Eddie Adams, who died last week, took perhaps the most famous photograph of the Vietnam war: an image of a South Vietnamese general executing a Vietcong soldier on a Saigon street, by shooting him in the temple at point blank range.
The most powerful image of war I know isn't a photograph: it's Goya's painting "The Third of May, 1808," which hangs in the Prado, in Madrid. A copy of it can be viewed here (history.hanover.edu/courses/art/goyamy3.html), although any reproduction can only hint at the impact of the painting itself.
The power of Goya's depiction of the dead, the dying and those about to die comes from the artist's willingness to tell the truth. War, Goya's painting tells us, is evil, disgusting and horrifying to the core. The only way to avoid this truth is to avert one's eyes from the thing itself.
The best war photographs capture the same truth: that is why the Pentagon has gone to such extraordinary lengths to make sure we see no images of dead bodies, or wounded soldiers, or even flag-draped coffins returning from Iraq.
War is evil, disgusting and horrifying, but it is sometimes the lesser of two evils. That is another truth — and one that is especially difficult to deal with. For once you've decided that, in this particular case, it is the lesser evil, then you must be willing to do evil, disgusting and horrifying things, such as shooting a man who has his hands tied behind his back, or firing high explosives into neighborhoods full of women and children.
If it were somehow possible to extract an honest answer from either George Bush or John Kerry to just one question, here's the one I would choose: Are you going to fight this war, or not? Both men have spent the last few weeks dodging this question. Bush keeps repeating that his plan to transform the Middle East into a region friendly to the United States is proceeding on schedule, and that, while he is willing to send more troops to Iraq, he doesn't believe this will be necessary.
Kerry keeps pointing out that the situation in Iraq is bad and getting worse, but to this point he hasn't offered much in the way of an alternative to the status quo, other than vague promises about internationalizing the war, and pledging to get U.S. troops out within four years.
Both Bush and Kerry are talking nonsense. Each candidate should be asked point blank: Are you willing to sacrifice the lives of thousands of American troops, and kill tens or hundreds of thousands of Iraqis, to crush resistance to the U.S. occupation? And if not, are you willing to allow Iraq to descend into even more chaos, including perhaps a full-scale civil war, that could fracture the country into perpetually warring factions?
This is the grim choice that will face the man who wins the upcoming election. The pleasant fantasy presented to the American people by the Bush administration — that our troops would be greeted as liberators rather than occupiers — has been destroyed.
This doesn't necessarily mean the war was a mistake. It only means that the war was sold to the American people on a false premise: that the invasion of Iraq wouldn't really be an invasion, and that the occupation of the country wouldn't really be an occupation — in short, that the war wouldn't really be a war.
It is a war. It isn't a humanitarian relief effort, or a civics lesson with guns. Whoever wins on Nov. 2 will either have to kill a lot more people a lot more quickly, or get the hell out.
Paul Campos is a law professor at the University of Colorado and can be reached at Paul.Campos@Colorado.edu.