Howard Jacobson: I hate the camera. It may record a moment, but it cannot tell the truth of an evolving story

So what can we expect of a photograph? The confirmation of a political belief, that’s all

Published: 18 February 2006

So what do we know of these squaddies we have seen kicking Iraqi men? Or Iraqi “boys” as they are described in newspapers from Syria to Pakistan, mere barefoot urchins in whose mouths butter wouldn’t melt, and in whose baby fingers no stone, let alone explosive device, could possibly fit. You can’t blame the press of hostile countries for making the most of the propaganda opportunity we have handed them, but we in whose name these soldiers act, for whose safety while we sleep (take that as ironically as you like) they do what they are paid to do - what do we know about them?

I don’t mean what do we know of their regiments, the orders they receive, the homes they come from, or even the military before and after of the photographs and videos which record their wrongdoing. I mean what do we know of them in the Homeric or Shakespearean sense, what terrors they experience, what rage swells within them, what confusion of the heart and mind overwhelms them in the course of battle.

“He was so terrified that he absolutely could not recollect whether they advanced far, or whither, or who did what,” writes Tolstoy of one soldier’s experience of a bayonet charge at Sebastopol. “He walked like a drunken man. But all at once millions of fires flashed from all sides, there was a whistling and a crashing. He shrieked and ran, because they were all shrieking and running ... Then ... then he ran the bayonet into something soft ... The cold sweat started out all over his body. He shook as though in a fever, and flung away the gun. But this lasted only a moment; it immediately occurred to him that he was a hero. He seized the gun again, and, shouting ‘Hurrah!’ with the crowd, he rushed away from the dead Frenchman.”

Now take a photograph of this Russian soldier holding up his bayonet, believing himself to be a hero, and shouting “Hurrah”, and post it around the world. From the flux and agitations of bewildering emotion and terrifying event seize a single moment of what looks like - all right, what in that second is - the most brutal triumphalism, and freeze it as a truth, the one and only truth, for all eyes and for all time. And now tell me what in the way of understanding war or the nature of man, let alone what in the way of furthering international relations, you think you have achieved. You might as soon snap Hector with his foot on the stricken body of Patroclus and claim you have epitomised all the Iliad has to say of heroism.

I hate the camera. It lies. Not in the sense of showing what did not happen - I do not doubt, in the instance of the British soldiers kicking Iraqi civilians, that what we see, whatever it is we see, took place - but because it is ahistorical, because it is not in its nature to render what it is like to be on the inside of an evolving deed. David Hockney flirted with the camera briefly, making panoramic photo-collages in the hope of coming at something like complexity, then gave it up and went back to painting. Cinematographers leave cameras running in order to render the rich, contradictory sequentiality of things, but succeed only in creating tedium. Even language, which is closer to feeling than any other medium we possess, falls short most of the time, merely gestures at what a motivation or an action is. So what can we expect of a photograph? The confirmation of a political belief, that’s all. The proof that we are right in what we always thought. An image, still or moving - but still even when it’s moving - of our rectitude.

I am not going to insult readers by saying I do not condone or excuse - for the little my not condoning or excusing is worth - the actions of British soldiers. I am, I think, as averse to violence as the next person. The one time I saw a grown man kicking another grown man in the street - and here was equal conflict - I ran into my mother’s arms and cried. But then I knew not to volunteer for war. Different natures for different tasks. As Orwell noted in his assessment of Kipling’s coarse affection for Anglo-Indians, a more refined culture of the E M Forster sort would not have maintained itself in power for a week. So much the better you might say, but that again is a political statement, and politics would rather judge those who make history than comprehend them.

But if we lack imagination in our rush to make these photographs mean what we want them to mean, we also lack prudence. I am going to say something some readers may not like. I am going to say it was a wicked thing, at this hour, with feelings running as they have been these last weeks, to publish them. What, shoot the messenger and ignore the message? No, not ignore the message, though it is my argument that we lack the tools for grasping what the message is, but shoot the messenger, yes. Never mind whether or not what he says is true, shoot him for saying it. Shoot him for making mischief. Shoot him for endangering lives. Shoot him for his sanctimonious parade of virtue.

If it were considered advisable to keep our traps shut over the cartoons affair, to let others publish if they must, but we would live by a grander conception of a free society - one that took account of the feelings of all parties, and the likely outcome of anybody’s pain or rage - then why isn’t it considered advisable to keep our traps shut now? If publish and be damned is not after all the principle we live by, if a measured assessment of risk and fallout does not injure freedom fatally, then why aren’t we measuring such risks this time? If we could temporarily close our open society for the greater good yesterday, why can we not close it again today?

Could we have thought the other side would thank us for our transparency? Such gentlemen, these English, how scrupulously they examine their consciences before the world!

More violence will now be visited on us, leading us to visit more on them. So what cause is served? Truth? There’s a joke. We are post-truth. Self-contempt is what grabs us now. Whatever shows how vile we are. But here is a truth: we are no longer fit to fight a war. Which, by Tolstoyan paradox, will only make us the more brutal.