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Fifty Shades of Contemporary War

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The photographic record of the ruins of contemporary war are everywhere to be seen. Buildings once cast as monuments to modernization destroyed in the blink of an eye, homes completely devastated as if hit by a tornado, dead bodies strewn amongst the debris of what was once thought to be civilization, and much, much more. We have written about it previously under the sign of “rubble world” (here in 2008 and here in 2012).” And truth to tell, even now in 2015 it doesn’t seem like it is getting much better.

The photograph above is from Debaltseve in the Ukraine. According to the caption “an elderly woman collects water from a puddle” and then goes on to detail the “particularly intense” fighting that is going on in and around the city. Of course the fighting is not immediately present in the photograph, but what we see might be more demoralizing for that very fact as what we are witnessing is not the death of individuals (which is tragic enough and in its own right) or the demolition of buildings (which can and in all likelihood will be rebuilt by whatever regime takes over), but the utter destruction of civil society. The surrounding buildings mark a modern society, as does the road on which the woman stands; but for all of that she apparently has no water running in her home and so she is reduced to scooping what she can from the ice melting on the street. The garbage strewn around her makes it clear that this is not without its risks, but the will to survive is strong and one cannot live without water; so she does what she can. And when winter gives way to spring and summer and the ice is gone, who knows what she will do.

War’s horrors and tragedy comes in many shades, but as this photograph testifies its effects ripple throughout a society at the most fundamental levels, their most devastating effects implicated by the day-to-day demands on subsistence that stand as a constant challenge to the human spirit and make it hard to imagine the reconstruction of a vibrant and colorful society. The color cast of the scene in this photograph is grey and dreary, and it seems to offer little hope for the future—indeed, multiple shades of grey give little respite, but then this isn’t a movie in a fictional world.  That said, what the photograph may well be showing us is the future—or at least one possible future—that could well test the limits of human resilience.

Photo Credit: Sergey Polezhaka/Reuters

 

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Masking the Solitude of Self

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The “signature injury” of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan is Traumatic Brain Injury (TBI). According to the DOD, and by the very most conservative of estimates, nearly a quarter million U.S. military personnel have been diagnosed with TBI since 2001. Typically caused by close proximity to a “blast event” generated by an Improvised Explosive Device (IED), there are “no known” ways to “prevent it”—there is no body armor that can protect the brain from the successive waves of the blast—and there are no known cures for its array of effects, including “headaches, seizures, motor disorders, sleep disorders, dizziness, visual disturbances, ringing in the ears, mood changes, and cognitive memory and speech difficulties.” And, of course, it is no stretch to imagine that it is connected in some measure with the near epidemic of suicides among soldiers and veterans in recent times.

What makes the injury especially tragic is that unlike war injuries that visually maim the body, TBI is an altogether invisible wound. A victim of TBI can look as ordinary and able as the average person you are likely to meet on any given day, the pain and disorientation that they experience a wholly internal private affair. And as with the horror of combat more generally, the injury exacerbates the effects of a kind of psychic aphasia that makes it impossible to express their feelings. At the Walter Reed National Military Medical Center in Bethesda, MD, victims of TBI are encouraged to create masks that put a face on their injuries and thus to give some voice to what they are experiencing.

The photograph above is of Marine Cpl. Chris McNair (Ret.), injured in Afghanistan in 2012. His mask is modeled after the “muzzle” that he came across in a photograph of Hannibal Lecter that he found on the internet. “That’s who I was,” he notes. “I had this muzzle on with all these wounds and I couldn’t tell anybody about them. I couldn’t express myself.” The analogy to Lecter is telling in two different senses. On the one hand, Lecter is a fictional character who displays refined culture and civility, and yet is capable of somewhat unpredictable outbursts of extreme violence making him incredibly dangerous … much like many of the victims of TBI. On the other hand, Lecter has been muzzled so as to protect us from his anti-social transgressions … much as we have created a public discourse that “muzzles” the wounded warrior as a pitiable survivor—”there but for the grace of God go I”—whose pain and injury we view from a distance but which we really don’t want to get too close to.

