PRINT April 1990


Images from the Panamanian Invasion

GEORGE BUSH SEEMS TO have garnered a public relations coup, at least in the United States, for his Christmas holiday bombing and invasion of Panama, and subsequent abduction of General Manuel Antonio Noriega. There’s nothing the majority of Americans seems to like better than to subdue some little nation inhabited by people of color and bring it to its knees in the name of democracy. Scarcely veiled jubilation fairly bubbled from the network news broadcasts on Panama, and Republican National Committee chairman Lee Atwater declared the invasion a political “jackpot” for Bush and his party. What a great way to begin a fabulous new decade and to round out the last tenth of Henry Luce’s “American Century.”

Of course, it wasn’t completely smooth going, especially for the news media, which was locked out of the invasion. Despite the formation of the National Media Pool by the Pentagon, which was instituted after the news media protested its exclusion from the 1983 invasion of Grenada, no pool representatives—reporters, TV camera crews, or photographers—actually saw the invasion. Members of the pool weren’t notified of the operation until 4 hours before it took place and didn’t arrive in Panama until 51/2 hours after the shooting started. Then they were held in a room at Fort Clayton for several hours more and subjected, according to Time, to a “tedious, history-laden briefing.” By the time they were escorted around Panama City by the military, the party, as they say, was over.

Yet even though the media was tightly reined in, invasion-related pictures managed to generate anger and controversy both within and outside the Bush administration. On Thursday December 21, for instance, the first four bodies of American soldiers killed in the December 19 action arrived at the United States Air Force Base in Dover, Delaware. Coincidentally, the flag-draped coffins were off-loaded from the belly of an airplane at the same time that President Bush was holding a press conference. CBS, ABC, and CNN decided to report both stories at once by using a split screen—Bush talking on one side, the caskets silently being unloaded on the other.

Unfortunately for Bush, he picked this occasion to indulge his goofy frat-party personality, making what he himself characterized as “frivolous comments.” Viewers protested this as a way to make Bush look bad, Bush dressed down the media at a later news conference, columnists wrote editorial comments on the matter. No one, however, reported just what the frivolous comments had been for the enlightenment of those Americans who had missed the embarrassing juxtaposition. Did Bush make invasion jokes? Wisecracks about early death? Witticisms about large-scale destruction? No matter really. The problem, according to Bush, was that the networks used this split-screen technique without warning him in advance. Mr. President, they might have said to him, try to tailor your remarks so they are appropriate to a grim but nobly patriotic situation. Remember, people die on these military excursions, they are dying still, and you are president of the United States.

Bush wasn’t the only one who was worried about the power of pictures. When Noriega decided to turn himself in to U.S.officials, part of the deal he struck was no press coverage, especially, according to TV newscasters, no TV cameras. But Noriega forgot that in this day and age anyone with a camera can photograph the “news.” Video footage of Noriega in the custody of Drug Enforcement Administration agents and American soldiers was taken by a member of a U.S. government agency and shown on the nightly news. A United States Air Force staff sergeant took still photos of a downcast Noriega aboard a C-130 transport plane, which Newsweek bought to open its story on “Noriega’s Surrender.” Most damaging of all was the mug shot of Noriega, Federal Prisoner No. 41586, taken by the Miami police department and syndicated all around the globe by the Associated Press after it was released by the federal government. What greater testimony could there be to the government’s essential interest in images as instruments of social control? Noriega discovered, as others have before him, that avoiding the camera’s prying eye is simply not an option when the symbolic stakes are high.

The news media, however, used pictures not only to ridicule but to pay homage to the Panamanian adventure. In its issue of January 8, 1990, the New York Times did a whole page on the U.S. military casualties, running photographs—mainly head shots—of 19 of the 23 soldiers killed in Panama over a story entitled “Deaths of 23 Americans in Panama: Their Dreams Cut Short.” In a front-page blurb that advertised the piece, the Times asked: “Last month, 23 American servicemen died in combat in Panama. Who were they?” The pictures are of young soldiers, some in uniform and some in civilian dress, who were between the ages of 18 and 32 at the time of the invasion. Scanning their faces we try to decipher who they were—does the set of that one’s mouth belie an unhealthy belligerence? Does the smile of another show innocence or virtue? In addition to the pictures, we got details about the young men’s former jobs at places like Taco Bell, the war games they played as children, and how the military was a haven from a broken and often violent home. The mother of one soldier received a “premonitory” letter from him a few days after he died. “Tell everybody in the family and my friends,” he wrote, “that my death was for a good cause.” Whatever we decide about the character of these mainly working-class men, the Times piece bestows on them the tribute of recognizing them as individuals, which the middle class otherwise arrogates to itself.

But one thing we didn’t see too much of were photos of Panamanian civilian casualties, those statistics classified by the U.S. military as “collateral damage,” which also includes property damaged in a combat situation. U.S. officials were quoted in little throwaway sentences buried at the bottom of stories on the invasion saying that the civilian death toll was about 250. In the January 8 issue of Time, the number was put at 600. But the January 10 New York Times repeated official U.S. embassy assertions that “the death toll appeared to be hovering around 300,” a figure that a senior American diplomat said would probably rise “by a few here and a few there” as additional bodies were recovered and identified.

Photographers who covered the invasion and its aftermath (who were not part of the unlucky pool) report that civilian casualties were much higher—1,500 to 2,000 or more. Bodies of Panamanians were buried in mass graves if they were not identified within 24 hours of being brought in, thus nullifying any accurate count of the dead. That the American military had something to hide seems clear; when photographers located a mass grave and attempted to photograph U.S. soldiers burying Panamanian dead (or, in one case, digging up a mass grave to find Americans who had mistakenly been buried there), they were prevented from doing so by angry soldiers who chased them away.

So the American casualties got a slightly better deal—if people who are sent off to get killed as part of a cynical political maneuver can be said to get any such thing—than the Panamanian dead, who disappeared into phony government statistics, barbaric burial pits, and regretful journalistic prose. In a New Year’s Eve piece, the New York Times laid out the “Flaws in Panama Attack.” According to Bernard E. Trainor, a former officer in the American military, one flaw was this: “The main part of the Panama attack was a virtual replay of a World War II battle, with paratroopers dropping from the sky and tanks blasting through a city to overwhelm the opposition. By most accounts, the American military command underestimated the opposition they faced, and heavy casualties to a mainly friendly civilian population was [sic] a result.”

There you have it. While the young soldiers were living in the fantasy of war-game thrills, the generals were reliving the glory of the last Good War. All of them were prepped by news publications, television shows, and war movies to expect adventure, triumph, and a heroic demise. The casualties that resulted, whether of enemy or friend, were a small price to pay—for the government, the news media, and the entertainment industry—to keep alive those glamorous, politically opportune, and very bankable illusions.

Carol Squiers is a writer and curator, and senior editor at American Photo. Her column appears regularly in Artforum.