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. . . .

May 3rd, 2015

Viewing Conflict at Home and From a Distance

Posted by Lucaites in no caption needed, visualizing war

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This photograph could have been taken in any number of places throughout the world where violent protest and opposition to authoritarian political regimes seem to dominate the news. And to be sure, we have seen it before on many occasions. Indeed, it is something of a visual trope that tells us little or nothing about the particular conflict, but nevertheless signals a world in which the rule of law has utterly failed if it ever had a place to begin with: the desperate, anonymous individual wielding their body and something less than the most advanced technological weaponry–a brick or rock, a sling, a primitive homemade bomb–against an equally anonymous, heavily armored modern militia.

What makes this image unique is that it does not portray a scene from Barundi or Istanbul or Sana or Tel Aviv or any of the other likely hot spots throughout the world, but rather Baltimore, Maryland. Rather than to be viewing violent protest and opposition at a distance, here we see so-called “unrest” at home. Rather than to be confronted with rebels or revolutionaries and political regimes that are often hard to identify with in any particular way, here we see fellow citizens fighting against the guardians of our civic institutions. And therein lies a tale worth considering, for there is no escaping the implication that what we are seeing here at home is fundamentally no different than what we see regularly abroad, and the clear warning that such “unrest” is not just an aberration but the harbinger—perhaps even a prophecy—of the utter breakdown of civil society.

Given the increasing regularity of such “unrest” animated by a growing distrust of America’s police forces it is a warning we should heed with some care.

Credit: Reuters

April 20th, 2015

The Costs of Gun Violence

Posted by Lucaites in no caption needed, visualizing war

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Since 9/11 there have been over 400,000 gun deaths in the USA from privately owned guns. That’s approximately 33,000 deaths per year – murders and suicides combined – and it doesn’t take account of the approximately 80,000 injuries each year. To put it all in context, the Congressional Research Service estimates that from the Battle of Lexington and Concord to the war on Afghanistan, 1,171,177 US citizens lost their lives in American wars; according to the FBI, since 1968 1,387,171 American have lost their lives to firearms. Most recently it was reported that the direct and indirect costs of gun violence amount to $229 billion dollars per year – that’s more than the estimated cost of obesity ($224 Billion) and nearly as much as the cost of Medicaid ($228 Billion). Or to make it personal, the per capita cost ranges from $234 per person (in Hawaii) to $1,397 per person (in Wyoming). The average national per capita cost is $750.

Now I know that attitudes about the 2nd Amendment are polarized across the nation, but whatever your ideological position is it is pretty hard to deny that we have a serious problem here. And the photograph above points to at least a small part of the trouble. That’s a Barrett .50 caliber rifle—often referred to as a “sniper rifle”—on display at the annual NRA meeting in Nashville, TN. It shoots ten rounds per second is a semi-automatic weapon that holds a ten round magazine, projects an effective range of 2,500 meters, and has been known to cleanly sluice through the engine block of a truck. The man wielding the gun is intense and focused. He seems to be having a good time. And therein likes the rub.

I realize that some will take exception to this claim, but I truly cannot imagine how a private citizen could possibly need quite that much firepower, whether for hunting or self-defense or … for what? The International Association of Chiefs first recommended banning the private ownership of such weapons in 2004 as a protection for law officers, a recommendation endorsed by strict regulations passed in the State of California and the District of Columbia. And yet, as the photograph above suggests, the rifles are still not only being manufactured, but promoted at national events … a phenomenon no doubt encouraged by the popularity of this past year’s biographical movie American Sniper. One cannot only see such weapons, but one can play as if they were actually shooting one. And to what end? To imagine assassinating a foreign leader? Or stopping an invading tank?

The question is, can we have a sensible endorsement of the 2nd Amendment without going to the extent of encouraging the purchase of or identification with weapons that clearly have no other purpose than to kill and maim at great distances. After all, weapons such as this are not used for target practice or sport and the thought that a rifle of this size and caliber might serve as self-defense is laughable. Perhaps its only virtue is that it is so large that it can never serve as a concealed weapon. The point, I guess, is that the debate over gun control has extended to such absurd limits that we have failed to produce any kind of sensible regulations on gun control at all. The Constitution grants the right to bear arms, just as it grants the right to “free speech.” But as we know in the later case, such rights are neither absolute nor without obligations. They have to balanced against the costs. And when the costs get too high the rights must, reluctantly, be restricted and restrained.

