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The Face of Battle in the Ukraine

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.

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The Face of Battle in the Ukraine

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1 Response

  1. James says

    I am particularly struck by your point that photojournalists are teaching the public how to visualize war, not as a scene of singular intensity. As a culture, we seem to rely heavily on iconography when discussing warfare. What is the soldier, a pundit might say, without a helmet, or a patch displaying a flag or battle division, or a weapon?

    I admit, without proper context I would not have guessed that I was looking at prisoners of war. On the flip side, I think about representations of ISIS in political cartoons and how they promote a type of facelessness to a group of people that might justify the distance between U.S. Americans and the targets of drone strikes (which cause harm to more than just the intended targets). What I learn is that war narratives from those in positions of power depends heavily upon clear and distinct iconography that easily separates “good guys” from “bad guys” and that any disruption of those narratives involves discomfort.

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