Originally published in OtherWords.
George W. Bush has been on something of a public relations tour recently, showcasing paintings he’s done since leaving office. The tour seems designed to rebuild his image as a tortured artist wrestling with his demons — a flawed but morally introspective tragic figure.
And it’s been remarkably effective. Bush has been the lucky recipient of dozens of friendly write-ups, interviews, and TV appearances, all with only the mildest of chiding around the margins.
Bush’s new PR tour centers around him painting wounded American veterans — foregrounded as the primary negative consequence of Bush’s invasion of Iraq.
In all of the fawning press coverage, though, one thing has been notably absent: Bush’s Iraqi victims.
Headlines include “George W. Bush’s Best-Selling Book of Paintings Shows Curiosity and Compassion” (in the Washington Post); “‘W.’ and the Art of Redemption” (New York Times); and “From Caricature to Man of Character: How Time and Art Change Image of Bush” (Christian Science Monitor).
In all of these write-ups, you’ll find not a single mention of Iraqis.
The Washington Post article made vague reference to ”the trauma here and in Iraq,” but none noted the specific number of Iraqi deaths — with serious estimates ranging from500,000 to 1 million — that resulted from Bush’s war of aggression. None profiled an Iraqi who suffered or continues to suffer as a result.
This is likely for the same reason Bush didn’t bother to find any Iraqis to paint — they simply don’t factor into the U.S. moral calculus. One glowing profile, by Kane Farabaugh of the government–funded outlet Voice of America, doesn’t even contain the word “Iraq.”
Others make glib jokes about it, like the New York Times’ Mimi Swartz. After noting thatThe New Yorker’s art critic “can barely hide his surprise when describing the quality as astonishingly high,” Swartz cracked: “Why the shock and awe? Because Mr. Bush’s artistic talent goes against the stereotype we have of him.”
“Shock and awe,” you may remember, refers to the initial overwhelming bombing raids the U.S. launched on Baghdad at the dawn of its invasion.
To the extent the Iraq invasion is addressed, in other words, it’s as a punchline. Iraqi victims aren’t just ignored; their trauma is used to jazz up an otherwise mediocre piece of art criticism.
This type of runaway nationalism is so common we hardly notice it. To the extent Bush is sorry, he only regrets the Americans he helped kill and maim.
Many American veterans suffered greatly during and after the invasion. But they make up roughly 2 percent of those who suffered as a result of the war. The other 98 percent are faceless Arabs whose humanity these critics think isn’t worth touching on, much less exploring.
All cultures naturally prioritize their own, but the wholesale erasure of Iraqis from Bush’s rebranding tour, framed as “atonement” and “redemption,” is striking in its raw nationalist myopia.