What has always astonished me about the Iraq War is the utter lack of evidence, especially visual evidence, provided by the Bush administration (or anyone for that matter). In contrast, the Cuban Missile Crisis, as I remembered it, was chock a block with visual evidence. Detailed, annotated photographs of ships en route to Cuba carrying tarp-covered missiles filled the front pages of major dailies. Aerial photographs of the missile build-up in Cuba with explanatory arrows and callouts were part of the evening news. But I wondered if my memory of the past had acquired too much of a golden glow. As historians are well aware, memory plays tricks and can rewrite the past. How could I test these historical memories—one fairly recent and one considerably older? That cyber-Swiss-army-knife Google, of course.
Using the search terms “cuban missile crisis” and “Iraq weapons of mass destruction,” I did a crude frequency distribution of the first 100 images associated with each search array. Both sets of images shared similar categories: visual evidence (photographs or documentary images that provided evidence for either missiles or WMD), maps (providing geographical location or other visual evidence), people apparently discussing or talking about missiles or WMD, illustrations (a range of persons, places, or things associated with incident to wholly misplaced, idiotic visual filler), cartoons, and bad web art. Although the images illustrating Iraq and WMDs contain the greatest number of images wholly unrelated to the topic, they are not the most compelling. The difference between the visual evidence and maps categories is, however, striking. (To be sure, this is a crude experiment, but this is a blog, so I'm not going to do a methodology section.)
The number of visual evidence images and maps associated with the Cuban Missile Crisis (hereafter Cuba) was thirty-five (35); in contrast, the number of images and maps that could be remotely (and I mean remotely) construed as evidence for WMDs in Iraq (hereafter Iraq) was nineteen (19). While the majority of Cuba aerial photographs were annotated, only three of the Iraq images possessed any annotation. The Iraq images made little attempt to explain the photograph to the reader either via captioning or associated text. (What, for example, is the significance of a chlorine plant and phenol plant in close proximity?) In contrast, the Cuba images taught a mini-course in aerial photo interpretation via their annotations, captions and accompanying text. The maps are interesting also in that the Cuba maps often provided some geographical context, highlighted specific locations, and showed the possible effect of an Cuba-based attack on the US mainland. The Iraq maps seldom showed Iraq's geographical relationship to any other nation state and rarely located specific WMD sites. Iraq was usually depicted as floating in geographic space. The single map illustrating the range of an Iraqi WMD attack showed that Iraq had little in the way of effective delivery systems. Finally, what was most interesting is the number of images in which Bush administrators ostensibly discussed, talked about, argued for the evidence of Iraqi WMDs instead of furnishing it—a kind of argument-free, faith-based foreign policy.