The instant, long past, after which Victory no longer exists in any imaginable future
If you were on Jeopardy and Alex asked you what South American painter is famed for his obese and corpulent men, women and children, say: "Who is Fernando Botero?" (Don't forget to make your answer in the form of a question.) Also I think, in Anglophone North America, you get 150 Bonus Culture Points for just being able to utter: "Botero" (but no points if you think it's a sandwich).
For reasons for which the Colombian painter and sculptor has declined to provide specifics (he himself is a bit on the skinny/flaco side), all Botero's fellow human beings are clearly overweight. The Earth Is Fat. In Botero's Gallery, you have to provide the Meaning to this, you have to figure out the Why. You're as free to answer "Fat people mean This to Me" as you are to say, "Botero thinks fat people imply/suggest/reflect This."
Often he has painted famous, iconic scenes from Catholicism and Christianity, and changed nothing from its holy predecessor by Titian or Cellini, except that God, Jesus, Mary, Joseph, the Disciples and Saints are all very fat. The rest of the Miracle proceeds in perfectly classical, familiar form.
I think I've seen fat dogs, cats and farm animals in Botero's vision of our world. I don't know if he does fat lizards or fat snakes. But Fat is the first thing about any Botero sculpture or painting which whacks you in the eyeballs, and for the rest of the image, you have to recover from or integrate that initial message of Fat.
Recently he painted a series to note 40 years of fairly continuous ferocious violence and insurgency in Colombia's political and economic life. Fat men machine-gunning and tossing bombs and killing and maiming fat children and fat old women and fat middle-aged men and women.
His most recent series of paintings, which has traveled far and wide in North America's and Europe's finest art galleries, are depictions of documented, confirmed (and often photographed) incidents and methods of prisoner abuse at Abu Ghraib Prison, a few kliks west of Baghdad, when this hellhole of a prison was under the exclusive command and control of the United States Army. And the documented or photographed abusers are all American soldiers -- the most famous being military police from an Army Reserve battalion recently activated to Iraq.
Whom have we left out? Well, both genders were sadistic abusers and tormentors and torturers, or agreed to pose for photographs as the grinning abusers of the prisoners. The Reserve battalion's commanding general does not seem to have been involved; she later explained that her orders from superiors forbade her from ever setting foot in her own Abu Ghraib Prison. She commanded the prison from offices a dozen kliks away.
When these digital photographs were first injected into the Internet -- without editing or airbrushing in Asia and Pacifica and Africa -- at that instant, the most hallucinatory, psychotic, sycophantic and ill-defined threads of Victory for Our Side in Iraq vanished once and forever. This was The Mother Of All Toothpastes which had squirted out of the Colgate tube.
There are two kinds of Time: Newtonian and Darwinian. In the mathematics which describes classical physics and mechanics, Past behaves exactly like Future; only a person's personal sense of strange unfamiliarity distinguishes an impossible trip into the Past from a familiar and likely trip into the future.
But Political Time is Darwinian. It has a clear Arrow Of Time; everything progresses in only one direction, marked Future. The way things are at moment T(n) can ever be rewound to an earlier time T(n-6) (where n is in weeks or months). Things can only Evolve toward the Future, based on a series of fairly arbitrary, even random accidents and coincidences.
In Darwinian Time, once a creature evolves into a tree sloth, there's no going back to a time before tree sloths. Once the Political Toothpaste is out of the tube, there is no shoving it back into the tube.
And once the world saw inside Abu Ghraib, there was no going back.
No distributions of mammoth amounts of American cash could sweeten this piece of shit.
No hasty White House declarations of solidarity with Muslims-Americans and the Iraqi people could make this one fade into forgetting.
For the past week on television news interviews and in Congressional hearings, experts and officials of the Bush Administration and the Pentagon have been speaking and testifying about Bush's plan for responding -- escalating, sending a troop surge -- to the down-spiraling military situation in Iraq.
At the beginning of January, the Democratic Party took control of the House of Representatives and the Senate, and every Congressional committee flipped leadership to a Democratic chair. Each committee chair determines what hearings will be held, what witnesses will be called, and what, if any, votes the committee will take.
A very new kind and character of hearings began to ask a very new kind and character of questions about the Bush Iraq plan. On Capitol Hill, the Bush White House and the Rumsfeld Pentagon had never encountered such questions, skepticism and hostility about the Iraq War since the day it began.
