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The Costs of Gun Violence

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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

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A Return to Normalcy (?)

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A sailor kissing a woman in public is not exactly news. But this photograph of a Russian sailor kissing a woman in St. Petersburg bears enough similarity to what is perhaps one of the most famous pictures in the American family photo album that it warrants just a little bit of consideration on our part.

Alfred Eisenstadt’s “Times Square Kiss”— often dubbed “Return to Normalcy”—marked VJ Day and the effective end of World War II.  Every ending is a beginning, of course, and so one might also imagine it as the beginning of the post war era which soon became known as the “Cold War” and extended until the fall of the Berlin Wall and the dissolution of the Soviet Union in 1991. The “War on Terror” has redefined our understanding of the East-West split in the intervening years and the Russian threat to the West has generally been muted by  its relatively weak economic condition and its willingness to cooperate on a number of small scale international initiatives. Muted, that is, until the Putin administration, which has demonstrated its willingness to resist entreaties from  the G8, NATO, and the United States on a range of issues beginning, not least, with the civil war in Syria.  And now with the Russian “occupation” of the Crimean peninsula and President Obama’s warning that this this will be seen as a serious threat to the US and the West, it is fair to say that we may be moving in a new and different direction in our mutual co-exsitence—and it is not entirely clear that we have an effective or useful vocabulary to describe the mentality that will govern this new relationship.  But back to the picture of the sailor and the woman kissing.

The photograph appeared in an on-line slide show on the Russian military that was posted two days before the Russian Parliament authorized a military takeover of the Crimea.  Most of the photographs in the slide show focus on members of the Russian military in training and, truth-to-tell, in many instances it would be difficult to distinguish what we see from training sequences in almost any modern military organization across the globe, including the US military. But there are also a number of photographs that mark the scene as distinctively Russian, and more, link Russia with the image of its authoritarian, anti-Western, Soviet past, including near iconic images of soldiers and tanks making their way through Moscow’s Red Square in a show of strength.  And then, near the middle of the slide show we find the picture of the kiss.  And one can only wonder what it is doing in a photo essay otherwise dedicated to posing the question: does the Russian military pose a threat to the West?  It could be an ironic gesture that serves to damper what else appears to be the projection of a hostile and belligerent nation state.  See, they are just like us, humans caught up in the worldly tensions between Eros and Thanatos, and we need to identify with them as such with all of their foibles intact.  Or, it could be a more cynical gesture to a “Return to Normalcy” where the war was “cold” and we could identify who our enemies were–after all, that’s not exactly Times Square in the background and the kissers are not exactly front and center.  Comedy or tragedy, its really a matter of what we choose to see.

Secretary of State John Kerry was quoted on the Sunday morning talk shows as indicating that the current situation “is not Rocky IV.”  We can only hope so, for it would be all too easy to “cry havoc, and let slip the dogs of war.”  We have had too much of that in recent years.  And so, to return to where we began, no, a sailor kissing in a woman in public is not exactly news.  But then again, perhaps that’s exactly the point.

Photo Credit: Alexander Demianchuk/Reuters.

Cross-posted at BagNewsNotes.

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It Can’t Happen Here

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There is no shortage of photographs of riot police containing protests against austerity measures instituted by various countries in the European Union, from Germany to Greece, Italy, Portugal, Slovenia and beyond, including most recently Turkey, which has made application to join the EU.  And there is nothing particularly distinctive about the vast majority of these images as they pit generally youthful and bedraggled unemployed protestors against state security forces dressed in black riot gear that might well be the late modern version of medieval armor, prominently wielding riot shields, batons and tear gas grenades.  The conflict marked by these photographs is altogether generic and but for the occasional signage in Greek or French or Slovenian they are all interchangeable with one another.  They could be anywhere in Europe, a feature that contributes to naturalizing the image as it signifies an “other” world wholly distinct from the US.  And at least one implication is, “it can’t happen here.”

The photograph above caught my eye because despite the fact that it is similar in many regards to the numerous other such images of European austerity protests it is distinctive in one important respect that warrants our attention.  Shot outside the Parliament of Catalonia in Barcelona it shows Spanish police forces advancing on Spanish firefighters with their riot batons raised.  What makes this image distinct is not so much the aggressive stance taken by the police—as disturbing as the poised baton, ready to strike, is—but the fact that they appear to be attacking other civil servants who are also sworn agents of the State.  In short, we are not just witnesses to an instance of civic unrest;  rather, we are spectators of  a more profound, extreme civic disorder that borders on something like mutiny or perhaps even civil war.  Put simply, we are viewing the State fighting against itself in a manner that challenges the very legitimacy of whatever it is that the police officers are “defending.”  One can only wonder how long a State can persist under such conditions?

