You should have seen the look on her face

The last king of England to lead an army on the battlefield was George II, at the Battle of Dettingen in Bavaria in 1743 during the War of the Austrian Succession.

The last President of the United States to serve in wartime was George Bush Sr., a Naval pilot during World War II. He flew many missions and was in fact awarded the Distinguished Flying Cross “for heroism and extraordinary achievement… in action against enemy Japanese forces in the vicinity of the Bonin Islands, on September 2, 1944”.

Bush was not directly involved in combat while he was President, although he was Commander-in-Chief during the Gulf War in 1990 that removed Saddam Hussein’s Iraqi forces from Kuwait. The modernisation of warfare has tended to distance national leaders from the battlefield. But communications technology has now taken us full circle. I wonder what impact it will have on the exercise of power?

On Sunday night, 1st  May 2011, President Barack Obama and his closest advisers sat and watched as video cameras mounted on the helmets of the US Navy SEALs relayed a live feed of their attack on Osama Bin Laden’s compound in Abbottabad, Pakistan. Obama had ordered the attack with the express intention, it turns out, of killing Bin Laden. We are given to understand that he and his team witnessed the killing, one shot to the head and one to the chest.

The photograph released by the White House shows the President sitting grim-faced, his eyes fixed on the video screens. My guess is it will become one of the most iconic photographs of the year.

President and advisers watch the killing of Osama Bin Laden

Grim viewing

What stuck me most about the picture was not the President’s sombre posture but the look on Hilary Clinton’s face — the hand clasped over her mouth, the eyes wide. She can’t quite take in what she is seeing.

Clinton watches Bin Laden killing

Secretary Clinton

Is it an expression of horror? Or of moral doubt? Possibly. It reminded me (and many others I’m sure) of an uncannily similar scene in the film Patriot Games in which Jack Ryan, the CIA analyst played by Harrison Ford, watches with misgiving as US commandos attack and kill terrorists in North Africa on the basis of evidence that he has unearthed but is not completely sure is correct.

I am not about to rehearse the arguments for or against the legality or justice of Sunday’s killing, since I don’t have the training and it has already been done elsewhere (for example by Geoffrey Robertson and David Allen Green). No-one seriously doubts that Bin Laden was involved in the attacks on New York and Washington on 11 September 2001. But what has been the cost of America’s abandonment of the highest standards of justice? Its adherence to truth and justice were diminished with each water-boarded inmate at Camp X-ray.

Arguably the situations are not the same but the resonance with Patriot Games reminded me of the shoot-to-kill policy alleged to have been deployed by the police in Northern Ireland against IRA terrorists in the early 1980s. True or not, suspicion aroused by the clumsy handling of the investigation of police shootings of IRA men and the subsequent Stalker Inquiry eroded the moral authority of the state. In the case of the killing of Bin Laden there has been no evasion by the US authorities. It has been justified as an act of war. But the execution still leaves me uncomfortable.

And from her face, it seems that Secretary Clinton may also have been unsettled. In public statements of course she has justified the decision of the administration. But her ‘presence’ — by video link — in the bedroom where the leader of Al-Qaida was shot in the head and chest may have created a moment where the real, human consequences of enormous political decisions are played out and become visible.

Does that re-scaling of the experience give us a stronger sense of reality? We should not forget the victims killed as the Twin Towers collapsed — nearly 3000 of them. The sheer number is at once horrifying and deadening. Who can imagine that many people dying at the same time? The numbers numb the imagination in those who were not there or have no connection with the victims. We saw the buildings falling but somehow it was not as awful as witnessing individuals jump from their offices to escape the fire.

The weight of numbers flattens our imagination, our empathy — a variable human capacity that has been discussed recently by Simon Baron Cohen and Jeremy Rivkin and may be the key to breaking out of the cycle of violence.

Perhaps it should be obligatory for political leaders to watch their armed forces in action.





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23 Responses to You should have seen the look on her face

  1. KristiV says:

    She can’t quite take in what she is seeing.