A ratio of roughly three or four witnesses called as experts on Iraq condemned or were highly pessimistic about the chances for Bush's "surge" of 21,000 American troops, intended first to secure and reduce the level of civil war violence in Baghdad, and then promising to take effective action against sectarian militias in other parts of Iraq.
For each three or four pessimistic or doomsaying witnesses, one "fair and balanced" expert supported the surge plan and beyond. Testifying before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, Dr. Frederick Kagan of the right-wing American Enterprise Institute was the designated hallucinatory Pollyanna, and told the Committee that America could still "Choose Victory" -- his stirring, patriotic, hopeful, jingoistic bumper sticker -- in Iraq, and stridently advocated and took partial credit for inventing Bush's surge plan.
It was pretty clear that the other witnesses on his panel, and most of the Senators on the Committee, of both parties, thought Kagan was nuts; as he testified and answered questions, there was an air of uncomfortable embarrassment from Senators of both parties. In asserting that Bush and America can, at this late date, in the midst of an NBC-certified Civil War, "Choose Victory," Kagan is one very lonely "expert," and Washington's loneliest Prophet and future-seer.
However vaguely, ambiguously or Orwellianly the most optimistic Pollyanna defines Victory in Iraq for the USA, Victory disappeared from political reality the instant the world saw the photographs from Abu Ghraib. In dainty and responsible Western media the images were filtered -- no prisoner anuses or penises. In the rest of the world, the images went through without filter blur.
When the world's only mobile, force-projecting superpower projected its Shock and Awe, its mission was to defeat the regular army of Iraq and overthrow the Baath Party regime of Sadaam Hussein -- at that time, "regime change" was the bumper-sticker motto. The military outcome of that objective had never been in doubt, and that limited victory was promptly achieved, with prompt CNN images of toppled statues shipped back to the eager American audience.
The Bush Administration wasn't even calling the statue-toppling Phase 1, and shortly after came Bush's aircraft-carrier landing and speech under the famous "Mission Accomplished" banner. The event was filmed to be a natural voter-rallying image for Bush's 2004 re-election campaign, but the film had to be shelved. By election day, "Mission Accomplished" had disintegrated into a rude Letterman joke that all Americans were chuckling at.
Where did Victory go? When did it vanish? Can a new wave of Superpower Shock and Awe rescue it and bring it back for Bush or for America?
The surge plan is a military plan. The crux of Bush's invasion and occupation of Iraq was and remains political. "Victory" will be a new sovereign Iraq with an open, participatory parliamentary democracy resembling Kansas or Pennsylvania, something familiar and recognizeable to the American people. Iraq will be Western-friendly, initially because its old regime was toppled by military forces of Western powers, but thereafter because the Iraqi people themselves will spontaneously embrace their new democracy and travel to their own future in their new popular Western-style, Western-friendly democracy.
Bush-Kagan Victory, if you take LSD strong enough to see it, will be Iraq, an internally peaceful, stable, Democratic ally of the USA, the UK, the EU. After Western Coalition troops assist Iraqi government troops in ending the sectarian Civil War, Western troops will leave Iraq in an orderly, safe, dignified withdrawal, and Iraqis will like us and cooperate with us on regional matters because that's the future the Iraqi people will spontaneously choose.
Foreign interference -- from al Qaeda, from Syria, from Iran -- must be halted military, at Iraq's borders, and diplomatically in the region so the Iraqi people will be freed from these destabilizing outside influences to choose to become an Asian model of Kansas. As time passes, Iraqis will look back on the Western military occupation as a great and generous gift of liberation from the Bush-led West, for which they will be grateful.
I am trying to be generous and charitable in describing Kagan's testimony before the Foreign Relations Committee and Bush's explanations, in speeches and a round of TV news interviews, of his troop surge plan.
Bush and Kagan repeatedly stress the catastrophic consequences of not staying the course, of an American failure in Iraq, of Cut and Run. "Failure is not an option," Bush is fond of telling anyone courteous enough to pretend to listen, a magical mantra which, if repeated often enough, will produce Victory.
We gave Shock and Awe its best shot, toppled Sadaam Hussein's regime, assembled a new Coalition-obedient puppet government, and have stayed the course long enough to see him hanged (via unauthorized cell-phone images).
Failure in Iraq will imply -- will shout rather loudly and clearly to the world -- that the full military might of the world's only mobile military superpower cannot give an American president the things he promises and the things he demands. We can commit our troops to the extent of 3000 American soldiers and Marines killed and 20,000 maimed in combat -- and lose, badly, and have to leave.
