Unfinished Portrait: Iraq, Afghanistan, Pakistan

A work that brings us face-to-face with some of those who have died in the US-led invasions and occupation of Iraq and Afghanistan.

Unfinished Portrait, acrylic gouache, 2008 (continuing.)

The work so far has seventy-eight 12 x 12 x 3/8 inch panels painted in desert-camouflage colors to represent the first 344,926 people who have died in these wars.

Below is one of thirty-eight panels that is painted with 8,836 small dots representing faces of Iraqi, Afghan and Pakistani children (the tiniest dots you see), women, and men who have died in these wars. Together, these panels represent 335,768 faces.

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According to the ‘Costs of War’ project based at Brown University’s Watson Institute for International and Public Affairs, at least 370,000 people have been killed by violence in Afghanistan, Iraq and Pakistan. This does not include the many hundreds of thousands more who have died as a result of the destruction of hospitals and infrastructure, and because of environmental contamination.

More than 6,800 American service members have died in Iraq and Afghanistan. Below is an example of the remaining thirty-nine panels that together represent 4,680 painted portraits of U.S. soldiers killed in action. Each 12 x 12 inch panel has 120 faces. This does not include the approximately 7,000 private contractors who have died, nor does it include the roughly 43,000 allied troops and police who have died.

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Scattered among the images of fallen American soldiers are camouflage squares that increase in number toward the center of the work, representing suicides by US military personnel. Since 2001, the suicide rate among Veterans has increased by nearly a third, with an average of 20 veteran suicides a day in 2014.

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One panel in the center of the work shows all – portraits of fallen soldiers, suicides, Iraqi, Afghan and Pakistani deaths, merging as one.

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Had deaths of the fallen soldiers been represented in the same manner as those of the Iraqi, Afghan and Pakistani victims depicted here, the entire collection of American faces, including suicides, would occupy approximately a little more than half of a single 12 x 12 inch panel.

On the other hand, if the faces of the people of Iraq, Afghanistan and Pakistan who have died could have been painted, as I was able to do for the Americans, and if that had been done at the same pace at which I worked on this project, that work might have occupied the entire careers of seven artists.

However we attempt to represent them, the 370,000 people killed by violence in Iraq and Afghanistan are at least 125 times as many as died in the 9/11 attacks, the events that were used as a rationale for the invasions of Iraq and Afghanistan.

Please go here to track the history of Unfinished Portrait, and here for an article on the evolution of this project.

Below is a slideshow of the seventy-eight panels. Please go here for a GigaPan view of the installation.

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Approximately 370,000 people have been killed by direct war violence in Iraq, Afghanistan, and Pakistan. The number of people who have been wounded or have fallen ill as a result of the conflicts is far higher.  

Many [U.S. service members] died later on from injuries and illnesses sustained in the war zones. Hundreds of thousands of soldiers and contractors have been wounded and are living with disabilities and war-related illnesses.

Millions of people living in the war zones have also been displaced by war. To date, 7.6 million Afghans, Pakistanis, and Iraqis are living as war refugees in other countries or are displaced from their homes.

The US invasion of Iraq has turned the country into a laboratory in which militant groups such as Islamic State have been able to hone their techniques of recruitment and violence. The formation of jihadi groups now spreading throughout the region counts among the many human costs of that war.

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Asymmetric Peace Post 9/11

See also at: Countercurrents, EYEZINE

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I got involved in the whole drones process because I was representing people in Guantanamo Bay. And when President Obama came into office he says we’re going to close Guantanamo Bay and fairly quickly it dawned on me that yeah he didn’t like Guantanamo, so they were just going out and killing the people instead of locking them up. And when I met Shahzad [he] showed me the pictures of the dead children, then you think wow we better do something about this.—Human Rights lawyer Clive Stafford Smith, Reprieve. Taken from the documentary film ‘Drone’.

One cloudy evening in April this year, a local cinema in Salina, Kansas screened the film ‘Eye in the Sky,’ a tale of the moral dilemmas facing those involved in drone warfare. The film was followed by an audience discussion. Many there expressed a feeling of having been at the edge of their seats while watching the gripping drama unfold.

Others, however, felt the movie presented just another distracting, hand-holding scenario in which a big, moral/ethical question was sensationally shrink-wrapped to fit our entertainment-hungry imagination. In this case, the scenario involved the covert assassination program that is being carried out by this country in places like Pakistan, Somalia, Yemen, Afghanistan, Iraq, Libya.

The movie was a one-hour, forty-three-minute advertisement for the U.S. military-industrial complex, with a spoonful of ethical dilemma slipped in as a digestive. Hollywood—the most dangerous illusionist of all—had once again jumped into the laps of our government and Intelligence agencies, fictionalizing and attractively packaging real issues that have real consequences for real people.

In this thriller, the dilemma was framed as a choice between the almost certain drone killing of one sweet Kenyan girl selling bread and the (wholly theoretical) deaths of eighty other innocents later that day at the hands of terrorists.

We were considering these points in our film discussion that April evening, when things turned quickly from tragedy to comedy. An audience member was interrupted mid-question by the shriek of tornado sirens and mobile-phone alarms. (This is the “Land of Oz,” remember?) Since there was no basement in the building, the host of the venue directed all of us into our gender-specific bathrooms to take cover.

