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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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What Does Injustice Look Like?

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This past week marked the 50th anniversary of the Children’s Crusade in Birmingham, Alabama.  By many accounts it was the tipping point in generating national public support for the civil rights movement, and much of that effect is often attributed to the national news reports that showed Birmingham police officers using attack dogs and fire hoses on nonviolent protestors. Chief among the most famous of those images is Bill Hudson’s photograph of high school student Bill Gadsden being attacked by a police dog.  It appeared the next day, May 4th, above the fold in the New York Times and has been reprinted perhaps more than any other image affiliated with the civil rights movement.  The photograph was memorialized in a statue in Birmingham’s Kelly Ingram Park in 1993, fixing the meaning of the civil rights movement as a response to repressive state action.

There is much that could be said about this photograph, but perhaps most important is the way in which it puts the relationship between dominance and acquiescence on public display. Prior to the Boycott in Birmingham one could find photographs that visualized the ways in which white citizens sought to enforce the codes of social and racial hierarchy through verbal and physical intimidation, the most prominent example being the photograph of Hazel Barnes “barking” at Elizabeth Eckrich in the streets of Little Rock.  But typically such images located the agency of such control in the hands of civil society, i.e., ordinary citizens.  Here the agents of action are duly authorized police officers armed with guns and in control of highly trained attack dogs.  And of course that marks a huge difference.  Indeed, it should be of little surprise to anyone that the scene above, cast in the full light of day and executed by officers of the state, was characterized as a “legal lynching.”

To see the image through the haze of memory and framed by the contemporary consensus that state sponsored racial segregation was a profound injustice destined to be eliminated by a truly egalitarian society is in some ways to dull the effective, functional power of the image at its point of production and dissemination–however powerful it remains today.  But imagine seeing the photograph in 1963 and in the context of reports made by the Commissioner of Public Safety, Eugene “Bull” O’Connor, that the protestors were a serious threat to public security.

The young man in the photograph does not appear to be a threat to anybody.  Note in particular his somewhat passive stance.  Despite being viciously attacked by a police dog his right hand rests at his side, while his left hand is on the police officers arm in a manner that seems either to be steadying himself or pushing the police officer away.  We might imagine a much more defensive or even aggressive stance in response to such an attack, but here we have an almost textbook example of nonviolent resistance.

The lack of threat is manifest in other features of the image.  Notice, in particular the countenance of the two police officers.   One seems to be pulling the youth into the dog’s maw, not so much trying to subdue him as to hold him still while the dog attacks.  The other police officer, with a handgun prominently displayed in its holster, heels his dog while he observes the scene before him.  One might imagine that if the black youth were truly a threat, so much so as to warrant the use of a dog to attack him, that the second police officer would be more directly and actively engaged.  Surely he would have his dog assisting in subduing the suspect, or that he would have pulled his gun.  But nothing of the like happens.  And the reason is manifest, for the action in the center of the screen is not about public safety.  Rather it is a public spectacle put on display for the enjoyment of the second police officer (and who he represents) and for the intimidation of the black citizens in the background.

When Martin Luther King, Jr. was challenged by reticent and fearful black religious leaders in Birmingham with the question, why are you here, he responded, “I am in Birmingham because injustice is here.”  Injustice can be a difficult concept to put into words, but once made palpably visible it is difficult to ignore. Sometimes we have to look closely to see it for what it is, sometimes it is there simply waiting to be seen.

Photo Credit:  Bill Hudson/AP

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Public Witnesses to an Execution

Public hanging

There is something that is both ironic and perversely democratic about this photograph.  The location is Tehran Square in Iran and the people on the other side of the barricade are witnesses to a public hanging.   Many are photographing the event, some appear to be looking in anger or in anticipation, others reveal expressions of pain and grief or simply cannot look at all.  But all are public spectators to a state sponsored execution.