    From other reports associated with this photo, it seems that there were minutes during which nothing could be seen, or during which the mission appeared not to be going as planned. Perhaps Secretary Clinton was worried about the safety of the Navy SEALs. The deaths and injuries of the members of the armed forces who carry out orders must weigh heavily on the minds of those in power; I live in a military city with a large Army medical center, and can’t help but be reminded of that toll every day. We should have withdrawn from Iraq and Afghanistan long ago.

    Or perhaps she was horrified that Bin Laden and/or associates used one of his wives as a human shield.

  2. Stephen says:

    True enough Kristi. The onlookers had no idea whether they were about to witness the death of their own troops. Either way it must have been an intense experience of the human cost of warfare.

  3. cromercrox says:

    I also have very mixed feelings about this. Nobody doubts the culpability of Osama Bin Liner, but would it have been morally more justifiable or even better in practical terms to have captured him alive and put him on trial? There are arguments for and against, and I am undecided.

    • Stephen says:

      Robertson’s piece (which I linked to in the post) was quite powerful on the arguments for arrest and trial, rather than execution.

  4. KristiV says:

    Of course I can’t gauge the reactions to this outside the US, but I note, with bleak irony, the tight-lipped sensibilities in the American media regarding the gory details of the Bin Laden assassination and compare this with the apparent lack of such sensibilities following the attempted assassination of Congresswoman Giffords. She a) was not guilty of any crime, b) was shot by a paranoid lunatic, who killed other innocent people in the attempt, c) has family members in the US, and d) is enduring months of surgery and rehab. Yet the media had no hesitations about reporting diagrams of the path of the bullet through her skull and brain, medical details, speculations about recovery probabilities, etc. I’ve no desire to see or read about any gory details, and I understand that there are broader security concerns in this case, but the twitchy pearl-clutching is … ironic. It’s not just the Giffords case that receives the full meal deal in the US when it comes to gory details – the same is true for many gruesome murders in the US (particularly if the victim is female) and for assassinations or drug killings in Mexican border states. Where are the sensibilities in those cases?

  5. Stephen says:

    Is it the media holding back or is it the administration? Yesterday I came across photos taken the compound in the immediate aftermath of the attack (posted on the Guardian website) which show the dead bodies of the three men who were also killed (warning: unpleasant viewing). But there is no picture of Bin Laden, presumably for political reasons, but also perhaps because he was shot in the head and his injuries were more gruesome.

    • KristiV says:

      The Obama administration made the political decision not to release the photos, but the pearl-clutching comes from the media and the American public – and neither group, as I mentioned, has similar concerns when the victim of violence is a woman or a Mexican national, for example. Gruesomeness is no deterrent to publishing in those cases, and nobody seems to respect the emotions of the families. I need to turn off the damn radio at home and in my car, becauses this stuff just pisses me off.

  6. Steve Caplan says:

    Without bringing up the larger argument, let’s say that in an ideal world capture and trial would have been best. As this is far from an ideal world, and knowing exactly what ramifications there would have been for the capture of such a target, I find the circumstances extenuating enough to fully justify the course of action.

    Having served myself in the military, though, I am in complete agreement with your comment that people in power are better equipped to take life-death decisions regarding war and military operations when they can fully appreciate the consequences.

  7. ricardipus says:

    The top photograph itself is astonishing in the “capture of the moment”. I’m particularly taken by the way it shows Obama – he’s practically the smallest figure in the room (largely because of how low he’s sitting in his chair, and how far he is from the lens), and laser-focused on the screen in front of him. The rest of the facial expressions are all serious, but surprisingly varied.

  8. Stephen says:

    I presume your service was in Israel – Steve? Was it intense? I’m glad it was abandoned in the UK in the 50s.

    Ricardipus – Obsma’s position in the room struck me too – as a mark of his confidence in his own authority. A less sure President would have insisted on the central seat.

    • Steve Caplan says:

      Yes–I was in the Israeli Defense Forces from 1983-1986 (and then reserves for another 10 y). As for intense: my second novel that is moving along slowly deals with a biomedical researcher suffering from a form of post traumatic stress disorder who is continually realizing that many of his learning experiences from the army have helped his scientific career (delegating responsibility, work under pressure, etc.). Does that answer the question?

