NO CAPTION NEEDED
ICONIC PHOTOGRAPHS, PUBLIC CULTURE, AND LIBERAL DEMOCRACY

No Caption Needed is a book and a blog, each dedicated to discussion of the role that photojournalism and other visual practices play in a vital democratic society. No caption needed, but many are provided. . . .

November 17th, 2008

The Beauty of War Through a Child's Eye

This past week we honored America’s veterans, but except for a few conventional news stories and ritualistic photo ops the day passed with little notice or fanfare, eclipsed in the national consciousness by trying to figure out who President-elect Obama will appoint in his new administration and political wrangling over how to address the so-called “financial crisis.”  And what has been missed (or is it repressed?) in all of this has been the 150,000 U.S. troops who continue to occupy Iraq (and who are likely to continue to occupy Iraq until at least 2011); the 278 U.S. military deaths and 1,500 + U.S. military casualties that have occurred in Iraq since January of 2008; or the astonishing admission by the Veteran Administration that on average a staggering 18 veterans commit suicide everyday.

It is against this background that I was stuck by this AP  photograph that showed up in a number of on-line newspaper slide shows this past weekend.

The image is of a young girl as she “looks at a life-size painting of  men from the Columbus-based Lima Company, 3rd Battalion, 25th Marine Regiment, 4th Marine Division” that is part of the Lima Company Memorial at the Cincinnati Museum Center.  Lima Company suffered some of the heaviest casualties of any unit fought in Operation Iraqi Freedom, including the death of 22 brave marines in a very short period of time in 2005.  There is no question but that their service and sacrifice needs to be sanctified in public memory and yet there is something altogether unsettling about this photograph. Part of this (dis)ease is no doubt a recognition of how an innocent child—and a young girl at that—serves as the cipher for orienting the model citizen towards the nation-state as a gendered and infantilized spectator.

Children, we are told, “should be seen and not heard.”  Notice here how the young girl silently directs the national gaze upon the marines even as she holds their attention.  The colors of her hair, sweatshirt, and pants coordinate perfectly with the red, white, and blue of the flag that she holds and thus cast her as the metonymic (and fetishistic) embodiment of the nation-state.  Her shadow marks the corporeal distance of the passive spectator from the painting no less than the candles, boots, and photographs that frame it.  There can thus be no mistaking that the young girl is a passive spectator clearly separated from the scene in the painting—seeing and not speaking or acting.  And so, we must wonder, is she a child citizen or the citizen-as-child?

There is no final answer to this question, of course, but the smiling and approving gaze of the marines seems to suggest a paternal protectiveness of the child/citizen/flag that resonates with normative assumptions of the public as an innocent and passive child and all of that is troubling for those who might imagine a vibrant democratic public culture.  But what if the child was not in the photograph? How else then might we understand the painting as part of a public memorial?

This life size canvas, it turns out, is one of  eight panels portraying all 22 marines from Lima Company painted by Anita Miller, a liturgical artist motivated  “to paint images that open the viewer’s eyes to the beauty of the world.”  In each of these eight panels we have portraits of two or three of the deceased marines and in each instance we are presented with a smiling and caring countenance.  And there can be no doubt that the images offer comfort to those who knew and loved these men as friends and family members within the contours of private life. But when cast as a  war memorial the appeal to the spiritual beauty of the individuals doing the fighting diverts attention from the sheer ugliness that is combat regardless of the cause. War’s “beauty”—if that is the right word—is terrible, and that is a lesson that we forget at our peril.

And so, once again back to the photograph and the young child who gazes upon the scene with what we can only imagine is beatific awe and admiration.  And the question here must be, is this the best way to transport the civic virtues of sacrifice and service from one generation to the next?  I am not so Pollyanna as to believe that wars will never be needed—though hope springs eternal— but I never want my children to think of war as “part of the beauty of the world” or that those who do the fighting do so with a “smile” upon their face.  We owe the men of Lima Company more than that.

Photo Credit:  Ernest Coleman, AP Photo/The Enquirer

 

5 Responses to ' The Beauty of War Through a Child's Eye '

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  1. on November 17th, 2008 at 8:52 am

    [...] photography by unknown « Universal Timer – high speed photography for the masses – The Red … Poolside [...]

  2. Ernest Coleman said,

    on November 18th, 2008 at 6:24 am

    I am lost for words for what you wrote about my photo thank you very very mush from the hart it mean so mush to me

  3. Todd W. said,

    on November 20th, 2008 at 10:44 am

    Something interesting about those paintings is their reliance on photographs, and the selection of those photographs. The faces show all the detail and expression of photographs, some posed, some candid. I assume the artist was provided with a representative image of each Marine, probably by a family member. The bodies are much less detailed and unnatural in their pose, the fall of their clothing, etc. and are likely imagined rather than drawn from life. Whoever provided the reference images obviously wanted to remember those close to them as happy in their lot, not the pain and suffering of daily killing and being killed.

  4. Lucaites said,

    on November 20th, 2008 at 12:01 pm

    Todd — You are absolutely correct. The paintings were done from photographs provided by family. And as I try to suggest they would be perfect for private remembrances. They become problematic as public memorials that completely repress the pain, suffering, boredom, etc. of war; doubly so in someways because, in contrast to most war memorials, even when we see individual names (like the Vietnam Memorial) we don’t see “happy faces.” That is, these paintings both repress the negative and emphasize a positive happy sentimentality.


  5. on December 14th, 2008 at 5:40 pm

    Hi there, thanks for the good “uty of War Through a Child’s Eye | NO CAPTION NEEDED” post. Would it be possible, that i can write a story about this post in our local newspaper? I would be really happy if i can do this and i will give you a link from a german blog too. Please answer. Greetings Goldpreise

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