Rather than to endorse playing with guns, the bigger the bang the better, the NRA would serve itself and the nation more productively if it worked to think about how the 2nd Amendment might be sensibly adapted to a growing (and tragic) cost that seems to exceed its benefits.

Credit: Harrison McClary/Reuters

April 8th, 2015

Waiting for Peace at the Syrian Bus Stop

Posted by Hariman in visualizing war

Buses upright Syria

This scene is so astonishing that I don’t know where to begin, so we might as well start with the caption: “Civilians walk near upright buses barricading a street, which serve as protection from snipers loyal to Syria’s President Bashar al-Assad, in Aleppo’s rebel-controlled Bustan al-Qasr neighborhood, on March 21, 2015.”  The description helps, although it, too, is disorienting: What civilians?  Oh, yes, those Lilliputian figures to the left and right.  They are well off center for a reason, for this photograph is not about them but rather what looms over them: the towering construction blocking the view like a bizarre work of street art.

Three buses–or their mechanical carcasses–have been placed on end.  How did they do that?  “With a crane, probably,” says the practical reader, and I’ll bet you’re right.  But however it was done, it is a monument to human resourcefulness.  The buses may have been ruined by warfare already, or too vulnerable to rocket attack to be used anymore, or they may have been stripped down for their new role because those in the neighborhood have learned the hard way that staying alive is more important than getting to work on time.  Whatever the back story, the moral is the same: warfare demands exceptional resilience and inventiveness to survive, and people respond in kind.

Which is why the scene is heartbreaking.  The buses are a monument to resourcefulness, and to waste.  The waste of material, of time, of productivity, of human creativity.  These things are still there in Aleppo, but now they all have been taken hostage by the war.  What could have been an ordinary day on an unexceptional street as people went about the business of getting on with their lives, is instead a study in interdiction, blockage, obstruction, and stasis.

By not getting too close to the action, the photograph creates a space in which we can see inaction, inertness, lost lives and lost years.  Buses that should move along their designated routes now prevent traffic.  A street free of gunfire should be something that one can take for granted; in Aleppo, it requires a Herculean effort, and with the added cost of not being able to use the street.  Instead of the unexceptional habits that can be the bedrock for a good life, this war-torn society is subject to chaos.  And it seems to be a strange, gradual, grinding chaos that persists by turning the city against itself and making disorientation normal.  It looks like life is merging with art, but only to hold off the viciousness and futility characterizing civil war in our time.

Susan Sontag claimed that photography was surreal.  What she failed to appreciate was that reality is surreal, and that photography’s supposed limitations as a medium allow it to capture how that is so.  This photograph of vertical buses in Aleppo suggests a ready-made sculpture in the spirit of Duchamp.  By shearing the scene of purpose which then has to be supplied by the caption, we are sure to be startled, perhaps astonished, but not too quick to rationalize what we see.  The buses will block sniper fire, but still–it’s just crazy that they are the means to that end.  Of course, the more sensible political, diplomatic, economic, social, or cultural means to stop the killing are not working, or not even being tried, so here we are.

Waiting for peace to arrive at the Syrian bus stop.  It could be a long wait.

Photograph by Ammar Abdullah/Reuters.

Cross-posted at BagNewsNotes.

March 4th, 2015

When War Is a Memory That Won’t Go Away

Posted by Hariman in visualizing war

Those who romanticize war tell us that it is eternal.  The long, grey line; the camp fires glowing on the plain; the roar of battle, the loneliness of command–these and other verities are found in every era and clime.  The weapons change, but war offers the same terrors, the same fraternity no others can understand, and the same hard truths about the human condition.  There always has been war, there always will be war, and only fools think otherwise.  Thus, the full honor due to those in battle today can be paid only by placing their memorial within the unbroken continuity and epic scale of myth.


This photograph from the Ukraine might seem to be a step in that direction.  Taken only weeks ago, the cold, desolate steppe, abandoned, ruined weaponry, and grey scale tonality suggest that we are in World War II.  The distant line of trees could have been there then, the metal tower looks like it could have been on a Soviet era propaganda poster, and few of us know enough about tank designs to see much difference there.  This war, that war, any war. . . . The photo’s allusion to the past amplifies what is otherwise but a private catastrophe already lost to history.  By setting this war within that war, now a ghostly presence like the fog in the background, the specific wreckage becomes part of a much larger tragedy.