It will not be the first time failure proved to be the final option for superpower America. We hastily withdrew our troops, spooks and diplomats from Vietnam, and our enemies conquered and united the entire country. Today Vietnam is peaceful, stable, independent, sovereign, and everything 52,000 American soldiers and Marines died over the course of ten years to prevent it from becoming. America's Shock and Awe over Vietnam ended precipitously, suddenly and permanently in 1974.
The catastrophic consequences: The USA is still around, still a parliamentary democracy, even more unchallenged a military superpower than it was during Vietnam, still economically huge, prosperous, by all measures still growing. The USA still bosses most of the world's sovereign nations around, bribes a lot of the rest, and loudly threatens a few "rogue nations" in Bush's Axis of Evil, with a mixed track record of obedience to our will.
And we have a new war memorial in Washington DC, black and stark, built and dedicated before we even got around to building a memorial to our last unconditional Victories of World War Two.
What does all this have to do with a Colombian painter who sees a Fat World?
In Botero's lifetime, Colombia has been fully as violent and dangerous as Iraq since the regime-toppling. As we now demand that regime-toppled Afghanistan stop growing opium and exporting it as heroin to the West (mostly overland to Europe), the United States has been demanding Colombia stop growing coca and exporting cocaine to North America and Europe. Americans' hunger for cocaine has consistently driven up the profits for manufacturers and smugglers, and the American-sponsored military efforts to end the cocaine trade in the Andes have only made cocaine gangs more violent, dangerous and destabilizing.
Now South America's most famous artist has turned his eye to the events of Abu Ghraib when the US Coalition ran it.
Why? Botero isn't a Muslim and South America isn't Asia.
Just as Botero never explained the reasons he paints a Fat Earth, his touring exposition of his Abu Ghraib images begs us to wonder about his reasons for devoting a year of his painting life to these events seemingly so distant and unrelated to Colombia and South America, seemingly so unrelated to the life and concerns of the Western hemisphere.
And in fact, why paint Abu Ghraib at all? Weren't the photographs -- the "family friendly" edited ones in the Western-friendly media, or the stark unedited photos with anus and penis -- shocking enough?
Botero, I think, wanted to transcend Catholicism, Christianity, Hemisphere and Continent, and ask us to embrace Abu Ghraib's ghastly assault on all Human Dignity. He wants every human being who sees these images to transcend the local and the parochial, and to see, through these paintings, the brutal assaults on the bodies of these prisoners, the brutal, armed theft of their human dignity.
Consider the opposite direction. Imagine, if cameras had existed, what a stark, black-and-white snapshot of Jesus' crucifixion would have looked like and would have meant to our eyes, our minds, our hearts? Imagine the crucifixion not through the sculpture or brush strokes of the Renaissance masters, but the crucifixion without halos and without heavenly illumination, the crucifixion of three men seen on a crude, on-the-spot cell-phone video like the one taken of Sadaam Hussein's hanging. The Renaissance masters tell us very clearly how to feel about the crucifixion. But what would we feel about the cruelty and the torment if we had chanced on an actual photographic image on the Internet?
What does Abu Ghraib mean if an artist can suggest that its victims aren't strangers and enemies from the other side of the world, but if Abu Ghraib's victims were our neighbors, our brothers and our cousins? In Botero's paintings, we can see the khaki uniforms of the tormentors, but there are almost no cues insisting we identify them as American soldiers.
But we see in the victims the torment of the crucifixion, and we wonder, uncomfortably, what circumstances could transform the people who are supposed to be our heroes and our protectors, American GIs, into these kinds of depraved, brutal, sadistic torturers.
Botero has painted the instant when an American Victory in Iraq vanished forever, when every human being on Earth -- Christian, Muslim, Jew, Hindu, Atheist -- privately had to choose a side. Before this instant, we could hope for Victory for the Civilized West.
After this instant -- seen in photograph or master paintings hung in the world's most prestigious art galleries -- every human being on Earth with a heart and a soul and a conscience had a harder time telling Heroes apart from Villains. Now women and men from Colombia, from Europe, from the United States, are hoping, secretly and privately, that the Roman soldiers and their brutal, disgusting acts will give up and go home, and stop pissing, at gunpoint, on the bodies and the dignity of our imprisoned brothers.