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War’s Bricolage

Reuters selected this photograph as its best of the day, and it is indeed striking.  But why?

Syrian rebel fighter in house

The caption said, “A Free Syrian Army fighter takes position inside a room as he points his weapon through a hole in Aleppo’s Saif al-Dawla district March 20, 2013.”  And that is what he is doing: positioning himself.  Hardly a dramatic action, and it is occurring in a still, spare, beige room, hardly a dramatic setting.

The room is no longer being used for its intended purpose, and a prior time of disruption is evident in the disordered decor: curtains down, furnishings strewn about, a hole punched in the wall.  It hardly seems fitted to its new use, however, for that delicate, foofoo lamp will never qualify as military hardware.  Yet “irony” seems too easy a label, as it can’t account for the way the soldier dominates the room.  Something important is happening, but what?

The sense of stasis is one clue: he is being posed for us, so that we can slow down and look carefully.  This is the opposite of an action photo, for the point of his positioning and aiming and firing that enormous weapon is still to come, involving an event that will occur outside the frame.  Instead, the point of the photograph is reflection, as if he has gathered into that space an equal and opposite concentration of energy to balance the impending gunfire.

The next clue is the way that he has repurposed the furniture.  Arranging the chairs and stacking the pillows to create his makeshift pillbox, he has given the room the same degree of thoughtfulness that went into its original decoration.  And he could do it with the same degree of cool concentration, perhaps taking his time to try out different configurations of the pillows, because he already is thoroughly at home in the business of war.

Which gets to the third clue: the natty self-possession in the way he is dressed.  You can expect to see that sweater and coveralls in next year’s fashion shows, and the beret could belong on any craftsman as he was making a cabinet or a musical instrument or a book.  Forget the camouflage, and a whole life could be surmised from his clothing and concentration; he’s even wearing a wedding ring.

Which brings us back to the room: it, too, represented a way of life, but one that now is being destroyed.  And so the deep intelligence of the photo emerges: it is documenting nothing less than how war not only destroys people and things, but also remakes the world in its own image.  This is the genius of war: it captures and rechannels the same skills, energies, and capabilities that otherwise are used to sustain peaceful, civil societies.

Force alone can do a lot of damage and thus can account for much of war’s power, but that still is the least of it.  As Chris Hedges observed, “war is a force that gives us meaning.”  What the photograph above reveals is just how thorough and nuanced that makeover can be, not least because of how it is accomplished by giving ordinary people practical tasks.

Kenneth Burke once observed that war motivates extreme levels of cooperation, albeit on behalf of the worst forms of competition.  (That is irony, and more than that.)  War also can motivate rearranging a living room on behalf of killing.  As the war “progresses,” the fighters can find themselves wholly occupied, engaged, and fulfilled by the work of destruction.  Why not: it rewards their resourcefulness.

This is the challenge that peace has to meet.

Photograph by Giath Taha/Reuters.


The Visibility of the Everydayness of War

Allepo Catapult 2

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:

Phone Bombs

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.


World Press Photo Contest: Why is the World not Weary of War?

The 2013 World Press Photo Contest Winners have been announced, and the news is not good.  I’m not referring to the quality of the judging or the photographs–far from it–but rather to what they show us about the world today.


Frankly, the world revealed by these photographs is a shit hole.  All too many of the images depict the ravages of war or of other conditions that are war by another name (gang violence, the brutal subjugation of women, poverty).  And as you can see above, a common denominator to these many sad stories is that a place where people were just trying to live decent lives is being wrecked, with little hope that anything good will come of it.  Or to put it another way, what seemed to be a modern world, or at least a part of the world on the way to full modernization, may in fact be going in the opposite direction.

I think it’s also telling that many of the slide shows featuring the winners–here, here, and here, to mention just a few examples– have selected images that don’t avoid this emphasis but may soften it a bit.  Certainly they haven’t led with the most horrific images, and neither have I.  Few of us really want to look at how awful life can be, and there is a great deal of peace, prosperity, and beauty in the world, and not much we can do about the rest anyway, right?