The photograph above is especially revealing in this last regard, for it underscores how isolated the wounded warrior is as a singular individual, marking his pain and his struggle as altogether alienated and private. Clothed impeccably in his dress blue uniform, his campaign medals on display, his brass buckle sparkling, he is the heroic warrior, but he sits alone on a swing on his front porch. He remains the soldier who sacrificed for his nation, but he must confront his pain and suffering by himself and in the most domestic of settings, wholly segregated from the public who sent him to war in the first place. While the mask purports to give voice to his inner pain, it also makes it possible for us to observe him (from a distance) without actually seeing him.

And therein lies the problem, for however well intentioned art therapy projects of this sort are—and I have no doubt that they are well intentioned—they also underscore the public stigma that we attach to the victims of such injuries, as well as the implicit assumption that the “cure” to their injuries is private and individual — more their personal burden to bear than a shared public trauma. Until we can find ways to overcome both the stigma and that assumption it will be nearly impossible for such victims—or for us as a nation—to every truly be healed.  And that may well be the biggest tragedy of the trauma of war.

Photo Credit: Lynn Johnson

Cross-posted at BagNewsNotes.

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Imag(in)ing the World Now and Then

 

D-Day Now

The scene could be a community beach front almost anywhere in the world. Cabanas set up for those who can afford them. Tents and umbrellas for others. White sand, small dunes, and blue sea for everyone—swimmers, sailors, and those who just want to sit and catch the breeze coming in off of water. Sun bathers intermixed with children, families coming and going. Soon, one can imagine, the sun will be down, the tide will be up, and only a very few will remain on the beach. A quiet, restful place, with only the rhythmic sound of the waves beating on the surf, lights perhaps shining from the windows in the buildings lining the beach as a reminder of a living community.

But for all of that, it is not just anywhere. It is Saint-Aubin-sur-Mer, France. Seventy years ago this past week it was known as Juno Beach, one of the primary landing zones in the D-Day invasion. Taking this beach head was necessary to provide flanking support to the operations at Gold and Omaha beaches and to give the Allied forces a direct route to a German airfield near Caen. The beach was heavily fortified by two German battalions armed with over 500 machine guns plus numerous mortars, a defensive position enhanced by weather patterns that made it necessary for landing crafts to come as close to the fortifications as possible before releasing troops and equipment. The responsibility to take the beach head fell to the 3rd Canadian Infantry division, which suffered over 1,000 casualties by day’s end—the highest ratio of Allied casualties for anyone other than those landing at the more famous and costly Omaha and Utah beaches.

Photographs, of course, only mark a sliver of time—typically only a fraction of a second that frames the here and the now in stark and radical terms. One cannot know what happened moments (or months or years) before this photograph was snapped, let alone what might happen even seconds after the shutter has opened and closed. Temporal continuities with the past, let alone alternate future possibilities can only be surmised. Such limitations don’t mitigate the value of images, but instead only emphasize the need for us to be imaginative in how we understand the reality that they put on display. And too, it requires us to recognize the ways in which the historicity of an image operates in tension with what it was then (or it what it might be later). It is, in short, part of an archive that has to be curated and engaged.

And so here we have Juno Beach shortly after the D-Day invasion. A crashed fighter plane where families today luxuriate. The detritus of battle washed up against fortifications that protected Axis forces from the landing Allies. The appearance of a solitary ghost town cast in somber grey tones where today colorful commerce flourishes, marked by the flags of multiple nations.

-Day Then

This too, of course, was only a stark sliver in time. A scene of courage and fortitude, of death and destruction that can only remind us that what was before the lens when it clicked was there and then, even as it only framed a reality that could survive only in imagined memories.

Credit: Chris Helgren/Reuters; National Archieves of Canada (for other “before” and “after” pictures of the D-Day invasion click here.)

 

 

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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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And Life Goes On

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The Civil War in Syria rages on.  More than 100,000 have died by so-called “conventional means,” plus however many thousands more by chemical means.  Horrific images abound of bombs exploding, burned out buildings and vehicles aflame, child warriors, tortured and dead bodies, random limbs strewn about and more.  In some ways, however, the most disturbing images are not those that put the conflict on display in all of its goriest details, but rather those photographs that slip through to show a society that seems to have accommodated itself to the war as if it were a normal and ordinary event.