What the photograph does not do, however, is romanticize war.  It does not suggest that this war was inevitable or that character will be forged and tested or that valor will triumph.  Instead of being a lesson in the need for constant vigilance, the photo cuts through the fog of romanticism to suggest that the result in any case is the same: more waste, loss, and oblivion that will lead only to another cycle of violence.  War seems less like mythic ground, and more like a bad memory that just won’t go away.


Or for those still living in the war zone, a nightmare that persists after you wake up.  This very different scene is another repetition of the same.  Now the civic infrastructure supplies the wreckage, while the donkey carts take us back to another time long before tanks and airstrikes.  This neighborhood in Gaza City is in ruins, and feels more empty for that than the open field in the first photo.  This is another scene from Rubble World, which is the home front of our time.

Once again, the photograph places one war within prior wars: here we can see the line go through the bombed cities of WW II all that way back to the Roman occupation of Palestine.  This war, that war, any war.  The armies wreak their havoc, and those still alive struggle to live among the ruins, and perhaps history will be kind enough to rebuild again before another onslaught.  Whatever the outcome, it remains very clear that there is no glory here, and never was, and never will be unless enough people can discover the heroism of peacemaking.

Two photos, two wars, and something more.  Each image has respected the dignity of its subject, without allowing that respect to be hijacked–as it so often is–by the romance of war.

The problem with war is not that it is eternal, but that it is persistent.  Like a traumatic memory, it haunts us, often to pull entire societies backwards into a time of darkness and agony.  At least now perhaps we can begin to see that memory for what it is: the door though which war enters the future, where it will be waiting for our arrival.

Photographs by Dominique Faget/AFP/Getty Images and Mohammed Abed/AFP/Getty Images.

Cross-posted at BagNewsNotes.

March 2nd, 2015

Fifty Shades of Contemporary War

Posted by Lucaites in visualizing war

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The photographic record of the ruins of contemporary war are everywhere to be seen. Buildings once cast as monuments to modernization destroyed in the blink of an eye, homes completely devastated as if hit by a tornado, dead bodies strewn amongst the debris of what was once thought to be civilization, and much, much more. We have written about it previously under the sign of “rubble world” (here in 2008 and here in 2012).” And truth to tell, even now in 2015 it doesn’t seem like it is getting much better.

The photograph above is from Debaltseve in the Ukraine. According to the caption “an elderly woman collects water from a puddle” and then goes on to detail the “particularly intense” fighting that is going on in and around the city. Of course the fighting is not immediately present in the photograph, but what we see might be more demoralizing for that very fact as what we are witnessing is not the death of individuals (which is tragic enough and in its own right) or the demolition of buildings (which can and in all likelihood will be rebuilt by whatever regime takes over), but the utter destruction of civil society. The surrounding buildings mark a modern society, as does the road on which the woman stands; but for all of that she apparently has no water running in her home and so she is reduced to scooping what she can from the ice melting on the street. The garbage strewn around her makes it clear that this is not without its risks, but the will to survive is strong and one cannot live without water; so she does what she can. And when winter gives way to spring and summer and the ice is gone, who knows what she will do.

War’s horrors and tragedy comes in many shades, but as this photograph testifies its effects ripple throughout a society at the most fundamental levels, their most devastating effects implicated by the day-to-day demands on subsistence that stand as a constant challenge to the human spirit and make it hard to imagine the reconstruction of a vibrant and colorful society. The color cast of the scene in this photograph is grey and dreary, and it seems to offer little hope for the future—indeed, multiple shades of grey give little respite, but then this isn’t a movie in a fictional world.  That said, what the photograph may well be showing us is the future—or at least one possible future—that could well test the limits of human resilience.

Photo Credit: Sergey Polezhaka/Reuters


February 25th, 2015

The Face of Battle in the Ukraine

Posted by Hariman in visualizing war

Ukranian POWs

One of the myths of modern journalism is that essence of war is found in the heat of battle.  On this premise photographers risk their lives to get as close as possible to the action, while pundits and propagandists alike remind us that no one but the soldier can ever understand the experience of actually being there–an experience that can never be communicated to those who are only spectators.

These conventional beliefs represent important truths about both war and representation, but they are seriously misleading as well.  War is far more than battle, from the extensive organization that is required to project power and hold territory, to the thousand ways that it disrupts, distorts, corrupts, and shatters entire worlds.  In seeing battle–if that really can be seen–you would see how war is fought, up close and terrible, but you would not be seeing all that war is and does.

