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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.


Time Lost to Violence in Syria and Texas

One of the basic ideas that I bring to this blog is that a lot can be learned from photographs that are not striking, dramatic, or otherwise visually assertive.  Of course, most of the time I’m still working with high-grade professional images, but the distinction holds all the more for that.

Aleppo rubble

Few photography instructors would advise their students to take a distant, poorly lit shot of people walking aimlessly across a pile of rubble.  But they might need to think otherwise if they were preparing those students for a tour of duty in a war zone.  This is an all-too-typical scene from Aleppo.  The electronics remaining along the roof line suggest this had been a high-tech building, but now it’s been bombed back to the stone age.

Instead of downloading, people are scavenging.  Not for food (not here and not yet at least) but more for something to do.  And that is what the photo reveals: not just destruction, but how much war is about killing time.  Soldiers know all too well how bursts of activity can be separated by long stretches of boredom, but that is nothing compared to what many civilians experience.  War imprisons them–whether in their homes or a refugee camp–while destroying virtually all work, schooling, or play.  As the built environment around them is degraded more and more every week, their opportunity to do anything productive becomes ever more constricted and difficult.  Time looms large as something to be filled–with what?–but in fact that time is being lost.  Lost to them and to the rest of society.  Time that could be used to do so much: to learn, work, entertain, invent, and not least to actually live and not merely survive. . . .

Look at the photo again and consider how you can see what I’m talking about.  Not just the destruction of the building, with all the hardship that will cause, but also how time is actually present in the photograph, expanding to fill the craters and exposed buildings, spreading across the rubble that now blocks any attempt to do anything in that place.  Look at how helpless those in the picture are to beat back the emptiness.  Even the playfulness evident in the figure on the right will soon be exhausted, and more time will be lost to the bewilderment and hopelessness evident in the other boy and the adult to the left.  Their time will be like the space in the photo: there is too much of it, now that it can no longer be productively organized by the buildings and routines of ordinary life.

So you might ask, Is that just one photo, or can we see the same thing elsewhere?  My guess is that you can find the same problem wherever there is persistent violence.  In the US, for example.

Lone Star students

These students at Lone Star College are killing time as their campus is being locked down following a gunfight.  Apparently two guys were carrying, and so we now all are witnesses to an example of NRA-style conflict resolution.  Of course, it didn’t exactly play out the way it was supposed to.  Instead of two rugged individualists settling their differences with frontier justice, someone else was caught in the crossfire and thousands of students and staff at several institutions in the area had their day seriously disrupted.  (Has anyone measured the collateral damage in lost time and productivity from all these shootings?)  But the details here are not the point.

No, the point is that this, too, is an image of war.  The circumstances differ in many ways, of course, and so the definition is being stretched too far, but consider how one effect may be the same in both countries.  Shooting in both Syria and Texas is not only destroying people and property, it also is killing time.  Killing it by making it useless and a burden to be borne rather than a precious resource to be used and enjoyed.

If the NRA had its way, every college and university would be required to allow people to carry concealed weapons on campus.  Welcome to the war zone.

Photographs by Muzaffar Salman/Reuters and Brett Coomer, Houston Chronicle.


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.


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


Hiding the Cost of War

The photograph above is of Tammy Duckworth, a candidate for U.S. Congress in Illinois’ Eighth District, speaking at the Democratic National Convention this past week. She is also a war hero, having been among the first women to fly combat missions in Iraq, losing both of her legs when a grenade landed in her lap while piloting a Blackhawk helicopter north of Baghdad.  Her opponent for Congress, the incumbent Republican Joe Walsh has accused her of not being a “true hero” because she makes a point of discussing her military service in her campaign.  To quote former President Clinton in a different context, “that takes some brass,” especially coming from someone who has never served a day in the military in his life.  But the photograph above is not about Congressman Walsh’s Neanderthal attitudes nor even about Tammy Duckworth’s heroic service and sacrifice to her nation—or at least not explicitly so.

Shot from behind the podium and at a high angle that crops her body at the waist and accents her prosthetic legs, the photograph emphasizes what the viewing audience could not see—at least not while she was speaking. Viewed from the front we see a face, the marker of the liberal individual, a person.  And any person who can make their way onto the national stage to address a live audience of thousands and a mass mediated audience of millions can’t be doing all that bad.

Viewed from the back, however, the photograph invites a different story.  It reminds us of the terrible price that this individual paid—and now note that she is anonymous, faceless, another casualty of war but not one that we have to address directly.  In short, the photograph is an aide memoire to what we desperately don’t want to see, to what we want actively to forget: that we sent her into battle and the price she paid is really our debt, but it is a debt we have no way of paying.

In a sense, the photograph is a comment on the hundreds of images we see of the more than 1,200 veterans who have lost limbs in the Iraq and Afghanistan wars and yet, through the wonders of modern medical technology (ironically made possible because of advances in “war medicine”), survived to live what appear to be so-called “normal” lives.  And indeed, it is the emphasis on appearance that is very much to the point, for in the end we rarely learn very much about the ordinary lives that such people live and pain, trauma, and hardships that they face.

Consider, for example, this photograph that appeared recently in a slide show dedicated to the recovery of war veterans at Brooke Army Medical Center.