Austerity hounds in the US have faced a number of strong challenges in recent weeks stemming from the fact that the economic scholarship which presumed to ground their case has been proven to be seriously flawed.  This has not stopped them from repeating their mantra, that “we don’t want to end up like Greece or Spain.”  There are good reasons why the fiscal crisis in the US is different than that in the EU and thus the analogy doesn’t apply all that directly. That said, the photograph above suggests one of the potential risks of too austere a response to the recession that we certainly don’t want to see in the US.  We probably don’t face a strong likelihood of this happening at the present moment as unemployment and other signs of large scale economic improvement like housing prices seem to be rebounding—albeit at a snail’s pace; but if those pushing for something on the order of the Ryan Budget in the House were to get their way it is not impossible to imagine how a growing number of “have not’s” could be pushed to the outer limits of their ability to sustain themselves.  And if that were to happen images very much like the one above might become more than just a bad nightmare, giving a different meaning to the plaint that “we don’t want to end up like Greece or Spain.”

Photo Credit: Paco Serenelli/AP

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The Visibility of the Everydayness of War

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With sequestration staring us in the face and all of the teeth gnashing concerning the possibility that the Department of Defense will be confronted with $500 billion dollars in budget cuts over the next ten years—no small chunk of change, but nevertheless a relatively small part of the overall DOD budget—I was intrigued by the photographs, such as the one above, coming out of Syria that show the primitive and makeshift weaponry employed by the Free Syrian Army.

The slingshot or catapult can be traced to ancient and medieval times, but in the contemporary era it is usually associated with rebel or guerilla warriors (think of all of the images we regularly see of Palestinian youth using slingshots to hurl rocks at Israelis), in large measure because it requires so little in resources to make it work. State sponsored armies have budgets that can be cut, rebels and guerillas … not so much.  And so the later cobble together whatever is available, converting the objects of ordinary life into weapons of war.

It is this last fact that bears some attention.  Elsewhere we have talked about how war has been normalized by being made more or less invisible in the United States, such that the accouterments of warfare have been converted into everyday objects that appear to have no connection to war (think of Jeeps and Humvees, or the way in which camouflage  has become something of a fashion statement, not to mention the AKC-47 assault rifle cast as a hunting rifle), but here we see everyday objects employed to the ends of death and destruction.  This too is an act of normalization, but one that runs in the opposite direction, putting war on display as quotidian, making it visible as a normal part of the everyday experience.

I’m not entirely sure what to make of this inversion, but I am reminded of Elaine Scarry’s characterization of torture as “world unmaking,” converting the objects of everyday life into instruments of pain.  Doctors become administrators of pain, refrigerators and filing cabinets become bludgeons, bathtubs becomes miniature torture chambers, etc.  Watching someone creating weapons out of everyday objects for their own use is not exactly the same thing, since there is no clear identification of torturer and tortured; then again it is arguably all the more torturous inasmuch as those producing and using such weapons seem to have little real choice in the matter as they become the active agents in unmaking the world around them.  It is, in its way, the most perfect and efficient form of torture; a perversion of a perversion in which the torturer and the tortured are one in the same person.

I was struck by the broad implications of this thought when looking at the picture below:

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Once again the photograph is of members of the Free Syrian Army.  And once again the soldiers we see are involved in producing a homemade weapon of war.  Here, however, there is no pretense of primitive weaponry; characterized in the caption as an “anti-aircraft weapon,” it is thoroughly modern, even if it does not display the most sophisticated and up-to-the-minute technology.  Indeed the bright colors of this image suggest a degree of contemporaneity that is muted by the drab shadows and colors of the photograph of the catapult.  But what is most striking is the use of a smart phone to arm and guide the missile.  Here we have an everyday object—and an item that virtually everyone reading this post has in their pocket—that has made it possible to create community across time and space, allowing us, as Ma Bell used to say, “to reach out and touch someone.”  It does that here as well, of course, but only after perverting the normal and ordinary usage of an otherwise salutary and everyday instrument of communication.

