On Saturday 15,000 Christmas wreaths were placed on the graves at Arlington Cemetery. The annual event is an occasion for both press coverage and personal visitations, as with this photograph of a woman hugging the gravestone of her husband who recently had been killed in Afghanistan.
This photo is one of a series of similar shots that together received wide circulation, including the front page of the Sunday New York Times. Some are close cropped while others show more of the surrounding phalanx of gravestones, but all feature the woman holding on to the lifeless stone.
He was 41 when it happened, a Lt. Colonel on his second deployment to the region (the first had been in Iraq). He had been training Afghan soldiers until his vehicle hit an IED. You can read more about him here, but that is not really what the photograph is about. It’s about her, and her devastating loss, and about having to live with that pain and emptiness.
She wraps her body around the stone, trying to get as close as she can to his memory, his still lingering presence, to what they once had together. Head bowed in grief, she knows all too well the futility of living flesh finding warmth in the inanimate object, but she holds on anyway. Who would want to let go?
Her body humanizes the stone, reminding us that there once was a person in place of the block letters of a name, just as her personal act of devotion redeems the rest of the scene, where long rows of bare markers stretch into bone-white desolation. The stones are but symbols, we realize, of those who were loved and lost, and of how much grief must be locked up in those still living.
Some people believe that such images shouldn’t be shown, but they are. They carry no direct bias as they can serve arguments both for and against war, and all might agree that they shouldn’t be “politicized,” but it is hard to pretend that Arlington should lie outside of public concern. Public grieving is an important part of democratic life, and images of individual loss are one of the means by which grief is made intelligible in a liberal society. Seeing how grief isolates people, leaving them so radically alone, might be an important reminder of how the community needs to help those in need, and to sustain its own bonds of collective support.
That said, photographs marking a relationship between private loss and public life also can prompt questions about the relationship between past, present, and national priorities. Have we seen this before? Is the unique moment of individual loss part of a larger pattern? In spite of sincere ritual observances (such as the laying of the wreaths), are we becoming too accustomed to war and the costs of war? How well are we caring for the widow and the orphan, and for all citizens? How much will history have to repeat itself before we notice that, whether in war or peace, the pictures are all the same?
Photographs by Win McNamee/Getty Images and Anthony Suau/Denver Post. The second photograph was taken on Memorial Day, 1983 and received the Pulitzer Prize in 1984.