The photograph above is from the north of Syria near the Turkish border in the city of  Ras al-Ain.  According to the caption his living room has been “damaged” by an attack perpetrated by Kurdish militia and we see him rehanging a painting of Jesus Christ on his wall.  It would be easy to make a good deal out of the iconography of Jesus as we view this conflict from the Christian West, but there is a different and more subtle point to be made.  Buildings are “damaged” by storms and floods and earthquakes and fires; although there are exceptions, these are typically natural phenomenon over which humans have little if any control. Often they cannot be anticipated or predicted with any precision, and their main effects are primarily material and economic.  War, of course, is different.  No less physically disastrous than natural phenomena, its effects are as much psychic—if indeed not more so—as they are corporeal. Such psychic trauma is often difficult to see, marked usually in images of demonstrable grief or the now famous “thousand yard stare.” Or as in the image above, it can be altogether invisible, made to appear as part of the natural, ordinary business of cleaning up as if after a storm or an earthquake.  Yeah, sure, there was a mortar attack.  But now we just fix the windows, pick up the furniture, put the painting back on the wall and go about our day.

The point is driven home by the photograph below of a father and daughter making their way through the city of Aleppo on a cart. The caption says that they are in the process of

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migrating from the war torn city. The physical effects of the war are present everywhere, from the rubble that covers the alleyway to the burned out bus stacked on top of another vehicle in the background.  But what makes the photograph so potentially disturbing—horrifying even—is that no one seems to notice.  The father and daughter make their way through the city without any sense of distress or particular attention to the ruins that surround them.  Others go about their business as well, apparently unimpeded by the physical destruction.  It is just another day in Aleppo.  Indeed, the young girl seems more interested in the person taking the photograph than anything else in her environment, a sign no doubt that she has fully incorporated the apocalyptic state of war into her consciousness as an ordinary and everyday event barely worth paying attention to.  The caption underscores the point, noting that she is “blow[ing] a bubble” as if to signal that she really doesn’t have a care in the world.

The real horror of war may well be the way in which those in its midst are forced to assimilate to its damage and destruction as a function of the sheer everydayness of ordinary life.  The real horror of war, in other words, may well lie in the ways in which its effects are invisible to the naked eye.  And that is what photographs can often put on display.

Photo Credits: Ras al-Ain/Reuters; Karam al-Masric/AFP/Getty Images

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Conventional Warfare

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Much happened while NCN was on hiatus for the past three weeks, but no story seemed to dominate the news more than the debate over what President Obama meant when he drew a “red line in the sand” concerning the use of chemical weapons in Syria, whether Congress would endorse a limited military strike against Syria in the wake of its alleged usage of chemical warfare against its own people in Damascus, and what role if any would Russia play in taking control of chemical weapons in Syria.  There can be no question that chemical weapons are a dastardly technology of mass destruction; that chemical warfare violates not only international law, but every standard of humane behavior; and that the very existence of chemical arsenals dedicated to warfare, let alone their usage, demands vigilant attention and appropriate response from all nations.  This much is true, I believe, but for all of that the recent and almost exclusive emphasis on illegal, non-conventional chemical warfare in Syria has diverted our attention from a different and equally profound problem.

The photograph above was taken on September 8, 2013, right in the midst of debates about what if any response the U.S. should have the use of chemical weapons in Syria.  It is of the Salah al-Din neighborhood in Aleppo.  The caption describes the buildings as “heavily damaged,” but that seems to be almost euphemistic, as they are virtually destroyed, the road between the buildings all but impassable, the sheets and bus in the center of the image described as providing “limited cover from sniper fire for those wishing to cross the street.”  And the key point, of course, is that none of this was caused by chemical weapons.  These buildings—this city, really, since this is only one of numerous such photographs—have been torn apart by one or another version of explosive ordnance or what we might call the weapons of conventional warfare. And not just these buildings or the physical infrastructure of this city, for as the caption underscores and the photograph illustrates, the very social fabric of the city as a site of commerce and social or civic interaction—simply walking across the street—has been equally torn asunder.

We should not—we must not—ignore the usage of chemical weapons.  But we also need to be careful that our sanctimony here does not inadvertently lead us to forget that the state of exception that somehow legitimizes conventional warfare is ultimately no less damaging, destructive, or demoralizing.  And whether that occurs as a result of civil strife, as in Syria, or as a result of occupation or invasion as elsewhere in the world, the effect is no less devastating; indeed, perhaps in the end it is truly no less humane.

Photo Credit:  Abo/Mhio/AFP/Getty Images

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All’s Well That Ends Well?