Right.  Sure.  Whatever you say, boss.  And that’s part of the problem.  In a period of time when in fact most of the world is at peace, in fact far too much of the world is at war.  And while terrible social, cultural, economic, and political degradation is spreading across the Middle East, Africa, Latin America, and elsewhere as well, the rest of the world goes about its business, as if business were all that there was to living with others.

That’s why I picked out the image above.  It was not a big winner–second prize, Spot news stories–and it’s certainly not a particularly striking image or one that with sharp emotional intensity.  It’s not even quickly legible, and you have to peer at it to see the lone rebel fighter aiming his grenade launcher in the direction of Syrian forces.  But for the same reason, I think it captures something important about the world being revealed by all of the photos.  A place where people have lived for millennia is being ruined, and with not much more than emptiness and the smoke of another battle on the horizon.  Just as bad, the lone human being in the picture is a puny part of the scene–a bit player, really, as larger historical forces crash together to create continuing upheaval.  Sure, he has the power of action, but even justified revolution turns too easily into just another cycle of violence.  At the end of the day, all we may be left with is a long night.

Of course, there may have been a bias in the contest toward bad news.  That is the nature of news, and so we should not be surprised that the stories told here are harsher than those at, say, National Geographic.  And this comparison reminds us that the quality of photography need not depend on its subject, so perhaps more of the winners could have been taken from the sunny side of the street.  But that would miss the point, which is the reason World Press Photo exists.

There comes a time when the most important thing is not how well the photo was taken, but what it reveals about the world.  In the words of William Carlos Williams, “It is difficult/to get the news from poems/yet men die miserably every day/for lack/of what is found there.”  These photos are the poems for our time.

Photograph by Fabio Bucciarelli.  The William’s quote is from his poem, “Asphodel, That Greeny Flower.”

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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


What Can’t Be Seen in Afghanistan

I’ll get straight to the point: What can’t be seen in Afghanistan is no reason for being there.  Now let’s consider how “seen” is more than a metaphor.

So, what can be seen?  No one photo–no hundred photos–could answer that question, but let’s look at the image above, which appeared yesterday.  A soldier is receiving emergency care after being wounded by a roadside bomb in Logar Province.  The photo captures key features of US military behavior: the troops are thoroughly provisioned, very well trained, directly engaging the enemy, and disciplined under fire, and they take care of one another.

For all the conservative anxiety about letting African-Americans, then women (yes, they opposed that, too), and now Muslims and GLBT citizens serve in the military, you don’t have to worry about unit cohesion with this company, or any other.  One soldier is tending carefully to one of the leg wounds, while another checks on the soldier himself, and it is easy to imagine (and confirmed by other photos) that the rest of the troop is deployed to make sure that everything gets taken care of, from the man down to the mission.

The uniforms include US flag arm patches, but that identification is well short of the patriotic rhetoric that put them there.  Instead of grand pronouncements, we see dirt and gear.  Instead of lofty projections about democratization, we see only a small swatch of terrain: grass, trees, grass, trees leading into the nondescript background.

Alan Trachtenberg has remarked that the shift from illustration to photography in the 19th century lead to “a loss of clarity about both the overall form of battles and the unfolding war as such and the political meaning of events” (Reading American Photographs, pp. 74-75).  Thus, the realism that rightly displaced idealized illustrations of war came at the cost of a coherent narrative that would justify the fighting.  Thus, it might well be that no photograph can provide a strategic rationale for war–although it certainly could challenge any rationale that substituted illusion for the facts on the ground.

In short, it might be that one could never “see” a reason for being in Afghanistan, and that the medium of photojournalism was biased against supporting any overarching rationale for war.  One might think that war then should be left to military experts and political leaders: that is, to rational assessment of forces, strategic calculations, and the political will to accept those sacrifices that are needed on behalf of raison d’etat.  But what if those reasons really aren’t there in the first place?  What if the original reasons no longer apply, and we are left only with inertia, an unwillingness to accept sunk costs, political face-saving, and other  examples of war’s well-documented ability to corrupt decision-making?