The United States is a far distance from Syria in just about everyway that one can imagine, economically, politically, culturally, and so on.  And yet, looking at these images—almost as if through Alice’s looking glass— has to give us pause as we recognize our own pretenses and patterns of  acclimating ourselves to the visual everdayness of a culture of war.

Credits:  Asmaa Wagulh/ Reuters; Mahmoud Hassano/Reuters.  Elaine Scarry’s provocative  discussion of the relationship between torture and war appears in The Body in Pain: The Making and Unmaking of the World.  New York: Oxford UP, 1985.

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War Games

At first glance, the photograph is an excruciating example of what Barbie Zelizer refers to as an “about to die” photograph, but a quick read of the caption notes that it is an actor dressed in a Japanese military uniform as he “pretends to kill a man dressed as a plainclothes 8th Route Army soldier.”  The performance is taking place at an Army Culture Park in Wuxiang county, part of China’s Shanxi Province.  I might have treated the image as little more than a curiosity but for the fact that I encountered it on several different slide shows, often accompanied with other photographs, such as the one below, showing adolescents and teenagers role playing Chinese soldiers  in war game simulations at what is described as a “guerilla warfare experiential park.”

One might wonder why the Chinese are promoting a theme park that offers a “guerilla war experience,” but the  question here is, why are we seeing such images and in such profusion?  And why now? And without any extended commentary? China is of course one of America’s premiere competitors for world power, and so there is all manner of curiosity about who they are and what they are doing.  Many of the images that we see of China these days call attention to the ways in which their economic and technological progress stands as a threat to global capitalism or they underscore the Chinese government’s efforts at political oppression and their potential military strength. The photographs of professional actors and children role playing as soldiers—both past and present—at the Army Culture Park operate at the nexus of these concerns as we see a military culture being advanced for what appears to be China’s middle classes through a theme park experience that converts war into play.  While the actors have a serious countenance—as commensurate with their roles—everyone else seems to be having a good time.  And the presumed and potential threat to the western world—both economic and military—could not be more palpable as we watch children who might grow up to be our enemies enjoying the experience (both economically and militarily).

Before we feel too superior in judging the Chinese, however, we need to look more carefully within, for a simple search on “children” and “war games” in the United States brought up a reference to the Virginia War Museum in Newport News, VA, an “incredible, safe, and fun experience for children, 8-12” with  both summer and winter World War II Youth camps (here and here).

And perhaps the question should be, what’s the difference?  Or, of what should we really be afraid?

Photo Credits: Jason Lee/Reuters; Ross Taylor/Virginia Pilot

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The Shame of Survival

The VA reports that 18 veterans commit suicide every day.  And last week the U.S. Army reported that the suicide rate among active duty soldiers has risen from 9.6 per 100,000 in 2005 to 24.1 per 100,000 in 2011. The number of attempted suicides is astronomically higher still and all out of proportion with the suicide rate among the civilian population.  Reports of all of this leak out from time to time, of course, but the tendency is to make the problem abstract by focusing on the aggregate and not so much on the individuals.  The numbers underscore the sheer magnitude of the problem, but at the same time they make it almost impossible to imagine the individual trauma … or perhaps the better word here would be “envision.”  And because the real effects of the problem are harder to see in the abstract, they are also easier to be blind to.  We are not inclined to quote totalitarians in the affirmative here at NCN, but Josef Stalin’s characterization of such situations is much to the point, “[o]ne death is a tragedy, one million deaths is a statistic.”  The situation is thus really something of a catastrophe: a problem that we don’t appear to know how to solve (assuming we exclude the obvious and refuse to eliminate the root cause, which is sending our young men and women to fight  such wars in the first place) and yet one that is so large and so present that the logic of its representation encourages us to acknowledge and ignore it simultaneously.

A large part of the difficulty is that it is virtually impossible to get photographs of actual suicides and one would surely have to challenge the ethics of taking such photographs if one could do so. And yet it is not sufficient to turn a blind eye to the situation.  A slideshow at the Denver Post titled “Welcome Home” is much to the point in this regard as it invites us to see into the life and mind of at least one contemporary war veteran and his struggles with readjusting to the civilian world.  Part of the story conveyed by the slideshow is the all too conventional tale  that the veteran’s return home is experienced as altogether lonely and alienating, and in any case anything but welcoming.  That narrative is no less true for being conventional, but the photograph above signals a second, more poignant and even more troubling story as well. Tattooed with what appears to be the face of death—a marking which it will turn out is probably not incidental—the wrist belongs to Brian Scott Ostrom, an honorably discharged veteran of the U.S. Marine Corp’s Second Reconnaissance Battalion who served two tours of duty in Iraq.  Ostrom did not commit suicide, but as the fresh stitches that mark his wrist indicate, he made a serious attempt at doing so.  In fact, it was his second such attempt.  The question, of course, is why?

