I’ve been teaching a class for the past few years called “Visualizing War.” One of the themes of the course addresses the interaction between documentary and photojournalistic representations of war and fictional representations. Many others have noted how fictional representations tend to mimic or repeat more realist representations, but what might be more interesting is the way in which patterns of circulation create a doubling effect so that at some point photojournalistic representations tend to mimic (or perhaps visually “quote”) fictional representations, and thus to draw some of their power from the popular imaginary. My attention was drawn to an interesting recent example by Michael Shaw (BagNewsNotes), who has started a spirited discussion of Scott Nelson’s imagery of U.S. troops in Baquba that appeared in the New York Times on June 25, 2007. The NYT story features the first image below, captioned “An American soldier carrying shoulder-fired grenades paused to wait for orders during an operation on Saturday in Baquba, Iraq”:
There is much that can be said about this image, but what I want to feature for the moment is the way in which the soldier wears his grenades in a manner that suggests that he is something like a “human bomb,” a point vaguely alluded to by the caption. The visual analogy to a “suicide bomber” is hard to avoid here, though there is perhaps an important difference in that the grenades are in full view, for all to see, even though the soldier remains anonymous.
The NYT story ends with a slide show that includes a number of other pictures from the same campaign, but concludes with the image below:
What is especially notable here are the words written on the head band and, importantly, emphasized in the NYT caption: “During the operation, Specialist Paul Goodyear wore a headband bearing a passage from Psalm 91: ‘He that dwelleth in the secret place of the Most High shall abide under the shadow of the Almighty. I will say of the Lord, He is my refuge and my fortress: my God, in him will I trust.'” Apparently this Psalm was sewn into the clothing of many U.S. troops during WW II and is worn by many U.S. troops in Iraq. And understandably so given the circumstances. At the same time, however, I can’t help but think about how this image also functions to sacralize an otherwise potentially obscene image (the “human bomb”). And in that context it reminds me ever so much of Private Jackson, the sharpshooter in the movie Saving Private Ryan, who evoked a prayer (Blessed is the Lord) reminiscent of the Old Testament Psalms to guide and sanction his kills, literally to make them sacred. And, of course, his kills were always “clean,” taking place with something like surgical precision, creating no more pain than was necessary to the job at hand, which in WW II was the defeat of evil (with credit to A. Susan Owens for emphasizing the importance of Private Jackson in her essay on “Memory, War and American Identity.”)
My point here is that Scott Nelson’s photography creates a visual narrative of the current War in Iraq that is framed by two images that are reminiscent of a recent and popular fictional narrative of WW II — the “good war.” Reality imitates fiction. And intentional or not, it at least implies a point of connection between the two wars that should be recognizable to many in contemporary U.S. public culture. Or if that last point is too hard of a stretch, at the least there seems to be something of a visual trope here for distinguishing the “good” and “evil” warrior, locating “necessary” and “unavoidable” kills (by sharpshooters then or by the U.S. version of the “human bomber” today) in a sacred register. And it is a trope that we see being worked out in both ficitional and nonfictional contexts, and that should give us some pause as to how the two contexts interact with one another to affect social and public consciousness of things like wars and state sanctioned killing.