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If we take the photojournalistic slideshows at the major newspapers as evidence, the news for the past two weeks has been dominated by protests, both large and small around the world—though oddly enough hardly any that apparently warranted documenting in the United States—and a wide array of American patriotic displays, ranging from ersatz celebrations of red, white and blue to reenactors playing out the battle of Gettysburg on its 150th anniversary.  The photograph buried amidst all these images that caught my eye, however, had nothing to do with any of that and instead showed four children “playing” on a burned out armored vehicle in Kabul.

The vehicle is unmarked, and so it is hard to know who originally brought it to this spot. It could be American or British or even, however unlikely, a left over from the occupation of the former Soviet Union.  But none of that seems to matter as the particular history of this weapon of war has been erased.  What does seem to matter is that it has become a part of the “natural” landscape and that these children, young, innocent, and altogether happy, seem as comfortable climbing on it as we might imagine an American child climbing in an oak tree in his own back yard on a bright summer day.  There may have once been a war in Afghanistan that put these children at risk, but as this photograph suggests, there is now something like a return to normalcy.  Once there was a war, but now all is well.

Of course, notwithstanding the claim the U.S. has accomplished its combat goals in Afghanistan and turned military control back over to Afghani security forces, we know that the hostilities are not over, nor is it likely that we will see the significant downturn of U.S. or NATO military forces—whether we choose to call them combat troops, security forces, or military advisers—in Afghanistan for sometime to come.  In short, all is not well.  That said, what makes the photograph disturbing has less to do with the implication of a return to happier times, and more to do with the way in which it functions to make the past invisible by removing specific markers of the occupying forces and by naturalizing what has been left behind. And this all the more so as it appears in the midst of images of continuing conflict and social protest and American celebrations of its own exceptionalist past.

Photo Credit: Mohammad Ismail/Reuters

 

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“Oh Happy Day”

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This past week marked the dedication of the George W. Bush Presidential Library and Museum at Southern Methodist University.  “Oh happy day,” announced the former president.  And as is the convention with such dedications, it was a grand celebration of the past president’s legacy.  And for the most part photojournalists followed the script, featuring numerous images of the five living presidents collected together in fraternal solidarity, as well as snapshots of various library exhibits such as the dedication to “free people” shown above, or in photographs of Barney and Miss Beazley’s food dishes and the former president’s baseball collection.

The dominant theme for the library is “What would you have done?” inviting visitors to participate with interactive displays allowing them to second guess the president’s various controversial policy decisions, from the search for weapons of mass destruction to the handling of Hurricane Katrina to addressing the debacle on Wall Street, and more.  Ironically enough, such judgments were rarely if ever solicited during the president’s two administrations and when they were expressed by various publics (or “free peoples”) they were systematically ignored.  But it is of course impossible to visualize something that did not occur—and in any case is not featured in the museum—and so the best that photojournalists were able to do was to call attention to the glitz and glamour.

One photograph, however, broke through the veneer of praise and acclaim that dominated the day’s festivities, although it was not featured in very many places.

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The prosthetic leg belongs to Army 1st Lt. Melissa Stockwell (Ret.), the first female American soldier to lose a limb during the war in Iraq. She is reciting the Pledge of Allegiance with the Bush family standing in the background.  Interestingly enough, neither of the former first ladies is looking directly at Lt. Stockwell, each carefully averting their eyes, while former President George W. Bush appears to be staring at her with a befuddled and confused look on his face.  We can only imagine what he might actually be thinking, but his gaze clearly directs our attention to her star spangled, red, white and blue prosthesis, an ersatz symbol of the personal and private cost of the war in Iraq that contrasts with the shape and contour of her remaining, normal leg.

We cannot see Lt. Stockwell’s face, but perhaps that is altogether appropriate, for while she is without doubt a hero and the cost to her has been inestimable, she is not alone. Indeed, she stands literally to represent the more than 1,300 military personnel who have lost an arm or a leg (with more than 40 triple amputees and 5 quadruple amputees) in Iraq or Afghanistan (and with more than 63% from the war in Iraq alone).  Perhaps this photograph and those statistics should be featured at the museum exhibit which announces: “No stockpiles of W.M.D. were found.”

After all, if a “free people” are truly to “set the course of history” they should have access to all of the facts.

Credit: Allison V. Smith/NYT; Alex Wong/Getty Images

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War’s Bricolage

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

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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.

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