Just Above Sunset
November 28, 2004 - American Exceptionalism and the New Marlboro Man

Home | Question Time | Something Is Up | Connecting Dots | Stay Away | Overload | Our Man in Paris | WLJ Weekly | Book Wrangler | Cobras | The Edge of the Pacific | The Surreal Beach | On Location | Botanicals | Quotes

Wednesday, November 24, the Los Angeles Times published what may be the iconic photograph of the current war.  It was sort by shot by Luis Sinco, a Times photographer embedded with Charlie Company, 1st Battalion, 8th Marine Regiment.  They were in Fallujah.  The photo is a full frame close-up of Marine Lance Corporal James Blake Miller, 20, of Kentucky, dog-tired, smoking a cigarette.


More than a hundred newspapers reprinted the Sinco photo – and Rupert Murdoch’s New York Post gave it the front page with the headline: "Marlboro Men Kick Butt in Fallujah.''

Click here for separate image...







Of course my local Los Angeles Times and all the others who published it were flooded with email wanting to know all about this mysterious fellow.  And it seems a good number of women wanted to know how to contact him.  Such is fame.  One letter had this: "The photo captures his weariness, yet his eyes hold the spirit of the hunter and the hunted.  His gaze is warm but deadly.  I want to send a letter.''


What’s this about?


Patrick McDonnell of the Los Angeles Times speculates

In the full-frame photo, taken after more than 12 hours of nearly non-stop deadly combat, Miller's camouflage war paint is smudged. He sports a bloody nick on his nose. His helmet and chin strap frame a weary expression that seems to convey the timeless fatigue of battle. And there is the cigarette, of course, drooping from the right side of his mouth in a jaunty manner that Humphrey Bogart or John Wayne would have approved of. Wispy smoke drifts off to his left.

The image has quickly moved into the realm of the iconic.

… Maybe it's about America striking back at a perceived enemy, or maybe it's just the sense of one young man putting his life on the line halfway across the globe.

Maybe.  Humphrey Bogart?  John Wayne?  Maybe this is just folks trying to make sense of this all and latching onto icons from the past.


The Times item, from McDonnell, opens with this -

"If you want to write something,'' he tells an intruding reporter, "tell Marlboro I'm down to four packs, and I'm here in Fallujah till who knows when. Maybe they can send some. And they can bring down the price a bit.''


Those are the unfettered sentiments of Marine Lance Cpl. James Blake Miller, 20, a country boy from Kentucky who has been thrust unwittingly and somewhat unwillingly into the role of poster boy for a war on the other side of the world from his home on the farm.


"I just don't understand what all the fuss is about,'' Miller drawls on Friday as he crouches — Marlboro firmly in place — inside an abandoned building with his platoon mates, preparing to fight insurgents holed up in yet another mosque.

"I was just smokin' a cigarette, and someone takes my picture and it all blows up.''


McDonnell goes on to explain the military is thrilled, and tells us Miller has no plans to hire an agent.  Yeah, but he could.


Many have written about all this, but the most curious is from Naomi Klein, whose piece in The Nation is given in a shorter form here -

Smoking while Iraq burns

Naomi Klein. The Guardian (UK), Friday November 26, 2004


Klein argues there is something bigger going on here – that the reaction to the photo implies much more.


She quotes Dan Rather on CBS News - "For me, this one's personal. This is a warrior with his eyes on the far horizon, scanning for danger. See it. Study it. Absorb it. Think about it. Then take a deep breath of pride. And if your eyes don't dampen, you're a better man or woman than I."


Geez.  Get a grip, Dan.


And is the photo iconic?


In truth, the image just feels iconic because it is so laughably derivative: it's a straight-up rip-off of the most powerful icon in American advertising (the Marlboro man), which in turn imitated the brightest star ever created by Hollywood - John Wayne - who was himself channeling America's most powerful founding myth, the cowboy on the rugged frontier. It's like a song you feel you've heard a thousand times before - because you have.