To understand the irony and the perversion you have to remember that there has not been a public execution in the United States since the hanging of Rainey Bethea in Owensboro, KY in 1936, despite the fact that there have been 1,320 state sponsored executions between 1976 and 2013. The irony, of course, is that Iran is run by an autocratic dictatorship while the U.S. is an open democracy, but at least in this instance the former, it would seem, is far more open and transparent than the later.  Iran’s motivation is hardly democratic inasmuch as the purpose for the public spectacle is to serve as a brutal warning rather than to inculcate the legitimacy of its actions, and hence it is in this sense a perversion of democracy, but there is also something compelling about the idea that if the state is going to exact such punishments that the public—and not just a hand full of journalists—ought to stand in witness to the action.  We don’t endorse the death penalty at NCN, but the larger point here is that it seems fundamentally undemocratic to engage in such an extreme form of punishment outside of the public eye and apart from the full participation of the people.

If we think of the above photograph in cinematic terms as the “shot,” then this second photograph might function as the “reverse shot” or what the spectators are viewing.

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In Barbie Zelizer’s terms, we might call it an “about to die” shot.  But what makes it important for our purposes is how it captures the complexity of emotions that the spectacle of a public execution can put on display.  What is particularly telling is how even the hoods designed to conceal the identity—and not incidentally the affective responses—of the executioners are ultimately incapable of masking what can only be a moment of human compassion as the hangman on the left comforts one of the individuals about to meet his fate.  And one can only wonder if the reason we don’t have public executions in the United States is because we are afraid of letting the public witness the brutality of the punishment, or alternately, is it because we don’t want them to witness the displays of ambivalence of those responsible for performing their charge as executioners?

Photo Credit: Ebrahim Noroozi/Fars/AP; Amir Pourmand/Iranian Studewnts News Agency/AP

 

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The Winters of Our Discontent

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I wish I could claim sole authorship of the title for this commentary, but in fact it is an adaptation of a recent article in Scientific American (which adapted it from the title of John Steinbeck’s last novel who in turn borrowed it from Shakespeare’s malevolent characterization of Richard III).  But for all of that it is no less a compelling characterization of our current state of climactic affairs as we find ourselves confronting the acceleration of what has become known as “slow violence.”

Slow violence refers to environmental disasters that occur so gradually that we barely see them, but which reap long-term, catastrophic outcomes.  Recent global warming trends top the list and what makes such phenomena all the more problematic is how they can often appear to be incredibly, breath takingly beautiful, approaching what we might even call the sublime—representations that in some measure transcend reality, transporting us to a place that defies the very capacity for representation itself.  The photograph above is perhaps such an image where sky and water bifurcate the horizon of here and there as variations in lightness and darkness mark the temporal distance between now and then (or perhaps past and future).  The orange and magenta tones of the sky cast a calming shadow upon the sea which masks the mysteries of who knows what within its otherwise murky depths.   And overall the image invites both our approach and avoidance as if a heavenly and sanctified location.  It is hard to not look it and to be in awe.  Only the protuberances that emerge from the bottom of the frame call attention to the fact that this is a photograph and not a scene that fully transcends human occupation.

What we are actually looking at is “haboob,” a white shelf cloud of dirt that has been stirred up by a ferocious dust storm in the Indian Ocean off of the coast of Western Australia.  This dust storm, one of many that has caused brush fires over nearly one million acres is the result of uncharacteristically hot temperatures peaking at more than 119 degrees Fahrenheit in some parts of Australia.  The result of those brush fires invites consideration of sublimity’s counterpart, the grotesque, as a second photograph from New South Wales pictures the carcasses of sheep incapable of breaking free of a fence that contained them while a wildfire consumed the earth on which they stood.

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The bodies are not human, and so the tragedy is not as pronounced as it might be—not that we should scant the lives of sheep or other living beings—but it is not hard to imagine that they could be human bodies.  The image is hard to look at, but that would seem to be the point, as it works as a powerful, visual counterpoint to the awe-inspiring beauty that all too often and all too easily diverts our attention and placates (gratifyingly so) our acceptance of slow violence in the first place.

This is the third winter in a row that we have faced extreme weather patterns throughout the world.  These are the winters of our discontent. How much longer will they go on before we respond responsibly as global citizens is the real question we need to be asking.

Photo Credit: Brett Martin/Reuters/fishwrecked.com; Greg Wood/AFP/Getty Images

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The Missing Photograph From Newtown, CT.

