Hot off the presses! And with a full color photo-essay by Nina Berman.
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
If you grew up south of the Mason Dixon line you probably know it as the Battle of Sharpsburg, but of course the Union won the war and so its official name bears the northern nominative: the Battle of Antietam. In either case, today is the sesquicentennial of the bloodiest single day of fighting in American history—then or since—with more than 23,000 casualties in a twelve hour period, including at least 3,500 deaths. To gain some sense of the magnitude keep in mind that this is almost a third again as many people who died in the 9/11 attacks, but the U.S. population in 1862 was approximately 31 million people, while according to the 2000 census the U.S. population was 281 million strong. Nearly 4,000 reenactors showed up this weekend to restage the battle—the second of two such events in a two week period—as well as 2,000 spectators per day over a three day period.
Reenactors are typically known for their commitment to authenticity, right down to the socks they wear, the number of buttons on their uniforms, the instruments and music they play, the food they eat and the ways they prepare it, the tobacco they smoke and chew, and so on. Indeed, their encampments are a living museum and there is plenty to be learned by attending such festive events. But what we can’t learn, of course, is what it is like to be at war. It is an old bromide that war is unrepresentable, an experience that defies our ability to communicate it to those who have not experienced it in anything but the most trivial of ways. There are those who do the fighting and those who view wars at a distance, a dialectic that has become all the more pronounced in late modern times, and as the photograph above underscores, the boundary between soldier and spectator is discrete and discernible, perhaps one more way in which such reenactments (inadvertently?) reinforce their commitment to authenticity.
But the larger point is that however accurate such events might be in some regard, they ultimately reduce to an instance of play acting. The sheer boredom and tedium of waiting for battle is erased by a carefully prescribed schedule of events. Supply shortages are not an issue. There is no disease and dysentery. No bones are crushed, no limbs are blown apart, no bodies are invaded by musket balls. No one stays around the week after such events to recover and bury the rotting corpses left behind. In short, the real war experience is nowhere to be found. And it is little wonder how such events—cast as a family outing—contribute to a romantic understanding of war and the warrior.
Such was a prevailing attitude prior to 1862 as well, before the viewing public was introduced to an exhibit at Mathew Brady’s New York City gallery titled “The Dead of Antietam.” The photographs (actually shot by Alexander Gardner who did not receive credit at the time), many of them employing the new stereographic technique that produced something of a three dimensional quality, led the NYT to report that Brady’s exhibit “bring[s] home to us the terrible reality and earnestness of war. If he has not brought bodies and laid them in our door-yards and along streets, he has done something very like it.” For the first time the American public qua public was confronted with a reality of war that could not be captured by the report of daily body counts or the public readings of lists of the names of the war dead.
The realist aesthetic of Gardner’s photographs, seventy in all, gave the lie to—or at least seriously challenged—the romance of war and were eventually important resources for Stephan Crane’s The Red Badge of Courage.
It would be a tragic mistake simply to turn tables and assume that somehow these photographs tell the “real” story of the Battle of Antietam/Sharpsburg all by themselves. But it would be equally tragic to assume that we could understand the battle without the “terrible reality and earnestness of war” they put on display.
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