What you are looking at here are not real arms and legs, but rather “life-like covers” designed to slip over prosthetic limbs so as to masquerade a disability and to hide it from public view.  Note in particular the customized tattoos on the arm that make it appear to be individual and personal. There is every reason to believe that an amputee would want to be “seen” as normal, to hide his or her stigma, and thus to mask their prosthesis with a “life-like cover.”  Or rather there is every reason to believe that this is how someone who does not share such a disability—a so called “normal” person—might imagine how an amputee would want to cover-up his or her “shame.”  But really, the shame is ours and such “life-like covers” function, at least on par, as a veil that makes it easier for us to forget or to ignore our complicity with the sacrifice such men and women have made and the real debts that have to be paid.

Photo Credit: Charlie Neibergall/AP; John Moore/Getty Images

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The Everydayness of War

I was having a conversation with a former student recently who was exasperated by the fact that the war in Afghanistan, approaching its twelfth anniversary, is the longest American history and yet it is rarely on the front pages of our newspapers and but for the occasional report of U.S. troops being killed—usually in small numbers—there is hardly any public debate or discussion about it.  And the question, of course, is why?  Why is it that a war that is costing us roughly $100 billion a year, and has taken nearly 2,000 American lives, while wounding another 15,000 seems to have no traction in the public consciousness?

I thought of this question when I came across this photograph circulating in a number of different slideshows this past week. The scene is from Syria, not Afghanistan, but what makes the image distinctive is the way in which it frames the act of war in an ordinary and everyday environment.  The soldier here is a sniper, but he doesn’t wear a uniform, dressed instead in a camouflage vest that covers what appears to be athletic running gear. He is not on a conventional battlefield, but rather in what appears to be someone’s living room.  And he has converted the equipment of everyday life into weapons of death as he perches himself on a couch and uses seat cushions and pillows to balance and aim his high powered rifle.  Curtains seem to provide him with a modicum of cover.  And more, he exudes an uncanny nonchalance, simultaneously focused on the task before him and yet altogether relaxed.  Notice for example how he holds his cigarette while adjusting his scope, implicitly dividing his attention between the two.  War for him has become routine, neither here nor there, a condition of everyday life that can’t be ignored and so becomes commonplace, part and parcel of living in a constant zone of conflict.

There is no parallel to this image or the experience it represents in the United States.  The wars we have been fighting in the Middle East over the past eleven years are wars fought at a distance.  We are typically reminded about them only when someone we know is directly affected by them—killed or maimed—but even then for most of us the effect tends to be temporary as we mourn our loss and then quickly return to going about our lives without any serious concerns for our immediate personal safety. In short, these wars have not become part of our everyday being.  And as such, they become too easy to forget, or worse, to ignore.

Photo Credit:  Goran Tomasevich/Reuters


The Night Watch

There is something altogether haunting about this photograph.  Shot in the evening, it is illuminated by the starlight (and perhaps a bright moon) but animated by the green glow of night vision.  Rembrandt’s “The Night Watch” was famous for its use of light and dark to suggest movement where we might otherwise imagine a static frame, but here we get natural and artificial light as it combines to suggest a lone and anonymous presence stuck in an altogether static frame in a scene where we might otherwise anticipate agency and movement.

To get the point contrast the image with the photograph of the Raising of Old Glory on Mt. Suribachi during World War II. There too the soldiers are anonymous, but their anonymity is masked by their collectivity; we may not know who they are individually, but they are working as a team to a common and coordinated purpose. And, of course, it is a clearly national purpose, as symbolized by their connection to and effort on behalf of the flag.  Here the soldier is an army of one and there are no markers of nationhood. Indeed, the only identifiable symbol in the photograph appears to be the top of a soda bottle (possibly a Coca Cola bottle, marked by the characteristic red cap, but there is no way of knowing for sure) which emerges from the bottom of the frame.  But surely this soldier does not serve and sacrifice in the name of sugared water.  Or at least one would hope that we are not fighting and dying in the name of commercial interests.  The bigger point, however, is that there does not seem to be any movement at all as the soldier is hunched over, motionless, immobilized as he appears to be gazing  trance-like into the past.  Once again, contrast this with the photograph from Iwo Jima, where the image not only captures the raising of the flag at the height of its extension  upwards, but also where the direction of such movement faces to the right of the frame, the more conventionally forward looking, future oriented direction.

According to the caption, this is a U.S. soldier sitting at an observation post in Afghanistan’s northeastern, Kunar Province.  We are not told what he is looking at, but Kunar is a largely mountainous area besot with muddy rivers and rock filled, craggy pathways that combine to make passage treacherous if not impossible and so it is not hard to imagine the landscape he is observing.  But what exactly he is looking for … that is hard to say.  The war in Afghanistan is, of course, the longest war in America’s history, and Kunar has been the site of some of the fiercest battles between U.S. troops and Al Qaeda, the Taliban, and various mujahideen, but even for all that it is not clear what has been gained or lost (except for human lives, American and Afghani alike; the displacement of millions of individuals; and a price tag conservatively estimated at 600 Billion dollars) by such engagements.  And yet, the photograph suggests, for all that we sit and watch.  Static.  Unmoving.  Transfixed, it seems, by an advanced technology that allows us to see into the dark even if it is unclear what we are looking for—or what exactly we should do if we find “it.”

What makes the photograph haunting is perhaps how it functions as an eerie cipher for American involvement in Afghanistan writ large: individual, not collective; transfixed by a backward looking tunnel vision; and altogether immobile.  In its own way, it perhaps encapsulates the current war in a manner similar to how Raising the Flag on Mt. Suribachi symbolized an earlier war–only in reverse.

Photo Credit: Tim Wimbome/Reuters