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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. . . .

April 13th, 2011

Allegories of War, Then and Now

Posted by Lucaites in visualizing war

It was 150 years ago (April 12, 1861) that the deadliest war in U.S. history commenced, casting in its wake over 625,000 military deaths and an incalculably large number of non-fatal casualties.  And while the nearly five year conflict between northern federalists and southern confederates was not the first war to leave behind an extensive photographic record—that honor goes to the Crimean War and the efforts of Robert Fenton—its photographic record is nevertheless extensive and impressive, particularly given the state of photographic technology at the time.

There is no shortage of photographs that one could point to as emblematic of the so-called “civil war,” portraits and landscapes alike, and as the sesquicentennial celebration unfolds over the next five years we will not doubt see many of them on display, marking the war in general as well as the specific anniversary of particular battles.  And that is as it should be.  Nevertheless, one photograph stands out above them all—at least in my estimation—as a powerful and searing allegory of war itself.  That photograph, seen above, is Timothy O’Sullivan’s “A Harvest of Death.”

The photograph appeared originally in Alexander Gardner’s Photographic Sketchbook of the American Civil War, published in 1866.  The image displays the fields of Gettysburg in the aftermath of the three day battle that left nearly 8,000 dead bodies.  Captioned by Gardner, the photograph is accompanied by a legend that identifies the dead bodies as “rebels” who “paid with life the price of their treason.”  That characterization has been contested in recent times and is almost surely incorrect, as there is compelling evidence that many of the dead bodies are actually union soldiers. But whether the men who once occupied those bodies fought for one cause or another is really beside the point, for what the photograph shows are the utter and abject effects of war that truly know no ideological boundaries—no right or wrong, no good or evil.  Indeed, notice how the image is minimalist in the extreme in this regard.  Dead bodies in a field, virtually indistinguishable from one another.  It could be anywhere in the world—and, of course, it has been.  What more is there to know?

But of course, there is more.  In the absence of a pall to cover the bodies it is clear that all suffer alike, and not just those represented in the image, but those who dare to view it as well—both then and now, both up close and at a distance. Shot so that the frontal plane of the photographer/ viewer parallels the frontal plane of the scene itself, the photograph is framed by a frontal angle that not only objectifies the scene by purporting to show all that there is to show, but it also directly involves the viewer in the world being represented. Whether we like it or not, we too are part of this world, pulled in further by the linear perspective of the image that draws our vision from the clear and sharply focused bodies in the foreground to the smaller bodies that seem to extend to the hazy horizon … and beyond.

And there is more still, for the bodies themselves, while lifeless, nevertheless perform for the viewer, miming the grotesqueries of an undignified death. Again in Gardner’s words, they recall “the ancient legends of men torn in pieces by the savage wantonness of fiends.”  Note in particular the soldier closest to the front of the image, his face contorted, his mouth open as in a silent scream that relies upon no ethnic or national language and that will never die out.

Alas, and for all the many things that war may be, there is no denying that it is fundamentally a harvest of death. As we sow, so shall we reap.

Photo Credit: Timothy Sullivan/Alexander Gardner

3 Responses to ' Allegories of War, Then and Now '

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  1. Vet41290 said,

    on April 14th, 2011 at 5:23 pm

    It’s hard to tell if the sentiment in the post is “anti-war” or not. The author probably splits the difference by striking a tragic tone. On the side of not-being anti-war, what emerges is a sentiment of acceptance, participation, and resolution between human behavior and the inevitibility of war.

    What critical work does a stance well shy of anti-war accomplish? Since Vietnam, an anti-war tradition denounces war as a “harvest of death” and positions itself publicly against war per se. Inheritors of this tradition would hold up this post’s ambiguous handling of war as impotent criticism and therefore morally complicit.

    But that charge is so 20th Century. In the 21st, we (in the US) accept and participate in perpetual war with a tragic resolve. War is a part of our daily culture, and the moral stakes have been moved to acoommodate the effective ambiguity of US military adventures in Iraq, Afghanistan, Lybia. In a culture in which rigid critiques of war have failed to stem the tide, we at last occupy a post-war world, though it is we who, in our acceptance, participation, and resolve, have moved past it.

  2. Lucaites said,

    on April 14th, 2011 at 8:34 pm

    This is a sophisticated comment that gets to the nub of the matter: Is the post anti-war or not? You note a certain ambiguity in my sentiment and truth to tell it is intentional. Whether it is “impotent” and “morally complicit” is open to question, and it is perhaps a question that we need to entertain carefully. As I read your second paragraph you seem to be suggesting that one can be either anti-war in some absolute (and hence ethically pure) sense or one is morally complicit, i.e., “shy” of being anti-war in some regard. Such an absolute binary is myopic inasmuch as it ignores the possibility that some interventions may be morally justified, however excessive and tragic their outcomes might be. But more to the point, is that whether justified or not, wars yield a painful and grotesque harvest and, yes, we are all complicit in that. It is a point that our humanity demands that we acknowledge and address.

    But that leads me to wonder about your position in all of this, for you too exact a somewhat ambiguous sentiment. You start off as if you bemoan a critique that is shy of being “anti-war,” but then suggest that “rigid critiques of war have failed to stem the tide of war.” And so where does that leave us? My sense is that like me, you are searching for some productive middle ground that would avoid cynicism and utter resignation, but I’m not quite clear on what you think we should be doing.

  3. Vet41290 said,

    on April 16th, 2011 at 12:09 pm

    Susceptible as I may be to drawing upon Manichean framing of the pro/anti-war issue, I do appreciate the problems you point out with absolute binaries that distinguish purist stances. I intend to hold up the anti-war inheritance not as an ideal, but as an absolutism against which I, too, would like to push back.

    Problem is, anti-war absolutism still shouts down at us from an implicit moral high ground, even if this ground is illusory. As one who hopes that rhetorical criticism can, and should, counter this kind of illusion, the question of critical potency and moral complicity is intended to draw out the broader question of whether or not criticism actually can accomplish moral work. More pointedly, can an ambiguous, perhaps postmodern, critical stance present a viable, or compelling, alternative to moral absolutism?

    I think (hope) it can. So to be clear, I do not intend to direct a charge of impotency or complicity toward your post per se. For maybe, as you argue, we are all complicit.

    But this is all fairly abstract, abmiguous perhaps, in contrast to the more concrete problem of what we should be doing.

    I’m not sure there is much we can do. Here is where I offer a (somewhat cynical) reading of ‘post-war’ that takes the individual – not the collective – as its center. This reading recognizes the individual who unwittingly accepts and participates in a culture of war: in a way, the fight is over.

    But this just won’t do. The “productive middle ground” may be discursive, and public discussion like this one strikes me as a very useful, and hopefully effective, response to the question of what we should be doing. Thanks for facilitating the forum and for your thought provoking responses.

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