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. . . .

July 8th, 2009

The Third Crusade

Posted by Lucaites in visualizing war

afghan-bible

The “Summer Surge” has begun in Afghanistan, though more with a whimper than a bang if we measure it in terms of media attention.  The death toll creeps higher each day, but one has to search hard to find any mention of it.  The stories that do appear on a war that is now eight years old (and counting) tend not to be headline fare in most U.S. news outlets, and those stories that do appear exude something of an everyday, taken-for-granted quality about the whole matter.

While news stories seem lacking, there have nevertheless been a small number of slide shows cropping up at various news outlets (here and here, for example) over the past several weeks.  What marks these slide shows is their almost singular banality as they repeat over and again the same, tired, visual clichés for representing war that we have become accustomed to in recent times: tight close-ups of marines—in many cases young boys trying to appear like hardened veterans—expressing intense and stern determination; images of U.S. troops preparing to do battle or returning from battle or approaching and searching what appear to be empty villages or fighting the boredom of war or playing games with local children; photographs that feature the advanced technology of U.S. warfare, including weaponry, night vision capabilities, and so on.  Rarely and only occasionally do we see some actual fighting—and perhaps for good reasons—but on the whole what we are shown are stock pictures we have seen before and but for the fact that they emphasize a desert locale, there is nothing particularly distinctive about them.  In short, there would appear to be no news here.

And yet, for all that, it would be imprudent to ignore what such visual displays show us and how such “seeing” contributes to normalizing our understanding and attitudes about the war.  The photograph above led off a recent slide show of forty seven images at the Denver Post website titled “Marines Pour Into Afghanistan.” One might imagine such a slide show beginning with photographs of marines parachuting from planes or embarking from helicopters, literally “pouring into” the Afghani countryside, but instead of emphasizing the activity of the headline caption we encounter an anonymous and relatively passive soldier.  That the image crops out the face and head of the soldier does more than just accent his anonymity as a cipher for the U.S. military, for the photograph is shot as if literally from his point of view.  Notice how the camera locates the viewer in the physical space of the soldiers’ head and eyes.  We see what he sees—or what we might imagine that he sees if he were to hold his gaze—and thus the photograph coaxes our identification with his very being by suturing our vision with his.

And what he/we see, of course, is the Holy Bible, which sits at the very center of the image.  And more, along with the hand that holds it, it is photographed as if in a portrait, where the face is in sharp focus and all that surrounds it is softened so as to direct and hold our attention on the main object.  One might think of the photograph in this respect as one more cliché of war rhetoric, an aestheticized visualization of the old saw that “there are no atheists in foxholes.”  But of course the conflict in Afghanistan is at least in some measure a religious war, and as such representations of the Holy Bible take on a much larger significance.  Here, it is not just a symbol of  comfort for those in harms way—though it may certainly be that—but poised at the beginning of the slide show as it is, it frames the meaning of all that follows.

But what is that meaning?  We get something of a clue by attending to the brief narrative paragraph that precedes the above image where it quotes the commander of the 2nd Battalion, 8th Marines as he speaks to his troops as they are about to embark on their military mission: “You’re going to change this world this summer and it starts this morning.”  The name of that mission is “Operation Khanjar, or Strike of the Sword.” Now look at the photograph one more time and notice that the Bible holds the place where one might otherwise imagine a weapon—a rifle, or in an earlier epoch, perhaps a sword—particularly in the hands of a Marine about to occupy  hostile terrain.   Yea, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death …

There are other ways to interpret the photograph, to be sure, but the point here is that the photograph needs to be interpreted. And this is all the more so when the images shown by such photographs appear to be all too normal and ordinary, or when they beckon our identification all too seamlessly.

Photo Credit:  Joe Raedle/Getty Images

2 Responses to ' The Third Crusade '

Subscribe to comments with RSS or TrackBack to ' The Third Crusade '.

  1. Nate said,

    on July 12th, 2009 at 3:48 pm

    Point of interest: it might matter that the slide show featuring the Bible so prominently is on The Denver Post. That paper would be the main state-wide paper serving the Evangelical Christian epicenter an hour south in Colorado Springs, including the Air Force Academy which has become the front-runner institution for proselytizing in/with the military.

    Interesting Harper’s article on that here:

    http://harpers.org/archive/2009/05/0082488


  2. on July 21st, 2009 at 4:53 pm

    Chris Hedges, War Without Purpose : “Al-Qaida could not care less what we do in Afghanistan. We can bomb Afghan villages, hunt the Taliban in Helmand province, build a 100,000-strong client Afghan army, stand by passively as Afghan warlords execute hundreds, maybe thousands of Taliban prisoners — build huge, elaborate military bases and send drones to drop bombs on Pakistan. It will make no difference. The war will not halt the attacks of Islamic radicals… We have stumbled into a confusing mix of armed groups that include criminal gangs, drug traffickers, Pashtun and Tajik militias, kidnapping rings, death squads and mercenaries. We are embroiled in a civil war… No one seems to be able to articulate why we are in Afghanistan : Is it to hunt down bin Laden and al-Qaida? Is it to consolidate progress? Have we declared war on the Taliban? Are we building democracy? Are we fighting terrorists there so we do not have to fight them here? Are we “liberating” the women of Afghanistan? The absurdity of the questions, used as thought-terminating clichés, exposes the absurdity of the war. The confusion of purpose mirrors the confusion on the ground.

    ref : July is Deadliest Month Since US Invasion of Afghanistan

    The only way to defeat terrorist groups is to isolate them within their own societies. This requires wooing the population away from radicals. It is a political, economic and cultural war. The terrible algebra of military occupation and violence is always counterproductive to this kind of battle. It always creates more insurgents than it kills. It always ‘legitimizes’ terrorism. And while we squander resources and lives, the real enemy, al-Qaida, has moved on to build networks in Indonesia, Pakistan, Somalia, Sudan and Morocco — and in depressed Muslim communities such as those in France’s Lyon and London’s Brixton area. There is no shortage of backwaters and broken patches of the Earth where al-Qaida can hide and operate : It does not need Afghanistan, and neither do we.

Leave a reply


FAIR USE NOTICE: This site contains images and excerpts the use of which have not been pre-authorized. This material is made available for the purpose of analysis and critique, as well as to advance the understanding of rhetoric, politics, and visual culture.

The ‘fair use’ of such material is provided for under U.S. Copyright Law. In accordance with U.S. Code Title 17, Section 107, material on this site (along with credit links and attributions to original sources) is viewable for educational and intellectual purposes. If you are interested in using any copyrighted material from this site for any reason that goes beyond ‘fair use,’ you must first obtain permission from the copyright owner.