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Back to the Future

Berman Cowboys

A few weeks ago I called attention to how the attempt to institutionalize the “rule of law” in Iraq was encoded in practices and narratives reminiscent of the conquest of the American frontier. The trope of the conquest of the American west, complete with its allusions of manifest destiny, has been used with both sledge hammer subtlety and various degrees of finespun nicety since virtually the very beginning of the U.S. invasion of Iraq.

The theme is eloquently and poignantly inflected in this image from Nina Berman’s 2004 “Purple Hearts” art exhibit, which was recently reprised in the NYT. “Purple Hearts” is a book/exhibit/DVD that includes pictures and interviews with six American veterans who were seriously injured in Iraq. This photograph is of Pfc. Adam Zaremba, a 20 year old “wounded in Baghdad when a mine blew off his leg.” The matter of fact objectivity of the caption reads like the conventional title in a family photo album – “Uncle Joe fishing at Lake Erie, 1923” or “Sally, 7, sits on Santa’s lap, Xmas 1952”—and contrasts with the evocative content being shown. The only thing missing, of course, is the date, which marks the scene as timeless. The formal minimalism of the caption contrasts as well with the intricacies and artistry of the image, the effect being to magnify the everyday relationship between the simple and the complex.

What we are looking at is a little hard to say—a fact that belies the unsayability of the picture. The image thus calls our attention to the capacity of the visual to help us see things that can’t be put into words, or can’t be verbalized with ease or efficiency. Indeed, a large part of the power of the image is in how it layers multiple transcriptions of meaning upon one another so as to complicate both the relationship between viewer and viewed, as well as the relationship between past, present, and future. The first thing to note is that Zaremba appears to be sitting in front of a television screen, and what we see is not his unmediated image, but rather his reflection in the monitor. The reflection reverses his orientation so that the viewer of the photograph loses the sense that Zaremba is watching the screen and, instead, is literally part of the scene being enacted, albeit looking away from the chaos behind him and past us to what we can only imagine is a future anterior moment. Though we know he is only a spectator here (and given his injury he can only be a spectator), nevertheless he is implicated in the action being projected outward. The difference between spectator and actor is thus elided, and so just as Zaremba as viewer is implicated in what is happening on the television screen as an active agent, so too are we as viewers implicated in the action, albeit once removed.

The scene seems to be part of a fairly traditional chapter from the received narrative of America’s manifest destiny. Modern progress, marked by the locomotive on the right hand side, required a transformation of the landscape, which threatened the indigenous and native cultures. Rather than to embrace the modern world, native Americans fought back, often in terrorist raids, and had to be controlled and eventually contained by the military and various and sundry mercenaries. Many good Americans sacrificed their lives to the cause, but as the saying went, they “died with their boots on.” Zaremba fights in a modern war where injuries are in some ways more horrifying than death (and so, ironically, he lives without legs), but there is more than a simple analogue to the war in Iraq operating here as the image functions in a more complex, allegorical register. Notice how the received narrative is complicated by the ghostlike apparition of native Americans flying through the air, a haunting of the image that simply won’t go away, even after a century of freedom and progress. And in this context, note too that Zaremba’s image is only slightly less spectral than the native Americans, projected equally backwards into the past and forwards to the future in what appears to be an almost straight line.

Walter Benjamin once wrote that “every image of the past that is not recognized by the present as one of its own concerns threatens to disappear irretrievably.” But according to this image it may well be George Santyana who has the final word when he reminds us that “those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.” The emotionless and stone cold look on Zaremba’s face implies a zombie-like existence as he glares beyond the present to an eternity that will be “irretrievably” haunted by the specter of our involvement in Iraq, just as we have been haunted by the specter of Vietnam, and before that the Trail of Tears, all wars fought in the names of “progress” and “freedom.” The overall effect is thus one of looking “back to the future”—or perhaps more accurately, looking forward to the past.