      Actually, having moved to Israel in 1983 (the Hebrew term “made Aliyah” or “moved up”), I found myself in 1984 in the ironic and surreal situation of being able to say “I moved to Israel, but have spent more time in S. Lebanon than in Israel…”

    • ricardipus says:

      You’ll also notice the laptop screens have been carefully obscured.

  9. Anthony says:

    There was a helicopter with problems. Given the failed Iranian hostage rescue under Carter, it may have been that moment.

    • Stephen says:

      True enough – I’m sure that unfortunate incident was weighing on Obama’s mind when he took the decision to authorise the assault. Agree with it or not, it was a courageous decision.

      • ricardipus says:

        I was curious about that too, and it reminded me more of the failed attempt on Gaddafi – as I recall, a US air strike against his palace, maybe in the 1990s? I am having all kinds of trouble finding information about it online though, but as I recall his palace was bombed and maybe one of his children killed.

        • Stephen says:

          That was in the late 1980s I think, a US attack launched from bases in the UK. It’s not really the same since it was a bombing raid – there were no troops on the ground.

  10. Cath@VWXYNot? says:

    I just read that Clinton herself is saying that her pose in this photo may have been due to nothing more than allergies:

    “Those were 38 of the most intense minutes. I have no idea what any of us were looking at that particular millisecond when the picture was taken,” she said on Thursday when asked about the photo during a visit to Rome.

    “I am somewhat sheepishly concerned that it was my preventing one of my early spring allergic coughs. So it may have no great meaning whatsoever”

    but I’m not sure I believe her.

    Either way, it’s one of the defining photos of the year.

    • Stephen says:

      I’m not convinced either. Odd that she felt she had to explain her appearance in the picture – a defensive reaction?

      • Cath@VWXYNot? says:

        I suspect it may have something to do with allegations from some quarters that as a woman she’s too emotional for this kind of job.

        I’ve always had an enormous amount of respect and admiration for Hillary Clinton, BTW, as the First Lady, as a senator, as a presidential candidate hopeful, and as Secretary of State. She rocks!

        • Stephen says:

          Good point. I have a fair amount of respect for Hilary myself (I did compare her to Harrison Ford in my post – you can’t get much higher praise than that). She did tarnish her reputation a bit in the election campaign by her silly ‘mis-remembering’ of a visit to Bosnia but, hey-ho, no-ones’s perfect.

          To be serious for a second, I had overlooked her possible sensitivity to accusations of females being ‘over-sensitive’. If her expression did betray a more strongly felt reaction to the proceedings, then to my mind it does her credit.

  11. Kelcy says:

    Sometimes we over analyze things in our search to understand what people are thinking during key events. I think your article is very good as well as the comments but they don’t consider the possibility that an allergy cough could have been accurate and very disruptive. I too have an allergy cough and have had to spend numerous times holding back a cough so as not to interrupt whatever activities are going in business meetings. Imagine sitting at the table in this life and death situation and you suddenly interrupt this very tense moment with coughing. You disturb everyone who is intently trying to listen (and sound may not have been good). I spent the preparation time in Desert Storm (1990-91) trying to control a hacking cough so that my senior officers would not send me home, yet at the same knowing my cough could be a hazard in dark desert nights that could ultimately harm the soldiers in my care or my coworkers. There is nothing more frustrating that human frailties like allergy coughs interfere with your efforts to be strong during times of crisis. Yet the fact that people continue to overcome many frailties and act courageously or with empathy continues to be a tribute to their humanness.

    • Stephen says:

      Thanks for comment Kelcy – you make a very valid and interesting point. Of course I don’t know for sure what induced her expression, so my blog-post is just my interpretation and subsequent ruminations.

      Secretary Clinton herself has said that her expression was due to an allergy rather than anguish. But I think we’ll have to be careful about accepting that statement at face value while she remains in office. I will look forward to her memoirs with interest.

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