Professionals and the public have reason to complain about censorship, embedding protocols, and other restrictions on media coverage, but these issues also reinforce the sacralization of combat while distracting attention from its consequences.  In fact, photojournalists are teaching the public how to visualize war, and not as a scene of singular intensity, but rather as a condition-one might say a catastrophe–that can slowly engulf all of society.  As they do so, they also reveal how war’s predations expose the deep vulnerabilities in the human condition.

So look carefully at the face of battle as we have it in the photograph above.  These Ukrainian prisoners of war are the lucky ones: they are still alive, still able to walk on their own, and on their way back to their own territory as part of a prisoner exchange.  That’s the good news.  For the rest, it seems evident that they have been beaten–and cold, sick, humiliated, and afraid, and probably poorly equipped and poorly trained, and otherwise sacrificed one way or another.  Of course, I’m reading in some of what I already know about their situation, but the picture does prompt that reading.  From the bad eye to the fact that an experienced fighter (note how the nose had been broken previously) has been disarmed to the fact that army includes an middle-aged man in civilian clothes: these are the signs of systematic impovrishments.  (You can see more of the same at this slide show.)

The photograph could almost be an allegorical painting, with each of the figures an older version of the same man. There we see a younger man’s sense of personal misery, followed by the more reflective endurance of middle age, giving way to the renewed sense of shock and terror as the elder man confronts mortality itself.  Set against the black background, they become figures of humanity rather than of any specific event or circumstance.  The photo still exposes telling details of the dire condition of the Ukrainian army, but it exposes more fundamental weaknesses as well.  Not that we will all age and die (some won’t: they will die young), but that war is relentless in its ability to find ways to make people suffer.  The suffering of war goes far beyond the terror of battle, not least because it brings everyone closer to deprivation.  That may be its real advantage after all: no matter how far from the battlefield, everyone lives not far from their own frailty.

“The face of battle” alludes to the fine book by John Keegan having that title.  Keegan argued that those who conducted wars needed to understand how warfare was determined by the vernacular conditions and experiences of the battlefield, which could go unrecognized or undervalued in the strategic calculations of the commanders.  That would seem to be another argument for getting close to the action, but it has other uses as well.  In this case, the face of battle is to be found in both victory and defeat, and the particularities of failure may be the better basis for bringing distant audiences to understand or care about the specific situation.

There is another sense to seeing these faces of battle.  As Emmanuel Levinas has said, the face creates the most direct ethical encounter with the other: it presents the most basic sense of human alterity and vulnerability through the experience of another self, with the inescapable implication that “thou shalt not kill.”  They are as we are, caught between suffering and death, irrevocably apart and profoundly dependent, and capable of being called to life only through their association with others not like them.  As Judith Butler says, this encounter is at bottom a “wordless vocalization of suffering” that calls to us more deeply than can be communicated directly  (Precarious Life, p. 134).  So once again we are at the limits of representation, but with a difference.  Now the gap is not between acting and watching or experience and abstraction.  Instead, we recognize the profound difference between any two human beings, and how that gap both motivates murder and demands that we not kill.

Wise counselors will say war is a stern teacher, but how often do they reconsider what it has to teach?  Look again at the photograph and ask yourself what can be learned from that sad retreat.  Perhaps one reason people long for scenes of battle is that it is harder to face war as it really is.

Photograph by a stringer for Reuters, near Zholobok, Ukraine, February 21, 2015.

Cross-posted at BagNewsNotes.

February 16th, 2015

On The Road Again

Posted by Lucaites in a second look, visualizing war

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Your NCN guys are on the road again this week, but fortunately the World Press Photo Awards came out this past week.  We didn’t write about the winner, but we did post several times on Tyler Hicks’ second place award winning photograph for spot news (here) as well as a different version of the scene by a different photographer (here and here).  We encourage you to revisit what we had to say and how others responded … and perhaps also to consider what distinguishes the two photographs from one another.  We will be back with our regular schedule on February 23rd.

Credit: Tyler Hicks/NYT, Stringer/Reuters

February 9th, 2015

Masking the Solitude of Self

Posted by Lucaites in the visual public, visualizing war

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The “signature injury” of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan is Traumatic Brain Injury (TBI). According to the DOD, and by the very most conservative of estimates, nearly a quarter million U.S. military personnel have been diagnosed with TBI since 2001. Typically caused by close proximity to a “blast event” generated by an Improvised Explosive Device (IED), there are “no known” ways to “prevent it”—there is no body armor that can protect the brain from the successive waves of the blast—and there are no known cures for its array of effects, including “headaches, seizures, motor disorders, sleep disorders, dizziness, visual disturbances, ringing in the ears, mood changes, and cognitive memory and speech difficulties.” And, of course, it is no stretch to imagine that it is connected in some measure with the near epidemic of suicides among soldiers and veterans in recent times.