Like so many veterans of Iraq and Afghanistan, Ostrom suffers from PTSD, a psychological disorder that manifests itself in panic attacks and fits of rage that often lead to physical violence.  Frequently that violence is directed outwards at other people or physical objects, but just as often it is directed inward at an intractable guilt that simply never goes away—and, of course, that cannot be seen. Part of that guilt is a result of having voluntarily participated in a troglodyte world in which all empathy for the other is evacuated, a world in which there is no difference between doing’s one’s job and behaving in the most brutal ways imaginable … and yet, in Ostrom’s own words, not feeling bad for “anything I did over there,” but “for what I didn’t do.”

The words are as cryptic as is the face of death on Ostrom’s wrist.  But both take on an eerie and troubling significance when we recall something he said earlier in his narrative, reflecting on his PTSD, “I think it comes from the fact that I survived.  That wasn’t my plan.  It’s an honor to die for your country, but I made it home.”  And then this, “Every one of us has a suicide plan.  We all know how to kill, and we all have a plan to kill ourselves.”  What he didn’t do was to die for his country.  The words are as hard to hear as the photograph above is to look at.

But look at it we must, for in its own way it illustrates the problem faced by our returning war veterans writ large—a point emphasized by the fact that the hand itself is disembodied; it could belong to Ostrom (as it does) but it could belong to any of the thousands of returning veterans (or for that matter to those who might be inducted to fight in future wars):  Bred to kill and marked by death, our warriors are assimilated into a topsy-turvy world in which survival is a sign of failure, and doing one’s job well results in dishonor.  And there does not seem to be any way out except for one.   Perhaps the only wonder is that the suicide rate amongst our veterans is as low as it is.

Photo Credit: Craig F Walker/Denver Post.

Cross-posted at BAGnewsNotes.

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The Good War in Reverse

The point of comparison is apparent.  The visual quotation is to what is arguably one of, if not the, most famous, recognizable, and reproduced photographs in all the world.  And more, it is the photograph most often pointed to as the icon of “the good war,” a total war fought against unregenerate, totalitarian evil in the name of freedom and democracy.  And what made that photograph taken in February, 1945 so incredibly powerful was the way in which it transcribed and coordinated commitments to egalitarianism, an embodied sense of nationalism, and a civic republican ethos within a single image. What makes the photograph above so distinct—and in its own way quite important—is how, despite its obvious gesture to the original, it resists or erases everyone of the original three transcriptions.

The Iwo Jima photograph depicts the war effort as essentially egalitarian.  We see six men, all wearing identical uniforms, with no indication of rank, engaged in common labor for a common goal. They are a working class equal to the task because they are working equal alongside one another, no one straining more than another, no one more at risk than another. The sacrifice is thus collective, the individual subordinated to the common good. In its way, the egalitarianism of the photograph modeled the egalitarianism of the overall war effort, not just on the battle front, but on the home front as well, where rationing, Victory gardens, and the purchase of war bonds were the order of the day.  But in the photograph above, shot at Camp David in the Helmand province of Afghanistan, there is no egalitarianism because there are no equals.  Instead of a collective effort to raise the flag we have a single individual struggling against the wind to put the standard in place. The effort and the sacrifice are solitary. He alone does the job.  And if the photograph gestures to the original icon of the “good war,” where the sacrifice was egalitarian, it also points here by implication to a war fought by individuals rather than by the nation as a whole. Perhaps that is why he seems to struggle so hard and why it is not altogether clear that he will overcome the force that opposes him.