At that point, perhaps the inability to see grand purpose in a photograph could stand for the actual absence of purpose.  And what if the photo also showed what happened when the battlefield no longer served the national interest: that is, how the soldiers rightly focus on the only good intentions left: doing their jobs well and caring for one another.

This older photograph, which just as well could be from any day this year, puts the problem in starker detail.  The soldier is a lot worse off, and the medical response is ramped up as well.  He was lucky enough to get to the Heath Craig Joint Theater Hospital at Bagram Airfield, Afghanistan.  Again, we see key elements of military organization: both high-tech medical support and the caring attentiveness and reassurance of a fellow soldier, all in the service of nation.  But while the flag was small and utilitarian in the first photo, here is is overlarge and distant.  Whether too small or too big, it has been tacked on to what is really happening.  (Note how the flag above hangs awkwardly over the more functional decor below, as useful as a politician’s bluster back home.  There will be another reason it is there, however, as it has to compensate for the really bad news often occurring below.)

Sadly, the flag does not provide a reason to be there.  Afghanistan once harbored terrorists who deserved to be punished, and were.  But it no longer presents any threat to national security, while continued occupation has lead to the Taliban’s resurgence as a key player in local politics.

These photographs of American military sacrifice show much that is good about the US military effort in Afghanistan.  But no matter where you look, it seems, you can’t see a reason for them to be there.

Photographs by Munir Liz Zaman/Getty Images and Patrick Barth/Frontier Africa TV.


Rubble World: The Sequel

Beirut, Sarajevo, Grozny, Baghdad, and now Aleppo. When it comes to the senseless destruction of cities, no one even makes the pretense to say “Never Again.”  After all, they can be rebuilt, can’t they?  Look at how Europe was rebuilt after World War II.  But that was then: not just a different war, but a different conception of war and of peace.  Today, war’s destructiveness is both less widespread and more continuous.  Destruction seems to have found a different role in the historical process, and war produces not new world orders but rather more localized forms of sustainable catastrophe.  If so, an outline of this shift in the nature of things might be evident in a photo such as this one.

A few people walk through what remains of Aleppo’s main Saadallah al-Jabari Square after a bombing.  But don’t think for a minute that this scene is particularly unique or dramatic.  There are hundreds of photos of other streets in Aleppo and elsewhere in Syria and elsewhere around the globe.  The media coverage long gone, most of them are now part of a story no one wants to cover: decaying infrastructure, abandoned tanks and burnt-out trucks used as makeshift playground equipment, people coping as best they can with little outside investment and not much to hope for.  Where once they lived in vibrant communities, now they live among the ruins in Rubble World.

I first wrote about Rubble World in 2008, and not much has changed for the better since then.  Even with the Arab Spring, it can often seem that the swath of destruction is not so much the temporary cost of progress but rather a harbinger of even more gun running and militia violence.  Instead of seeing the expansion of civil society–although that, too, is part of the historical struggle–the promise of a better life is betrayed to some strange combination of international networks and clan politics.  Whatever the mix, the priorities don’t often involve rebuilding the cities.

Of course, people are much more important than property, and the many images of Syrians being killed–among the several hundred killed every day–are rightly a more salient and more effective witness to the tragedy that is unfolding slowly and painfully.  (See, for example, the first image here.)  But I also find these images of concrete desolation to be moving.  No one cries for concrete, but the built environment is both substance and symbol of urban community.  (So it is, for example, that both architecture and graffiti prompt public debate.)  War harms both individuals and communities.  An individual can lose a limb or a loved one, and a city can lose its culture and its future.