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The tragedy that betook Newton, Ct. this past Friday leaves one searching for words, but there has been no shortage of photographs.  My initial impulse is to see that as one more piece of evidence to support the general claim that we make here at NCN that photography is a technology that provides access to a world of affect and understanding that is not easily or efficiently represented by words—or by words alone.  But careful review of the archive of images being published gives some pause for concern, as many (if not most) of the photographs we are seeing have an increasingly generic quality to them that makes them seem rather like visual commonplaces.  As Michael Shaw and Alan Chin noted at the Bag, clichés emerge when something is repeated over and again to the point that the thing represented is something of a taken-for-granted assumption that loses the power of presence it once animated.  Look at the full archive of images from Newton, CT. without captions or historical context and it would be easy enough to imagine that we are looking at a scene in Columbine or Blacksburg or Aurora or Oak Creek, and the list goes on.  In some measure the visual record has fallen prey to the success of its production and circulation, a mode of artistry that has succumbed to its own conventionality.  In a sense, just as we find ourselves searching for the right words we are left searching for photographs that invite us to understand and empathize without reducing everything to a cardboard cliché.

But even as I write that last sentence I must give pause once again, for there is at least one image from Newtown that invites reflection and consideration.  It is a photograph of a young boy and girl standing together in a wooded area presumably looking towards the Sandy Hook Elementary School.  The boy’s hands cover his mouth and nose, but not his eyes, which seem transfixed on the chaos and carnage that is before him.  He is clearly horrified, but he cannot look away.  The young girl has her arms around the boy, making human contact that no doubt comforts both of them, but she intentionally looks away from the scene before her, fixing her eyes on the ground at her feet.  And therein lies the conundrum of the regular and oft repeated mass killings we have been experiencing in recent times—we either gaze in horror or we look away.  But in either case we fail to act.  Like these children we huddle together in search of collective comfort, passively quiescent in the presence of a spectacle that leaves us more or less speechless and incapable of seeing what is clearly before our eyes.

And so that brings me to the question posed by the title for this post: The missing photograph.  As I read the newspapers this morning and listened to the talk shows I was dismayed to hear everyone focusing their primary attention on what motivated the actions of the gunmen.  Did he have Asperger’s Syndrome or had he been mistreated as a child?  Can we do more as a society to diagnose and treat mental health issues?  And so on.  These are important questions, to be sure, and there is no doubt that we need to be much better at promoting mental health.  But they are also secondary questions that completely miss the point of what happened in Newtown, CT.  Whatever motivated the gunmen, it is impossible to imagine that he could have been nearly as destructive as he was if he did not have access to automatic weapons.  It is really as simple as that.  The photograph that is missing from the archive of images of this tragedy is the photograph of the automatic weapons that were used to extinguish twenty six innocent lives.  Until we see that photograph, and I mean really see it as the material cause for what is happening, we will be caught perpetually in the embrace of looking in horror without speaking or looking away.  And soon enough the same clichéd images will reappear, and once again we will wonder why.

Photo Credit: Michelle Mcloughlin/Reuters

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Strange Fruit in California

So what do you see in this photograph?  Look closely and carefully.  The tree is knotted and gnarled, its branches reaching out like so many arms, going this way and that, almost as if it were a human being thrashing about in a hostile world.  At first blush it reminded me of the tree in The Wizard of Oz that throws its apples at Dorothy and her troupe.  Then again, it looked like might be from a more recent movie, perhaps one of the episodes of The Lord of the Rings or maybe even the fantasy world of Harry Potter.  But whatever you think you might see, look closely and ask yourself: What is missing?

The photograph was once the scene of a brutal lynching. Lynchings are a part of American history, and as James Allen helped us to understand a few year back with his Without Sanctuary project, they were not simply events that took place in the dead of night and away from the public eye.  Indeed, lynchings  were often carefully planned activities—spectacles really—with the trains adjusting their schedules so that church goers could attend the “festivities” and numerous photographs taken to mark the occasion, many of the later converted into postcards to be sent to friends and family.