References to the nation here are not incidental, for in the iconic image the commitment to egalitarianism was inflected by a pronounced appeal to nationalism.  It is notable that captions for the original photograph emphasized “Old Glory” or “the flag,” underscoring the symbolic significance of the standard being raised.  As one of the original flag raisers commented years later, “You think of that pipe.  If it was being put in the ground for any other reason … Just because there was a flag on it, that made the difference.” The caption for the above photograph, however, virtually ignores the national significance of the flag itself, as it notes that “U.S. Army  SPC Jeremy Stocks … restores a flagpole back in place after the flagpole fell in a night sandstorm (emphasis added).” The flag is there, to be sure, but it is reduced in significance to the pole itself; the banner could symbolize anything as far as the caption is concerned—a regiment for example—and it would not seem to matter to the task at hand.  But there is more, for you will no doubt recall that in the original photograph the flag raisers were turned away from the camera, leaving “Old Glory” as the face of the image.  Indeed, it was not insignificant in this regard that the flag raisers were initially anonymous and thus capable of standing in for an anonymous national public.  But here the flag raiser’s face is fully recognizable and he even has a name.  The opportunity for collective or national identification is thus doubly removed.

Appeals to nationalism typically operate in an heroic register, and in the U.S. this often manifests itself in a civic republican style that emphasizes (among other things) monumental sacrifices by ordinary people.  The Iwo Jima photograph manifests this larger than life heroism with its monumental outline and sculptural qualities, the massed figures cast as if cut from stone, powerful yet immobile.  No doubt these features and their corresponding sense of “timelessness” made for such strong extension into posters, war bond drives, and, of course, a memorial statue. And one can see how this was achieved visually. In typical reproductions of the original photograph the scene is cropped vertically, as if a portrait, and shot slightly from below; the effect is to magnify the flag raisers against the scene which they dominate.  Contrast this with the more recent photograph, cropped horizontally, as if in a landscape, and shot on a more or less level plane; the corresponding effect is to minimize the flag raiser who is now  dwarfed by a scene dominated by the sky and the flag pole.

The scene, of course, sets the stage for action, and here, once again, the caption is telling, as it describes the lone flag raiser as fighting against the wind.  It is not insignificant in this regard that in the Iwo Jima photograph the wind is to the back of the flag raisers, thus  evoking the sense in which nature—and perhaps, by extension, providence—is on their side.  Here nature is the enemy, and again, perhaps, with all that that entails.  But more to the point, there doesn’t seem to be anything particularly heroic about replacing a flag pole knocked down by a sandstorm.  If anything, the effort here seems more futile than monumental.  Indeed, it is hard to shake the thought that this flag pole isn’t destined to be knocked down by many more sandstorms in the future.   It is certainly hard to imagine anyone ever using this photograph as the template for a statue to memorialize the war.

It would be easy to conclude that the image above is the cynic’s answer to the war in Afghanistan, the longest war in U.S. history by a factor of two and going strong.  And we should not be too quick to exclude that possibility or its implications.  But at the same time we should be careful to take account of how our representations and remembrances of the “good war”—a war that ended in atrocity with the dropping of two nuclear bombs—goads the ways in which we think about our place in the world and thus inclines us to impose our own, idealized egalitarianism, nationalism, and civic virtue on other peoples.

 Photo Credit:  Denis Sinyako/Reuters

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Home Again, Again

Guest post by Lisa Carlton

Literary and visual tropes of homecoming are essential to narrating war.  Take, for instance, the timeless Greek war mythology of Homer’s Iliad and Odyssey.  Both of these poems invoke the theme of “nostos” or homecoming.  Or we might think of the iconic WWII image of the Times Square Kiss. Typically, homecoming tropes signify an end to a time of national conflict and strife—a relative return to normalcy.  But the wars of the new millennium are perpetual.  They resist narrative’s conventional markers of a beginning, middle, and end.

The image above was taken at a homecoming ceremony for the South Dakota Army National Guard’s 196th Maneuver Enhancement Brigade on May 3, 2011.  It appeared in the Memorial Day collection of “In Focus,” The Atlantic’s news photography blog.  According to the caption, the little boy in the photograph is four-years-old and the little girl is two.  This means the boy was born around 2007 and the girl was born in 2009.  By then, the war in Afghanistan had been underway for over five years and almost ten.  These children were born into a culture where war is the norm.

The uniformed father figure is identified by the caption as Major Jason Kettwig of Milbank, South Dakota.  An officer-level rank suggests that Kettwig has been in the Army National Guard for quite some time; Probably before his young children were born.  The photograph’s caption explains that this particular “group of approximately 200 soldiers has been serving in Afghanistan for the past year.”

