Iconic images inspire love and hate, and so it is with the photograph of James Blake Miller, the 20-year-old Marine from Appalachia who has been christened “the face of Falluja” by prowar pundits and “The Marlboro Man” by pretty much everyone else. Reprinted in more than a hundred newspapers, the Los Angeles Times photograph shows Miller “after more than twelve hours of nearly nonstop deadly combat” in Falluja, his face coated in war paint, a bloody scratch on his nose, and a freshly lit cigarette hanging from his lips.
Gazing lovingly at Miller, Dan Rather confessed that, “for me, this is 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.” A few days later, the LA Times declared that its photo had “moved into the realm of the 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 like you’ve heard a thousand times before–because you have.
But never mind that. For a country that just elected a wannabe Marlboro Man as its President, Miller is an icon, and as if to prove it he has ignited his very own controversy. “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 nonsmoking soldiers in Iraq?” A reader of the New York Post 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. It reminds me of the joke about the Hasidic rabbi who says all sexual positions are acceptable except for one: standing up, “because that could lead to dancing.”
On second thought, perhaps Miller does deserve to be elevated to the status of icon–not of the war in Iraq but of the new era of supercharged American impunity. Because outside US borders, it is, of course, a different Marine who has been awarded the prize as “the face of Falluja”: the soldier captured on tape executing a wounded, unarmed prisoner in a mosque. Runners-up are a photograph of 2-year-old Fallujan in a hospital bed with one of his tiny legs blown off; a dead child lying in the street, clutching the headless body of an adult; and an emergency health clinic blasted to rubble. Inside the United States, these snapshots of a lawless occupation appeared only briefly, if at all. Yet Miller’s icon status has endured, kept alive with human interest stories about fans sending cartons of Marlboros to Falluja, interviews with the Marine’s proud mother and earnest discussions about whether smoking might reduce Miller’s effectiveness as a fighting machine.