Lynchings of this sort no longer take place in the U.S. and so it is all too easy to locate such events in a distant past, a time we might imagine as long, long ago. And perhaps that is so inasmuch as such lynchings have been exceedingly rare since the early 1950s. But the problem with such consignment to a once malignant but now benign past is that it invites us to ignore the depths and ignominy of such behaviors.  Most, no doubt, think of lynching as an activity used by southern whites to discipline blacks in the reconstruction and Jim Crow eras.  That it was, but we should not forget that such lynchings also occurred in many places north of the Mason-Dixon line (one of the most famous took place close to where I write from in Marion, Indiana) and as Ken Gonzales-Day, has recently demonstrated, several hundreds of Latinos, Native Americans, and Asians suffered a similar fate in California between 1850 and 1932.

And so, back to the photograph above.  It is one in a series of photographs taken by Gonzales-Day called Searching for California’s Hang Trees and is part of his attempt to witness an aspect of our national past that it has been all too easy to erase from our public and collective memory (see also his Erased Lynching series)—both geographically and otherwise.  The “strange fruit” that Billie Holiday sung about is nowhere to be found in these photographs, but that would seem to be the point. The tree could really be anywhere: north, south, east or west. And those tortured while hanging from its branches could have been men, women and children of many different ethnicities and colors. It is not a part of our past of which we can be proud, but it is a part of our past and it needs to be remembered.  And visualized.  So, once again, what do you see when you look at the photograph?

Photo Credit: Ken Gonzales-Day

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The Instruments of World Making

The scene is actually a street in war torn Aleppo, where Syria’s rich cultural and historical legacy is being rendered in rubble and ashes by a revolution that seemingly knows no bounds or ends, but truth to tell it could be any number of war torn countries, now and in the recent past.  At first glance the man walking away from the viewer appears to be carrying a grenade launcher or some other kind of weapon, cautiously at the ready.  But on closer inspection – and with the help of a caption – it turns out he is actually carrying a guitar.  And not just carrying it, but actually playing it as he walks down the street.

The photograph is extraordinary in this regard, for while the individual dominates the scene, so much hinges on whether we see a guitar or a weapon.  If the first, we might be inclined to cast him as something of a troubadour, strolling down the street, feeling safe, or at least safe enough to express himself on a deserted public thoroughfare with music; if the second, we might be inclined to see him advancing cautiously, nervously, through a war zone, vigilant against the dangers that presumably hide behind closed doors and shuttered windows or on rooftops.

But of course even in the first case we cannot assume that he feels too safe, as signaled by the automatic weapon he carries slung over his right shoulder, apparently ready to choose to employ one or the other as conditions dictate.  And so perhaps what see really is not a dialectic between the instruments of artistic expression and war so much as an allegory for the human condition of everyman, tragically faced with the choice for how he might engage and seek to (re)make the world, through art or violence.  Sadly (or is it tragically?), the photograph offers no real resolution to this problem.  But what it does is to remind us of the possibility of the choice. And it is that possibility—perhaps only that possibility—that enables the hope to keep walking down such corridors.

Photo Credit:  Stringer/Reuters

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“I Guess, You Know, Stuff Happens”

You might have heard that there was a shooting in midtown Manhattan late last week.  It was in all of the papers and on the nightly news. Of course, then again, such events seem to be routine so maybe you missed it.  The perpetrator got off five rounds, all aimed directly at his target; the police got off seventeen shots.  Nine bystanders were hit with bullets.  Do the math.

The photographic record of the event ranges from the somewhat clichéd representation of yellow and blue police line tape and numbered crime scene markers shot from on high and at a distance to mark the official response to a somewhat voyeuristic image of a dead body resting in a sea of red blood to the absolutely bizarre snapshot of smiling tourists (from France, no less) posing in front of the scene where the carnage too place.  But it is the photograph above that tells the story that really needs to be told.

The woman, Madia Rosario, is one of the nine innocent bystanders hit by police bullets (that’s right, all nine were wounded by police bullets or ricochets).  She is thankfully in stable condition, as are apparently the other eight bystanders who were wounded. But what should concern us is that she and the others were shot at all.  There have already been calls to investigate whether the officers were following regulations when they discharged their weapons with bystanders at risk, but there is a different point to be made.  Or maybe two.