One year ago the little boy in the photograph was three; and the little girl was just one-year-old.  In the image her hands lovingly and gracefully cup her father’s neck.  She is not clinging to him, as we might expect a young child to do to her father.  Instead, her head is pulled back from his.  She gazes at his face with a mature, furrowed brow, a look of relief, concern, and wonderment, commonly identified on the faces of adults.  She has not seen this face in one year and she appears to be studying it, searching for traces of change since the last time she saw it.  It reminds me of the way parents look at their teenaged children after their first long stint away from home.  But her father does not return her gaze.  He appears to be looking at his son.

The son, who is four-years old, stares off into the distance over his father’s shoulder.  His facial expression is less engaged than his sister’s.  His lips part and turn upward, but the smile looks almost hesitant.  Perhaps he has experienced this homecoming scenario before.  Maybe, by his ripe old age of four, he has experienced his father’s deployment and return once already.  The boy wears a green tee shirt, almost identical to the color of his father’s desert camouflage.  And his short, clean haircut adds to the father-son likeness.  As the father looks at his “mini-me,” the reader is invited to wonder if military service is in this little boy’s future.  So as the father looks at his son, and the son looks off into the distance, and we, the viewers look at these children, all of the gazing that animates this image is oriented toward the future.

While the children are the most salient figures in this photograph, with their adorable, round faces and the light bouncing off their shiny, sandy blonde hair, the father figure is positioned as central.  However, it is the back of his shoulders, neck, and head.  We cannot see his face, and as such, we have a harder time identifying emotionally with him.  We can only imagine what his face looks like.  Does it express happiness?  Relief?  Melancholy?  The back of his head does not provide cues for how we should feel.   Perhaps the absence of his visage marks a loss of his humanity while at war, or perhaps it symbolizes an anticipation of his death, or maybe it’s a social commentary on what has been described as a faceless war effort.

The photograph’s composition is an uncanny inverse of Dorthea Lange’s Migrant Mother.  Instead of identifying with the mother — or the absent father figure — as we might have with Lange’s image, this photograph turns our attention to the children’s faces for a model of how to feel and how to interpret the action in the scene.  This important shift in subjectivity positions the viewer as childlike—an infantile citizen who, like the four-year-old and two-year-old in the photograph, has become a little too acclimated to a culture of perpetual war.  When we take on the gaze of the confused and bewildered child, we as citizens are invited to remain complacent and uncritical.  Again.

Photo Credit: Eisha Page/Argus

Lisa Carlton is a Ph.d student in Communication Studies at the University of Iowa.  She can be contacted via e-mail at lisa-carlton@uiowa.edu.

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“Out, Damn Spot!”

Fighting a war against terrorism is one thing.  But apparently there’s no good reason not to maintain personal hygiene. And what better way to do that than to brush one’s teeth after a tasty MRE while on duty?  What is striking about the photograph, however, is not just the fact that we have a U.S. soldier massaging his gums while poised in a bunker between two machine guns, but that he seems somewhat—but only somewhat—nonchalant while doing so.  Leaning relaxed against a wall of sandbags, his right hand comfortably in his pocket, he seems to be without a care in the world.  But of course he is wearing a vest and a helmet, which suggests that the risk to his safety might be a little more serious than gingivitis or bad breath.

And so the question is, what exactly is the point of this photograph?  I must admit that in some ways I don’t have a clue.  He is part of the “No Fear” task force of the 2-27 Infantry in Kunar, and so there might be something here about looking death in the eye and laughing.  But there is also this:  If you work your way through the very many slideshows of the U.S. military stationed at outposts in faraway places like Afghanistan or Iraq you are bound to come across more than a few photographs of U.S. personnel washing or shaving or cutting their hair in what might otherwise be understood as primitive field conditions.   “Cleanliness is next to godliness,” and we should not ignore the sense in which the display of such behavior even under the harshest of conditions subtly visualizes a cultural commonplace that gestures to an Americanized, Christian sensibility.  But more than that, it points to something more subtle still.  Yes, such soldiers might be stationed far from home and under less than normal circumstances, their lives may be at risk and they might even be called upon to kill or die in the name of God and country, but for all of that the basic habits of a civilized people abide.

Put differently, such photographs in general serve as a reminder that war is dirty business even as they feign to suggest that one can fight a war and still maintain clean hands.  The presence of the guns that frame the scene above, and to which the soldier is destined to return, make this photograph unique in this regard, for they stand as a reminder that, as with Lady Macbeth, one cannot completely avoid the tragic stain of war’s inevitable ignominy.

Credit: Erik De Castro/Reuters.

Cross-posted at BAGnewsNotes.

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