But the ironic thing about the photo is the other set of negative reactions –


“Lots of children, particularly boys, play army, and like to imitate this young man. The clear message of the photo is that the way to relax after a battle is with a cigarette," wrote Daniel Maloney in a scolding letter to the Houston Chronicle. Linda Ortman made the same point to the editors of the Dallas Morning News: "Are there no photos of non-smoking soldiers?"  A reader of the New York Post helpfully suggested more politically correct propaganda imagery: "Maybe showing a marine in a tank, helping another GI or drinking water would have a more positive impact on your readers."


Yes, that's right: letter writers from across the nation are united in their outrage - not that the steely-eyed, smoking soldier makes mass killing look cool, but that the laudable act of mass killing makes the grave crime of smoking look cool.  Better to protect impressionable youngsters by showing soldiers taking a break from deadly combat by drinking water or, perhaps, since there is a severe potable water shortage in Iraq, Coke. (It reminds me of the joke about the Hassidic rabbi who says all sexual positions are acceptable except for one: standing up "because that could lead to dancing".)


Yep, folks are arguing about the evils of smoking here.  That we might be making a bigger mess in Iraq each day with each assault - and that there might be no alternative to such assaults – never occurs in the discussion.  We’re just doing what we have to do.  And who is going to stop us?


The issue finally comes down to how we fell about what we do – and how we feel about an image like this - the tired man who kills in our name.


Here’s Klein’s perspective -


Impunity - the perception of being outside the law - has long been the hallmark of the Bush regime. What is alarming is that it appears to have deepened since the election, ushering in what can only be described as an orgy of impunity. In Iraq, US forces and their Iraqi surrogates are no longer bothering to conceal attacks on civilian targets and are openly eliminating anyone - doctors, clerics, journalists - who dares to count the bodies. At home, impunity has been made official policy with Bush's appointment of Alberto Gonzales as attorney general, the man who personally advised the president in his infamous "torture memo" that the Geneva conventions are "obsolete".


This kind of defiance cannot simply be explained by Bush's win. There has to be something in how he won, in how the election was fought, that gave this administration the distinct impression that it had been handed a get-out-of-the-Geneva-conventions free card. That's because the administration was handed precisely such a gift - by John Kerry.


In the name of electability, the Kerry team gave Bush five months on the campaign trail without ever facing serious questions about violations of international law. Fearing that he would be seen as soft on terror and disloyal to US troops, Kerry stayed scandalously silent about Abu Ghraib and Guantánamo Bay. When it became painfully clear that fury would rain down on Fallujah as soon as the polls closed, Kerry never spoke out against the plan, or against the other illegal bombings of civilian areas that took place throughout the campaign. When the Lancet published its landmark study estimating that 100,000 Iraqis had died as result of the invasion and occupation, Kerry just repeated his outrageous (and frankly racist) claim that Americans "are 90% of the casualties in Iraq".


There was a message sent by all of this silence, and the message was that these deaths don't count. By buying the highly questionable logic that Americans are incapable of caring about anyone's lives but their own, the Kerry campaign and its supporters became complicit in the dehumanization of Iraqis, reinforcing the idea that some lives are expendable, insufficiently important to risk losing votes over. And it is this morally bankrupt logic, more than the election of any single candidate, that allows these crimes to continue unchecked.


The real-world result of all the "strategic" thinking is the worst of both worlds: it didn't get Kerry elected and it sent a clear message to the people who were elected that they will pay no political price for committing war crimes. And this is Kerry's true gift to Bush: not just the presidency, but impunity. You can see it perhaps best of all in the Marlboro man in Fallujah, and the surreal debates that swirl around him. Genuine impunity breeds a kind of delusional decadence, and this is its face: a nation bickering about smoking while Iraq burns.


The last emphases were mine.  This is concentration on the trivial – the smoking – and trading on the comfortably conventional – the cowboy hero myth – when the real issue is what we have become.


Smoking is the least of our worries.




Copyright © 2003, 2004, 2005, 2006 - Alan M. Pavlik
The inclusion of any text from others is quotation
for the purpose of illustration and commentary,
as permitted by the fair use doctrine of U.S. copyright law. 
See the Details page for the relevant citation.

This issue updated and published on...

Paris readers add nine hours....