Photo Credit: Nina Berman



Back to the Future


9 Responses

  1. Duncan says

    The identification of Iraq reconstruction with the Wild West is an interesting strategy – it seems potentially risky for an anti-war photographer. While the image of Bush as the cowboy on the open range had particular resonance for the Anti- war movement (foreign in particular), the cowboy image also serves Bush very well with his base, and was a primary prop in his election strategy. I wonder about the degree to which many American viewers identify with the deconstructed American ‘wild west’ you describe in your post: many people may still see the John Wayne and Silverado before they see the more terrifying history of genocide

  2. Lucaites says

    Duncan: You got me there! Of course, this photo is part of a gallery show exhibit and most American’s don’t go to galleries. That’s important to some extent, because the entire show frames the anti-war attitude which should invite or encourage the ironic response to the image. And even at the NYT (again, not the newspaper for “most Americans”) the image was not the image they featured and so the story was framed in an ironic register. On the other hand, you are right to point this out, for the image does allow multiple reads, and I suspect that many would resist the ghostly images and see this as a “necessary” bump on the road to the end of history.

  3. Grant says

    Ironically, No Caption Needed has found a photograph which needs its caption. The picture does not show Zaremba’s missing legs, a visual argument potentially more salient than the potentially ambiguous conflation of the conflict in Iraq with the Wild West. The “matter of fact” tone of the caption, “a mine blew off his leg,” seems to simultaneously inform the viewer of the injury “more horrifying than death” and deemphasize it in favor of the larger historical allusion by omitting any textual (or visual) elaboration.

    Nina Berman appears to have made a choice between a personal argument and a historical argument against the war in Iraq. By opting for the latter, she reduced the soldier at the center of the photograph to a “spectral” onlooker at larger historical – and by extension – contemporary forces.

    Evaluating this choice presents some difficulties. Duncan has identified potential ambiguities with Iraq/Wild West comparison; similar ones would certainly exist with showing Zaremba’s missing legs (in the context of the Wild West motif or elsewhere). By not including the wound, Berman could cause the audience to lose sight of the immediate consequences of the conflict, but in wartime, an injury can be construed multiple ways i.e.) The Red Badge of Courage. If this image showed Zaremba’s lost limbs framed by the same images of the Wild West, audiences could see them as either an unnecessary loss or a necessary sacrifice to American expansionism.

  4. Lucaites says

    Grant: There is a sense in which “No Caption Needed” is an ironic turn of the phrase. The popular assumption is that some photographs are so obvious and clear that no caption is needed. But, of course, we discover otherwise in many if not most cases. Second, while the injury is missing from this picture it is available in others in the set. And remember, this is one of a number of images. Most who see it would not be looking at it in a manner that I — inadvertently — decontextualize. So, while your argument makes perfect sense here — and I agree with it in some measure — her choice is not quite as severe as the present context might make it seem otherwise.

  5. Nina Berman says

    I’ve been very interested in the discussion of my Adam Zaremba image and want to thank everyone for their thoughtful observations. I’d like to provide a bit of information about the construction of the image.

    The mural was in a museum on his base at Ft. Riley. It’s a museum to the U.S. Cavalry and as I was walking with Adam around the base, the public affairs officer who escorted me at all times, pointed the museum out to me as a source of pride on the base. When I went it and saw the mural, I was immediately drawn to the mythology it was depicting, so I asked Adam to sit before it. The layers of reflections come from free standing displays several feet away from Adam and the mural which were encolsed in plexiglass. I shot through the plexiglass at a certain angle which gave the impression of multiple layers and of Adam being trapped in and attracted by this mythology. I would have liked to have included his wound in the frame, and kept thinking at the time that the picture was flawed because you couldn’t see it, but it was impossible for me to compose the frame and show the wound. I exhibit the image with the others because I feel that his expression takes the place of the amputation.

    Once again, I thank everyone for their thought provoking remarks.
    Nina Berman

  6. Grant says

    Thanks to both of you for putting the image in the larger context of its exhibit. Nina, are the rest of your photographs available online for viewing? I would really like to see the others, if possible.

  7. Adam Zaremba says

    I know that those people posted around August 07, but I just want to say to the one talking about how the photo does not show the “missing limbs” call me or email me and I will show you the god damn missing limbs. You are going to sit there and criticise a photo for not showing missing limbs? Anyone that says things like that is in the wrong. There should not even be a section for comments on this page and all of the rest of the pictures on display. Making up all this photo crap, when men and women are getting wounded and getting killed. I really liked how she captured it, and I should be the only one to comment on it.

  8. Miley says

    Adam, you are absolutely right! You should be the ONLY one commenting on this photo. It’s beautiful. And It means a lot to me that u served for our country.

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