And that’s when everything fell into geographical perspective for me.

Thanks to our carbon footprint and military might, one can see in both types of disasters we dealt with that evening—tornados and drones—the human hand. Here in Kansas, we can take cover from our sky-borne disasters; folks in Pakistan, Somalia and Yemen are not so lucky.

That evening, we didn’t have to run from Hellfire missiles launched from Predator drones, piloted via satellite from some far-off country we’re not officially at war with. No, that’s what we do to other people, and if you’re a target—whether your business is terrorism or taxi-driving or bread-selling—you’re pretty much screwed.

Here in Kansas, we have the luxury of joking, not only about death from the heavens but about segregation of the sexes as well. In the men’s room, as the sirens wailed that evening, my husband Stan was telling his buddies, “Hey, no offense, I love you guys but if this is the end, I’d a lot rather be with Priti than with you fellas.” In the ladies room, of course, I was thinking the same.

So while we indiscriminately kill people in places like Waziristan, we discriminate against people in our own “land of the free.” If I were a transgender student in a similar situation in a school or university in Kansas, I’d be pretty much screwed too, like the kid playing cricket in Waziristan as unseen eyes hover in the blue sky above.

At the end of March this year, the University of Nevada Las Vegas School of Law held a symposium ‘Inside Drone Warfare,’ that included former drone operators’ accounts of working in the program, stressing the need for transparency and accountability. Among other details, they emphasized the affects of military force on children.

How many civilians have been killed by drones? Many of us have posed this question to Mirza Shahzad Akbar, a legal fellow and founder of the Foundation for Fundamental Rights. And he has a simple answer: “Everyone killed is a civilian. Because where is the evidence that these people are militants?”

Is it actually possible to count the bodies of drone victims? And what do these missiles do exactly? Holding up a severed arm, Journalist Noor Behram tells us that “when a drone attack happens the media claim to know how many terrorists were killed. Actually you only find body parts on the scene. So people can’t tell how many have died.”

You don’t need Nostradamus to tell you that under these circumstances, the more innocent civilians we kill, the more civilians we inspire to avenge those deaths. By our own example we should know that. As we approach the 15th anniversary of 9/11, look at how many innocents this country has killed, ostensibly to avenge that day.

I asked Medea Benjamin, author of the book Drone Warfare: Killing by Remote Control and cofounder of CODEPINK, if she could tell us an unknown truth about drone victims. Here’s what she said:

To the drone victim, it doesn’t matter if the person authorizing the Hellfire missile is a draft-dodging president who stole the election and dismissed evolution and global warming as theories, or a charismatic, Nobel Peace Prize-winning president with a lovely family who sings a killer version of Amazing Grace. Bush, Obama or even Hillary Clinton, drone victims will still be incinerated with impunity.

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So what can we expect if Bill Clinton ends up First Man in the White House? Wikileaks founder Julian Assange expects this:

You have a connection between Google, the Clinton campaign and the Pentagon. And this triangle is extremely worrying. Google [has] bought more than 10 drone companies. It’s integrating its mapping data in order to better be able to fly and navigate drones around the world. They believe they can create a massive artificial intelligence, more powerful than any human being or any society’s ability to think. And, of course, we all know what happens when such power is in limited hands. You can just completely forget about any kind of antitrust legislation being used on Google if there is a Hillary Clinton White House.

We’ve all had a good laugh at former Secretary of Defense and Poetry Donald Rumsfeld’s “Unknown Unknowns” soliloquy. Here’s an eloquent comment by (then) 13-yr-old Zubair ur Rehman, a drone survivor from Waziristan, that will make you weep.

I no longer love blue skies. In fact, I now prefer grey skies. The drones do not fly when the skies are grey, and for a short period of time the mental tension and fear eases. But as soon as the sky turns blue, the drones return and so does the fear. I wish that [Americans] could understand how afraid the children in my community are of drones. We used to play outside — cricket, football, volleyball, kabaddi. But now we sit in our houses, fear-struck.

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According to the 2013 WIN/Gallup International’s annual global End of Year survey that was conducted across 68 countries, the U.S. was considered to be the greatest threat to world peace.

As long as we, the U.S. public, stay silent and limit our shock and anger to robotic actions like, for example, retweeting famous and unforgettable images like that of the washed up three-year-old body of Syrian refugee on the shores of Turkey, or the not-so-famous poetic commentary of Zubair on the skies of Waziristan, nothing’s going to change. Boys and girls all over the world will continue to be displaced, maimed, orphaned, die, radicalized. As a last word, here’s a message for all of us:

There was a description by a former high Jordanian official who’s now director of Middle East research for the Carnegie Endowment, Marwan Muasher. He said, “This is the principle. There is nothing wrong. Everything is under control.” Meaning, as long as the population is quiet, acquiescent — maybe fuming with rage, but doing nothing about it — everything’s fine, there’s nothing wrong, it’s all under control.— Noam Chomsky, February 2, 2011.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAAsymmetric Peace, 33 x 27 inches, 2016. Old fashioned cross-stitch embroidery includes color-coordinated web links.

Please look here for an excellent review of ‘Eye in the Sky’ by fellow CODEPINKer Janet Weil and police brutality activist Scott Wagner.