What makes the injury especially tragic is that unlike war injuries that visually maim the body, TBI is an altogether invisible wound. A victim of TBI can look as ordinary and able as the average person you are likely to meet on any given day, the pain and disorientation that they experience a wholly internal private affair. And as with the horror of combat more generally, the injury exacerbates the effects of a kind of psychic aphasia that makes it impossible to express their feelings. At the Walter Reed National Military Medical Center in Bethesda, MD, victims of TBI are encouraged to create masks that put a face on their injuries and thus to give some voice to what they are experiencing.

The photograph above is of Marine Cpl. Chris McNair (Ret.), injured in Afghanistan in 2012. His mask is modeled after the “muzzle” that he came across in a photograph of Hannibal Lecter that he found on the internet. “That’s who I was,” he notes. “I had this muzzle on with all these wounds and I couldn’t tell anybody about them. I couldn’t express myself.” The analogy to Lecter is telling in two different senses. On the one hand, Lecter is a fictional character who displays refined culture and civility, and yet is capable of somewhat unpredictable outbursts of extreme violence making him incredibly dangerous … much like many of the victims of TBI. On the other hand, Lecter has been muzzled so as to protect us from his anti-social transgressions … much as we have created a public discourse that “muzzles” the wounded warrior as a pitiable survivor—”there but for the grace of God go I”—whose pain and injury we view from a distance but which we really don’t want to get too close to.

The photograph above is especially revealing in this last regard, for it underscores how isolated the wounded warrior is as a singular individual, marking his pain and his struggle as altogether alienated and private. Clothed impeccably in his dress blue uniform, his campaign medals on display, his brass buckle sparkling, he is the heroic warrior, but he sits alone on a swing on his front porch. He remains the soldier who sacrificed for his nation, but he must confront his pain and suffering by himself and in the most domestic of settings, wholly segregated from the public who sent him to war in the first place. While the mask purports to give voice to his inner pain, it also makes it possible for us to observe him (from a distance) without actually seeing him.

And therein lies the problem, for however well intentioned art therapy projects of this sort are—and I have no doubt that they are well intentioned—they also underscore the public stigma that we attach to the victims of such injuries, as well as the implicit assumption that the “cure” to their injuries is private and individual — more their personal burden to bear than a shared public trauma. Until we can find ways to overcome both the stigma and that assumption it will be nearly impossible for such victims—or for us as a nation—to every truly be healed.  And that may well be the biggest tragedy of the trauma of war.

Photo Credit: Lynn Johnson

Cross-posted at BagNewsNotes.

February 4th, 2015

On Not Looking at the ISIS Executions

Posted by Hariman in visualizing war

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There’s an exception for everything, I suppose.  Today’s post is on a non-image, the image I refuse to see.  This is not an easy choice.  Once decided, it is not easy to do.

Let’s talk about the doing first.  The images are already in my head, as I’ve seen enough already, thank you.  They will continue to appear elsewhere as well.  The Google Image search for something else, the news story or documentary film on the region, an artwork, an academic paper. . . . one way or another, the ban will fail.  As perhaps it should.

The choice is choice regardless of how well implemented.  But why is it a hard choice?  There are plenty of reasons not to look.  Indeed, on this point both high-powered cultural critique and conventional norms of decorum overlap, albeit for different reasons.  A great deal of photography theory has been devoted to saying why one should not look, why the image insults those being displayed and degrades those looking at them.  More recently, some scholars and artists have pushed back: see, for example, The Cruel Radiance, by Susie Linfield, and Beautiful Suffering, edited by Mark Reinhardt et al.  Who is really being protected, they ask, by not looking, and why should the image become a scapegoat for real violence?

Frank Moller has provided an excellent analysis the dilemma, that is, of how it is both impossible to look and impossible not to look (“The Looking/Not Looking Dilemma,” Review of International Studies 35 [2009]: 781-794).  Readers of this blog will know that I have argued against the critique of photography’s supposed complicity with violence, and for the way that photojournalism offers a reflective encounter with the human condition, but I also have claimed that, as in classical tragedy, the most compelling and revealing images of violence and terror are rarely those of visceral horror.  Even so, I have no doubt that somehow my own moral sense and understanding of my country were fixed unalterably by seeing lynching photographs.  I may not need to look now, but I probably did need to look before.

