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Cast in the Shadows of War

The battle between pro- and anti-democratic forces in Cairo has directed attention away from the fact that the U.S. continues to have nearly 100,000 troops in Afghanistan fighting the longest war in our nation’s history.  The cost of the war to the U.S. is approximately $119 billion dollars annually, a small enough number in comparison to our $3 trillion dollar budget perhaps, but somewhat ironic in comparison to the GDP of Afghanistan which is approximately $14 billion dollars.  And let’s not forget the 499 Americans killed in action in 2010, as well as the thousands of civilian casualties that seem to increase with each year of our military presence.

President Obama has promised that we will begin to bring troops home in July 2011, which implies a winding down of the occupation.  But there is plenty of evidence to indicate that we will remain in the shadows for a long time to come.  So, for example, neo-cons like Senator Lyndsey Graham have been calling for U.S. military bases in Afghanistan “into perpetuity,” while recent reports from the Pentagon suggest that troop reductions this summer will come from staff positions and support personnel but, “there won’t be any combat forces cut.”  One might say that all of this leaves the American public “in the dark.”

The above photograph is of a patrol of U.S. Marines in the Musa Qala district of Helmand province but it might as well be an allegory for American presence in Afghanistan.  There is no telling if the sun is rising or setting, whether the day is beginning or ending, and so too it would seem with the U.S. occupation. Deep shadows shroud the entire scene in an eerie darkness, offset only by a distant light that seems well beyond the grasp of the forward most soldier.  Indeed, the prominent linear perspective of the line of soldiers receding to the horizon gestures towards an infinity (or is it perpetuity?) that extends—as if an optical illusion—every time we appear to get close to it.  And more, notice too how those shadows literally absorb the soldier’s silhouetted bodies, suggesting that they are inexorably fused with (or is it mired in?) the landscape. The rewould seem to be no exit from this situation

The silhouetted bodies seem to operate in a second register as well, for it is impossible to identify the soldiers in the scene as anything but soldiers.  The soldier in the close foreground is indistinct from those fading into the infinite distance, as well no doubt as those who follow behind him.  Each is like the next, and the only thing that really stands out are the weapons they are carrying.  The irony here is pronounced by the caption that quotes the platoon leader who says “We’ve definitely had a lot of progress because we do so many patrols, we get out, we put our faces out there.”  It may be that success requires winning over “hearts and minds,” but for a country that has known almost constant war and occupation for decades, if not centuries, there is little doubt that those faces are anything more than markers of an alienating otherness, metaphorically shrouded in darkness if not literally so.

There is a third register in which the image works as well.  If you look closely you will notice that the soldier in the immediate foreground appears to be turning backwards and looking in the direction of the camera.  His face is obscured by the darkness, of course, but it is not impossible to imagine that he is making eye contact with the viewer who is equally positioned in the darkness that seems to extend beyond the bottom front of the image.  That eye contact would imply a demand of recognition.  It is hard to say what that particular recognition might be, but it is no less hard to imagine that it would imply a measure of complicity from which it will be very  hard to extricate ourselves.

In short, the photograph seems to be a reminder that the current war in Afghanistan casts deep shadows that obscure what we are doing there and make it very hard to imagine that we will ever get out without a marked and unmistakable effort of will.  Whether the current administration is caught in the shadows or is helping to cast them is not yet clear.

Photo Credit: Dmitry Kostyukov/AFP/Getty Images


Cast in the Shadows of War


6 Responses

  1. Dave McLane says

    Let’s also not forget that while the cost of the war to the U.
S. is approximately $119 billion dollars annually, it is simultaneously approximately $119 billion dollars as income annually to certain people.

    Similarly, if you look closely you can notice that the soldier in the immediate foreground appears to be turning backwards and looking in the direction of the camera and thus imagine that he is making eye contact with the viewer, while at the same time the reverse can also be that the soldier appears to be turning forwards and thus avoiding eye contact with the viewer.

  2. lucaites says

    Dave: I’m not quite sure I get your point about the $119 billion dollars, though I’m pretty sure we could find other ways to spend the money that would be more effective in promoting jobs (if that’s your point). As to whether he is looking forward or backwards, your point is well taken. Indeed, that’s the point of an allegory, i..e, it is open to multiple interpretations or readings. The question is, what are the stakes in any given reading? And how then does the image invite or enable productive consideration of the implications of the image. And so my question for you is: If he is looking forwards and avoiding eye contact, what exactly do you make of it? What are the stakes here?

  3. Dave McLane says

    Having spent time in both the military (4 years as crew chief, USAF) and what was called a “captive” of the military (8 years as programmer/analyst for SAGE and BUIC, System Development Corporation), the kind of jobs that are being funded now have basically nothing to do with the kind of organizations and jobs that might move the US forward in more peaceful direction.

    Further, it’s fanciful to expect the existing corporations and employees involved in producing things that go boom in the night aren’t going to take kindly to having to change.

    As for the question of whether the soldier is either turning or stationary, and/or turning either left or right, there isn’t enough information to come to any conclusion, much less what it means. Thus any conclusion that is reached indicates the mindset of the viewer rather than what’s actually happening.

  4. lucaites says

    If I read you correctly part of your argument is that we shouldn’t want to upset the military industrial complex for fear that they won’t take it kindly. I suppose that’s a risk. But I still would prefer that that money be used to promote infrastructure here in the USA rather than to fight this particular war into perpetuity.

    As to how to read the photo: I think you are right about mindset. My point, which I’m not being clear about, is that the photograph is an allegory of sorts for the very confusion of interpretation you point to. That is, in looking at the photo we see a situation where its impossible to know what is going on …. and that, I think, is the problem. But again, I do appreciate your point of view. In the end I think we need more–not less-discussions of this sort.

  5. Dave McLane says

    My point is that while it may be possible to shift money away from the military industrial complex, besides the hue and cry from the corporations and those they employ, where are the organizations and especially the people who have training and experience in promoting a new type of infrastructure?

    I’m not saying that it can’t be done, only that it can’t be done overnight as it’s not so simple as taking money out of one pocket putting it in another.

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