Jim MacMillan, a photojournalist for The Associated Press who spent a year in Iraq, sits next to me in my war and literature class. He is here as a Knight-Wallace Fellow, a mid-career fellowship that allows established journalists to live off of a stipend and take a year of classes at the University. Given that he was part of the AP team that took home the Pulitzer Prize for best Breaking News Photography in 2005, his fellowship is obviously well-deserved.
Last week, MacMillan showed our class a small selection of his photos from Iraq. In a darkened room on the fourth floor of Angell Hall, he took us through the war-torn streets, introduced us to bloodied, grieving families and put faces to the American soldier body count.
When the lights came back on, our class was visibly shaken. Those pictures didn’t belong in Angell Hall, amidst my Hemingway novels and colored-coded notebooks. They belonged on the front page of The New York Times, taken by some unknown photographer. It upped the stakes to know that the man sitting next to me actually saw these people and took these photos.
As I left the room, I began to feel a strange sense of guilt. I had watched the astronaut attempted murder story unfold on CNN all weekend, but flipped channels during the Iraq war updates. What would MacMillan think of my watching E! last night, trying to figure out how exactly Anna Nicole Smith had died?
I asked MacMillan to have coffee with me the following week at Espresso Royale, a perfect atmosphere for a conversation about academia’s isolation from the war. While students studied diligently and engaged in excessively cerebral conversation around us, MacMillan showed me additional photos from his embedment. We talked about campus’s detachment from the war – how students seem tired of talking about Iraq, tired of watching the news and tired of reading the paper. If this trend was irksome to me, I assumed it would infuriate MacMillan.
But I was missing the point. The academic bubble plays a role, of course, but MacMillan was more concerned with why the Iraq media coverage is not reaching the American public – why even the most poignant photographs continue to come and go without really stirring the American conscience. “I used to think, this photograph will be the one that ends the Iraq War,” he said. But the equivalent to the Napalm Girl photograph from Vietnam has yet to surface. Or maybe it has – and we are all too compassion fatigued to really look.
Compassion fatigue. Apparently someone has invented a phrase for what I and so many other Americans are experiencing. To my understanding, the symptoms are as follows: Quickly skimming newspaper articles about Iraq while you stand in line at Starbucks, not feeling anything in particular when you hear about another deadly car bomb or suicide bomber, becoming emotionally immune to the staggering body counts and, of course, failing to really see the photographs MacMillan and his colleagues are sending home from Baghdad. The symptoms of compassion fatigue are everywhere on this campus, but the cure is definitely harder to come by.
MacMillan went easy on us. He said we don’t have to sit down and read a dozen articles on Iraq each morning or watch hours of gruesome war footage on CNN every night. In fact, that strategy could worsen our collective condition. The best way to keep up on Iraq, MacMillan says, is to go to news.yahoo.com for a few minutes everyday and search the words “AP Baghdad.” Read the first story that comes up in its entirety, internalize the body count and try to understand the reasons people are being killed everyday. “The consistency of this war is being lost,” MacMillan says. “You can’t just think about Iraq when it gets an extra splash on CNN.”
And all the information is at our fingertips – more so than in any other war. It’s all out there for the taking, everything from soldiers’ personal blogs to the graphic photos newspapers won’t print. All the tools we need to really taste this war are available to us at the click of a mouse.
“I’m not telling anyone how to feel,” MacMillan says, “I’m just telling them to feel responsible.” For me, responsibility means dropping my classic cover-up line, “Hey, I voted for Kerry,” and the like. Maybe it was this detachment that allowed me to flip channels during the CNN Iraq updates. After speaking with MacMillan, it became clear how convenient it is to view Iraq as the Bush administration’s mistake as opposed to America’s war. Taking responsibility, whatever that may mean for each person, is the best remedy for compassion fatigue. At least that’s what MacMillan said – and I think I’m going to take him at his word.
Whitney Dibo is an associate editorial page editor. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.