So it is that an image of the present may double as a glimpse into where civilization is headed.  It can’t tell the whole story, of course, but it can suggest how one possible pathway is already coming into existence.  I almost said, already being built, but it may not exactly work that way.  The future may involve a particularly perverse form of creative destruction: one in which the new city is being created by the same process that is destroying the old one.

Photograph by George Ourfalian/Reuters.


China National Day: The Flower Detail

Before concluding that the mass public is mesmerized by political spectacles, it might help to note that photojournalism includes a fair share of backstage shots.  And some can be taken in broad daylight.

This image verges on the visual joke–just think of how you might caption it using the word “butt” or “ass” or otherwise going down that path.  Jokes aren’t serious, by definition, but some very good photographers have not been above them, with Elliott Erwitt being the master of the genre.  Erwitt’s example suggests that the photo above isn’t merely a joke, but something related to that: not quite a parody, but mildly comedic comment on a more conventional form.

But what is it that is being cut down to size?  I think at least two stock images lie behind this photo.  One is the image of goosestepping troops that symbolizes authoritarian regimes.  (I’ve posted here and here on how these images are faring in the 21st century.)  In the photo above, the conventional boots, arced legs, pointed toes, and uniformed entrainment are all present, but firmly planted on the ground and immobile instead of striding forward as disciplined menace-in-motion.  And instead of seeing right arms swinging in unison while the left hold weapons (“arms”) upright, we see only legs and asses.  Worse yet, instead of all heads cocked in the same tense direction, all eyes on the great leader at the reviewing stand, these guys are headless.  Decapitated obedient bodies still symbolize the mass man and mechanized slavery of anti-communist demonology, but the image now is a long way from threatening.  After all, we’re looking at the flower detail.

National Day provides plenty of more impressive images of troops marching in formation, heavy military equipment on display, and all the features once found in the Western press after every May Day.  Those concerned about global security would rightly point out that the troops and weapons on display are real and receiving more funding every year, and that the event was held at Tiananmen Square, and perhaps any bemusement should be tempered accordingly.  But militarization is a global problem in another sense as well, as it sucks up ever more resources despite the fact that war has becoming ever more unnecessary and stupid.  Thus, spectators East and West need to be reminded that it’s one thing to enjoy the show and another to buy the whole package, and that those images of goosestepping troops help sell the package on both sides of the street.

So it is that the political spectacle itself may be another object of commentary in the photograph above.  Instead of seeing only the staged performance, we are taken backstage to be reminded that it is just a show.  Instead of seeing a display of power, we are reminded that the performance depends on ordinary people who are vulnerable in spite of their uniforms.  It will still be a good show, but now we can keep it in perspective instead of seeing a National Security Threat in every parade and Escalation in every salute.

And just to gild the lily, I’ll put up one more photograph from the same role.  This one seems the more direct parody, and a more direct put-down, but let’s wait a moment on that.

Now the goose step is revealed.  Are you terrified?  Of course not.  The stride is limited by the soldier’s load, but more than that, they are carrying flowers, gigantic bouquets of flowers.  On a carpet, no less.  OK, Defense Department, can you match that?  Do you have the latest intelligence on garlands?  Are you prepared to fight a two garden war?

This is another version of a backstage shot in a public space: the photo positions the viewer as if in the wings while watching the actors march out onto the stage.  The double vision of seeing them both backstage and on stage creates a slightly comical, skeptical frame for the event.  And once again the joke turns serious.  The better political vision in this image comes precisely from how the soldiers appear ridiculous.  Would that all soldiers were so: that is, that all the troops were doing nothing but competitive displays for peaceful onlookers.  Not great material for the video games, but one of the keys to the 21st century is figuring out how to turn military expenditures, and cultures, toward less lethal forms of service.  So is is that marching in parades, at least if you are in the flower detail, might be an important military exercise after all.

Photographs by Andy Wong/Associated Press.


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


The Real War

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.

Photo Credit:  Ric Dugan/Herald-Mail; Alexander Gardner