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The Classic Game of World Domination

You would not know it from this photograph—or for that matter from anything you’ve read in the mainstream press in the past week—but August was the deadliest month in the now longest war in U.S. history, with 66 American deaths, bringing the grand total of such fatalities to 1,760.  This number does not include an additional 1,000 fatalities among coalition forces or literally countless Afghanis, or for that matter the thousands of non-fatal casualties.  But that aside, the photograph does tell a story.

These Marines are at a patrol base located in the dangerous Gereshk Valley of the Helmand Province where more than half of all U.S. fatalities have occurred.  We know that war, when its not about death and destruction, is a combination of periods of adrenalin reinforced, horror tinged highs, and incredible boredom.  But none of that is present in this photograph. Instead we have four young men who could just as easily be hanging out in someone’s basement waiting for the big game on Friday night. Or perhaps, more appropriately in context and in its own way, it could be a scene from a John Ford western, where the cavalry sits around a crackling fire after a day of chasing renegade Indians and someone plays a guitar while singing a wistful, romantic ballad.  Either way, the point is that there is no real evidence of the prolonged war that they are very much a part of or the dangerous war zone in which they sit.  And more, there is an altogether relaxed atmosphere as if everything is fine and there is nothing to worry about.  All is good – except, of course, for the fact that August was the deadliest month in the war.

But there is something else. The board game they are playing is Risk – “the classic game of world domination” which relies as much on the flip of a card and the roll of the die as it does on strength of force or strategy.  It could almost be an allegory for the war itself.  One has to wonder if they get the irony.  Or if we do.

Photo Credit: Brennan Linsley/AP


The Metamorphosis

The costs of war can be calculated in many different ways: dollars spent, resources depleted, opportunities lost, buildings and infrastructure destroyed, so-called “collateral damage” of all sorts, and of course lives erased.  In the U.S. we often frame that last category in terms of physical death, and such loss is unquestionably the most tragic cost of war—and all the more so because it is borne so disproportionately by the nation’s youth, those who have the most to lose. Less noticed, though not entirely ignored, are the ways in which war impinges upon the psychic life of those who do the nation’s bidding and are otherwise cast in the national narrative as “war veterans.”

As a nation we have slowly and reluctantly acknowledged the all consuming effects—or should we say costs?—of PTSD and the epidemic of suicide among returning veterans from Iraq and Afghanistan.  But what we have a harder time recognizing are the ways in which those who fail to show the discernible symptoms of traumatic disorders nonetheless undergo a telling psychic transformation in the process.  It may not be quite accurate to say that their lives are erased, but then again that might not be entirely off the mark either, as they no doubt come to face the world in ways, however understated, that bear little or no resonance with who they were before their experience as warriors.

Claire Felicie, a Dutch photographer, has tackled the problem in a project called “Here are the Young Men.”  Felice, the mother of a Dutch marine, photographed the members of the 1st Battalion, 13th Infantry Company of the Dutch Marine Corp five months before, three months into, and several months after their return from their deployment to Uruzgan, Afghanistan.  Shot as tight close-ups of their faces in black and white and displayed as triptychs that mark time from left to right, the photographs invite the viewer to witness the subtle and yet often unnoticed changes in how these men come to “face” the world.

The photographs above are of twenty-one year old Arnold.  At first glance it is difficult to identify any discernibly significant differences in the three portraits (which in a different context might be understood as mug shots), anyone of which might easily substitute for the others. But on close inspection it is not clear that we are looking at the same young man at all.  The most noticeable features in each photograph are the mouth and the eyes.  The photograph on the left displays a modicum of playful innocence. Note in particular the curl of his lips, slightly up on one side and down on the other, as if he is trying to look tough by avoiding the smile that lurks within.  His cheeks have a youthful pudginess to them that ever so subtly direct attention to his eyes as they invite interaction with the viewer.  It is a face that has yet to experience the world in any profound way.

In the middle photograph it is the eyes that dominate.  Wide open, they seem to look past the viewer, not quite a thousand yard stare, but not far from it either.  Note too the furrow in his brow that makes the rest of the face appear somewhat artificial, almost as if it were a mask that doesn’t quite fit the face it is attached to. And more, his cheeks are tight and gaunt, belying the youthful countenance of the first photograph, but more, suggesting a degree of caution, unsure of the world about him.

The final photograph is shot in a softer light that would ordinarily mitigate the aging process, but here it accents a face that appears to have aged too quickly.  The set of the eyes is similar to the first picture, but rather than to invite interaction they intimate something more like cynicism.  They don’t look past the viewer, as with the middle portrait, but neither do they signal anything like friendliness or trust.  Not beady, as in the middle photograph, they nevertheless have an edge to them that invokes a steely coldness.  The mouth underscores the affect, as it betrays no sense of being posed. The innocence of the first image is completely elided.

