A friend asked recently why the current wars haven’t produced any great images or documentary films. There have been great images and great films, of course. What he meant, he went on, was that we haven’t seen iconic images like the ones that were produced in the Vietnam War, grainy images of exhausted men smoking, that kind of thing. These wars have producted that kind of image, too. But he has a point.
The difference, I think, is that the perception of soldiers was defined then by the draft and is defined now by the volunteer army. A soldier in Veitnam is a victim of fate. A soldier in Afghanistan has taken agency in the events of the day. That difference shifts subtly how similar situations are percieved. Enduring hardship against one’s will shows grit; enduring hardship by choice takes pluck.
This isn’t an accurate characterization of the two wars, though. Lots of soldiers in the Vietnam War were volunteers, lots of soldiers at war today have limited alternatives. But the facts don’t really matter here, because the difference in how the two are percieved is a refelction of the viewer’s assumptions, not a difference in the subjects themsleves. The American public doesn’t want to think that its soldiers are victims of fate, and this desire shapes the kind of photographs that are taken and distributed, and the way that they are percieved.
Does the presumption of agency that we have with respect to soldiers in the current wars do those soldiers any good? If it is a more dignified presentation, then it is a dignity that is oddly self-serving to the viewer: don’t worry, you are neither responsible for this situation nor expected to live up to that conduct yourself. Does it make it harder for soldiers to get care that they need, when it is presumed that they are up to the task? Does it make it more or less likely that they will be deployed responsibly?
A recent interview of Richard Engel suggested a different path. Here’s a transcript of the interview by Terry Gross.
GROSS: Engel and Rachel Maddow report on the aftermath of 9/11 in a new documentary called “Day of Destruction, Decade of War” … Included in the documentary is a clip from one of Engel’s reports from Afghanistan while embedded with the 82nd Airborne Division. He’s interviewing Sergeant Louis Loftus, the point man on patrols, who would be the first to spot or step on an IED. Shortly before this interview, his buddy was killed by an IED. Loftus tries to stay stoic.
Sergeant LOUIS LOFTUS (82 Airborne Division): Right now, I’m kind of numb to it. Like to be honest, I just don’t really feel much. I pray for his family. I pray for his soul that it, you know… [crying] I try not to think about it because when you think about it, then I get like this, and it’s not – you know, I don’t – yeah, so yeah, you know, everyone deals with it their own way. I try to hide it. I try not to think about it because I’ve got to stay 100 percent. You know, I’ve got to keep a good example in front of the other soldiers.
GROSS: I can’t help but wonder, whenever I see it, if Sergeant Loftus ever asked you to not use that clip because he didn’t want to be seen breaking down because that wasn’t his idea of setting a good example, he wanted to just maintain, you know, a more stoic posture?
ENGEL: It’s funny that you asked that because when you’re living on a little base, and impressions are everything, you know, what you – how you’re perceived with the other soldiers, the chain of command within the particular company that you’re with, staying strong, staying loyal, and I asked him. I said, you know – because, I mean, we were doing this interview on the base. There were other soldiers around.
You know, whenever you set up a camera and start interviewing people, a small little crowd tends to form.
So other soldiers did see him get very emotional in this interview. And I asked him afterwards, I said, you know, this could be embarrassing for you if we put this on television. And he said no, you know, it’s OK, I get it. We were talking about his friend who had just died, and he said: Look, I feel very emotional about this incident, and even soldiers can cry when they lose a friend. And so he decided that it was important because he was expressing a sincere emotion about a friend.
What is important here, I think, is that it was a depiction of a soldier where he was not defined by that role. His depiction wasn’t about his relationship to that identity, it was about other parts of his life — his relationship to a friend, and his relationship to his colleagues. Backing away from the limited choice between grit or pluck creates space for the individual to be a bit more human. But that deipction is narrative — it requires that the viewer know some of the context — so it might not be conducive an “iconic” photographs.
I can’t go this far into the post without sharing the following anecdote, which is so relevant that it feels dishonest not to include it. In 2003 my friend Zalmai was killed and we had a memorial service in our compound that night. I gave a eulogy, and in the middle I got emotional and started crying. (I was cut off after a little while because I had forgotten to pause while the words were translated into Pashto for the other Afghans there — which, now that I think about it, is sort of telling, as Zalmai had been our interpreter.) After it was over, an older officer who we all respected and enjoyed came over to me and thanked me for being willing to let people see me cry. He might have done that because it was the nicest possible way to console me. But maybe said that because he, being much more experienced at soldiering than I was, knew that it’s important to be able to cut through our own stereotypes of how
we are supposed to behave.
This vision is almost anti-iconic: while the circumstances may be extraordinary, the participants sometimes want to be able to experience common emotions in a common way. That turns out to be quite a struggle, but maybe not a photogenic one.