So it is that the public needs to keep looking, even if that risks voyeurism.  And so it is that we need to look at other things instead, even though that risks denial.

Yesterday we learned that ISIS had burned a man alive.  I couldn’t bear to look at the video, and the other relevant news images weren’t able to address the horror, and so it seemed that posting today on any other photograph would make the photo, and the post, into kitsch.  As defined by Milan Kundera in The Unbearable Lightness of Being, kitsch “excludes everything from its purview which is essentially unacceptable in human existence.”  Kitsch is a technique for denying abjection, filth, cruelty, and other horrors, rather than facing them to overcome them.  Thus, not facing the execution seemed impossible, and yet I still couldn’t look.  So it is that I had to find a better way of not looking.

Burning a human being alive should be unacceptable to other humans, but it is not.  Those defending the action can rightly point out that humans are burned alive all the time by bombs, rockets, artillery shells, and other weapons in the modern arsenal being used against ISIS and anyone else caught in the cross-hairs of the modern nation-state.  But we knew that, and we see it from time to time, and it may matter that it wasn’t done for the camera.

ISIS isn’t merely the latest thing in the slaughter pen of history.  They are recreating a premodern way of seeing other human beings.  All you need to do is enter into their visual world of headless bodies, dismembered heads, bodies aflame, and other scenes of spectacular dehumanization, and very quickly a sickening–and surely for some, exhilarating–transvaluation of values begins to undermine every assumption of modern, liberal-democratic civil society.  At that point, looking really is dangerous–and far, far more so than photography’s critics had imagined–but for that reason perhaps all the more necessary.  If you are to pull back from the abyss, you first have to stare into it, while you still can.

So look.  Then turn away.  If you don’t need to look, I’m with you.  If you need to look, you don’t have to apologize.  Whatever you do, realize that the stakes are higher than had been imagined.  For the same reason, know that it becomes all the more important to understand why ISIS exists at all, and how to break the cycle of violence and the downward spiral that serves them all too well.  For that, we need many other images, and much more as well.  Not least, we need to appreciate how civilization is a way of seeing.

Cross-posted at BagNewsNotes.

November 12th, 2014

The Day After Remembrance Day

Posted by Hariman in visualizing war

Iraq war dead payloader

It’s like the day before, and all the days before that: back to business as usual in the war zone.

This photograph of Iraqi war dead is from well before yesterday, but it still has a point to make.  I don’t want to make light of the Remembrance Day commemorations around the globe (including the more optimistic variant of Veterans Day in the US).  It is right and proper to remember the war dead, to honor all those who served, and to humbly acknowledge the debt owed by those who did not have to make the sacrifices demanded by war.

But that is not all that is needed if we are to confront the ugly face of war in our time.

The photograph above is a sure counterpoint to the solemn, stately, decorous rituals observed yesterday and relayed across the slide shows and other media.  In those moments of observance, respect is paid, and war itself is recast as an exemplar of supreme values.  The hard facts of loss are made explicit, and the actual carnage is abstracted into flowers, flags, dress uniforms, and the precise discipline of military ceremony.  The nation reaffirms itself as a community of memory, and the reality of war is forgotten.

The rest of the year, however, is a different story, and not least in the war zone.  I’ve chosen this photograph because of the direct contrast with formal observance.  Instead of being treated with dignity, these soldiers are being handled like trash.  Yes, they might get a decent burial eventually, but for anyone seeing this phase of the operation, the damage has been done.  Civilians, other soldiers, and now you have all been insulted; not to the extent of the dead and their families, but close enough.  That reaction is appropriate, because a truth about war has been revealed: it is not in the service of the highest values, because it degrades those values.  It destroys lives, communities, and our common humanity.  It converts the human world into waste.

Much ink has been spilled about whether photojournalism should expose the bodily horror of war.  This photo, like many others in the archive, demonstrate that less can be more: there is little need to see the gore, because more than physical destruction is at stake.  If you do want to get closer to the mutilation that troops in the field have to experience, you can search for “war dead” at Google Image.  Perhaps everyone should do that once, but it’s not what is needed on a daily basis.  What is needed is to be reminded not only of the need to honor the dead, but also of how profoundly they and we are being dishonored every day by war’s vulgar contempt for decency.

Photograph by Peter Nicholls/The Times (UK).

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