The first point is that this is just one more of a continuing—weekly if not daily—litany of such shootings, each of which is treated as if it were an entirely individual and isolated event.  A disturbed individual goes berserk and shoots up a school yard or a campus or a church or a movie theater. As one of the bystanders hit by a police bullet put it, “You know, stuff happens.”  But of course these  are not isolated events, for what connects them quite palpably is the simple fact that in each case the perpetrators all had too easy access to automatic or semi-automatic weapons.  There is no easy way to represent that connection photographically, and so we resort to commonplaces that individuate the problem by emphasizing the perverse psychology of the perpetrator and/or visualizing the official response.  But of course  in countries with more restrictive access to such weaponry events like this happen far less frequently. On this point the facts are incontrovertible.  Once again, do the math.

The second point is really a response to those who claim that everyone will be safer when we all have guns and can thus protect ourselves from such violence and bloodshed. But the photograph of Madia Rosario suggests perhaps otherwise.  The police are enjoined never to “put civilians in the line of fire.”  And more, they are trained in how to respond to crisis situations in which chaos reigns and human behavior is animated more by fear and the rush of adrenalin than reason or common sense. And on par they do a pretty decent job.   And yet for all their training and preparation, “stuff happens.” One can only imagine what stuff would happen if bystanders not trained in crisis management of any sort were carrying weapons and started shooting.  Just do the math.

Photo Credit: Uli Seit/New York Times

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The “True” Colors of War

Photographs of child combatants in Africa, Asia, and the Middle East have become so common as to be almost a convention of war photography, and as such it is all too easy to see past them with little more than a tired nod of recognition (if even that). Richard Mosse’s Infra project, which focuses on nomadic rebels in the jungles of the Congo, challenges such nonchalance by disrupting our normal patterns of looking.

Mosse achieves this effect by using Aerochrome, a now discontinued infrared film that was originally produced by Kodak in 1942.  Aerochrome is a false-color reversal film designed, according to Kodak, “for various aerial photographic applications, such as vegetation and forestry surveys … monitoring where infrared discriminations may yield practical results.”  More to the point, it was intended for military purposes and in particular camouflage detection as it rendered the reflections of infrared and green typical of healthy foliage in strong red tones, making it stand out against the façade of dead and dying leaves—often seen in diluted magenta tones—used to conceal the enemy. In short, its purpose was to make the invisible visible.

The camera is generally understood to be an objective technology, recording only what is presented before its lens.  But of course that doesn’t mean that it always shows all that there is to see, even within its limited focus.  Infrared, for example, is invisible to the human eye and, indeed, it is also invisible to the camera unless it is filtered by an appropriate medium like infrared film.  When such film is used, however, the ordinarily invisible becomes visible, and as the photograph above indicates, it does so in pronounced ways that force us to look again at what we are seeing—to acknowledge what our normal capacity for seeing fails to recognize.  In this case, the shift from “real” colors to infrared casts the scene as surreal and thus encourages us to reconsider what it is that we are looking at.  Notice here how the muted, purple tint of the boy’s hat and pants blend with both his brown skin and with the magenta foliage in the background. The Sponge Bob t-shirt, which otherwise might have been the primary focus of our attention, now fades slightly from view as the jarring relationship between the boy and the environment is enhanced.  And as he becomes more closely identified with the “natural” palette of the apparently borderline healthy foliage, the stresses and strains of the war on him become more pronounced as well. Note too how the infrared reflections contrast with and underscore the black metal of his weapon, an object which now stands out as visually discordant and warrants more attention.

Mosse characterizes his photographs as something of a return to a pre-realist romanticism, but inasmuch as he relies on the mechanical technology of the camera to record everything that it can see, he is actually remaining consistent to a fault with the photojournalist’s commitment to an objective, realist aesthetic.  At the same time, however, by pushing the camera to to the full extent of its objective and realist capabilities he highlights simultaneously the technological limitations and the artistry of every photograph.  And more, he reminds us that while war’s true colors are not always easily visible to the naked eye that fact does not render them insignificant or inconsequential; and more, it does not absolve us of the responsibility to see what might otherwise appear to be invisible.

Photo Credit: Richard Mosse (North Kivu, Eastern Congo, 2011)

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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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