denying American deaths. She merely asks that we consider the whole picture. If that happens to reflect poorly on us then we can only conclude that REALITY is antiAmerican. god damn reality, always making the US look like the instigators. doesn't it know we're the victims? BTW There is no connection between 9/11 and Iraq. And if there were, does that make their civilians less important than our civilians? you know, our 3,000 4,000 in the towers are more valuable than their 80,000 1.2 million and lets not forget the victims of US sanctions before the war, before 9/11. Those victims were not Saddam's friends, they were the voiceless masses. Saddam never went hungry from our sanctions.

linda

Leaders don't CARE that people die in war. Especially nowadays when we're not REALLY fighting to keep our country free. We're just all players in their little power games and we're fulfilling their personal/business agendas.

Germando Echovarde

Yes... civilians in Iraq are caught in the middle and some are killed.... but how does the current civilian rate of death compare to the rate of death during the era of Saddam? I have no idea but assume that with the current government and US assistance the death rate of civilians has decreased. America must be commended for offering its sons to keep tyrants like Saddam out of power.

vanderleun

Imagine if every week a televised roll call memorialized Iraqs civilians killed by a still in place Saddam regime because we did nothing with individual portraits. If this were possible, we would witness, in full, the staggering human costs of Iraqs continued state of tyranny and genocide on a personal level. And know the costs of nonintervention. Imagine that all the soldiers that have given their lives so you could exist in comfortable safety could come back from the dead and haunt your dreams. It would shame you, if, indeed, you had any shame at all within you rather than just another colonized mind.

jon

Its hard to believe that people still believe the war in Iraq is justified. I just checked the numbers, and on 9/11, just under 3,000 innocent American's were killed. But since the beginning of the Iraq war, there has been between 80-90,000 documented civilian deaths. Now I support my American troops fully and respect them greatly for putting there lives on the line for mine. But they make that decision, innocent victims do not. I believe it's not a matter of being more concerned with Iraqi's dying, but a matter of being humane, caring for your fellow human.

Germando Echovarde

Yes... civilians in Iraq are caught in the middle and some are killed.... but how does the current civilian rate of death compare to the rate of death during the era of Saddam? I have no idea but assume that with the current government and US assistance the death rate of civilians has decreased. America must be commended for offering its sons to keep tyrants like Saddam out of power.

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