Taken as of a piece, the three portraits mark the subtle, psychic metamorphosis of a young man who has encountered the experience of war. The life he once lived has been inexorably erased, replaced by one that few of us who have not had the experience can ever know. Whether you find my reading of this triptych compelling or not, there is a different and more important point to be made, albeit one that is regularly ignored: the costs of war come in many forms, and too often some of the most profound costs are also the most difficult ones to see … unless we look very closely.  We have Claire Felicie to thank for calling our attention to this insight.

Photo Credit: Claire Felicie

Crossposted at BAGnewsNotes


The Softer Side of War

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The military is a brotherhood.  The battlefield a cauldron of male bonding.  And so it is that we are accustomed to thinking that war is men’s work.  “Real” men’s work.  So much so that even the thought of a homosexual in camouflage is enough to make some in the Pentagon almost apoplectic as they seek to explain the deleterious effect such “integration” would have on unit cohesion.  And generally, the conventional wisdom goes, women are really no less problematic inasmuch as they create “distractions” that disrupt the fragile ecology of the band of brothers. As the photograph above suggests, however, one solution to this problem is to have all-female units, a band of sisters, as it were, who might lend a softer touch in the battle for the hearts and minds of  those whose land we have chosen to occupy by military force.

This photograph leads off a slide show at the NYT titled “The Female Marines” that tells the story of a group of women warriors who have been attached to the 2nd Battalion, 6th Marine Regiment in the Helmand Province with the express purpose of “engaging” Afghani women.  The assumption, apparently, is that gender trumps nationalism, and when Afghani women encounter other women they will see past their uniforms and body armor—as well as the fact that they are carrying high powered, automatic weapons—and they will identify with them as women.

The premise relies on a cultural reductionism that is altogether implausible, if not downright absurd given the circumstances of the American occupation of Afghanistan.  And so one has to wonder about photographs such as this one, which show the “engagement team” sitting on the floor in an Afghani home, drinking tea and playing with a toddler while members of the family look on.

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The photograph has all the qualities of a snapshot in which the principals studiously avoid acknowledging the camera so as to feign a natural or candid moment. But there is nevertheless a tension in the image that belies the illusion of a comfortable identification between the family and its “visitors.”  Note, for example, how all but the toddler—who presumably has no knowledge or experience that would signal danger or caution—holds back from any direct interaction with the marines. And notice in particular the boy who stands deep in the back corner, his line of sight riveted upon the automatic weapon that sits on the rug in the middle of the floor.  It is hard to know exactly what he is thinking, but it seems unlikely that he is counting his blessings that the people who have taken over his home are women and not men.

That wars such as the one we are fighting in Afghanistan are a struggle for hearts and minds is obvious, and it should give us serious pause as we continue to commit to the use of military force as a way of overcoming the influence of the Taliban in a country that has withstood occupation for centuries.  But more, we need to challenge the notion that such force and occupation can be made less noxious or troublesome—let alone more successful—by trying to feminize it.  In the end, female marines with guns are, well, simply marines with the guns.

Photo Credit:  Lynsey Addano/NYT.

Cross-posted at BAGnewsNotes.


A Second Look: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love The Fence


When I first wrote about this photograph two years ago I marveled at the utter insanity of thinking that we could actually establish a 700 hundred mile wall fence across an otherwise barren dessert that would secure the 2,000 mile border that separates the US from Mexico.  And, of course, I was right as there is no evidence that the wall fence has done anything to slow down illegal immigration (in fact there is some evidence to suggest that the number of people sneaking past the borders has increased), though there is strong evidence to suggest that it has resulted in “borderland frgmantation” leading to serious destruction of the border ecosystem.  Notwithstanding the continuing need for serious immigration reform, then, the idea that we can maintain an impermeable barrier to secure us from “undesirable” outsiders is a preposterous fiction that only the likes of Stephen King can really pull off.  And, of course, the above photograph underscores the futility of thinking that this can actually work.

I was reminded of this photograph earlier this evening when I read a report that President Obama has ordered 1,200 National Guardsmen to the borders in order to “provide support to law enforcement officers by helping observe and monitor traffic between official border crossings” and to “help analyze trafficking patterns in the hope of intercepting illegal drug shipments.”  But for all that, “they will not make arrests … something they are not trained to do.” As with the photograph, the absurdity of the situation is pronounced, no matter which way we think of it.  If the troops are going to be used for interdiction, it makes no more sense to think that we can secure a 2,000 mile border with 1,200 troops (that’s one soldier for every 1.6 miles—and it assumes that each soldier is working 24/7/365) than that we can do it by building a wall fence.  And yet, if their primary purpose is not active interdiction, but to “help analyzing trafficking patterns,” one can only wonder why so many are needed on site to accomplish that task.

The bigger point to be made, however, is that we are not going to be effective in addressing the problem of our borders by resorting to simplistic and piecemeal military solutions.  I’m quite sure that President Obama knows and believes this, and were he to allow himself to be guided by the “better angels of his nature” he would move in a different direction towards more progressive immigration reform.  What is troubling is that he is doing it anyway, and for what are no doubt pragmatic political reasons that sadly (and ironically) belie an increasingly militaristic society.

Photo Credit: Don Bartletti/LA Times