War Photos: Bill Putnam’s Sleepers


A few posts back I wrote about soldiers dozing, or sitting silently and thinking, on their flights back to the United States after deployment. I asked photographer Bill Putnam for a picture to accompany the piece, but Bill was busy and didn’t send me anything until a few days ago.  The photos he finally delivered weren’t of a flight home, but of soldiers sleeping and hanging out in their dark hootches while on an outpost in Paktika province, Afghanistan. They immediately sent me into a reverie of memory and association, not just of my own deployment, but of a great Walt Whitman poem called “The Sleepers.”

First published in 1855, “The Sleepers” begins:

I wander all night in my vision,

Stepping with light feet . . . . swiftly and noiselessly

        stepping and stopping,

Bending with open eyes over the shut eyes of sleepers

The poet then describes a freak show of damaged sleeping bodies that include…

The gashed bodies on battlefields, the insane in their strong-doored

        rooms, the sacred idiots,

The newborn emerging from gates and the dying emerging

        from gates

The poet tells us, “The night pervades them and enfolds them” and soon the journey becomes not just physical and literal but symbolic and visionary and the poet doesn’t just describe but inhabits the bodies of the sleepers.

 I go from bedside to bedside . . . . I sleep close with the

        other sleepers, each in turn;

I dream in my dream all the dreams of the other dreamers,

And I become the other dreamers.

 I am a dance . . . . Play up there! the fit is whirling me fast.

Soon to come are passages featuring Lucifer, George Washington, a red squaw Indian, and lots of sexual coupling and release. A smart critic writes:

“In ‘The Sleepers’ Whitman dramatizes a dream vision or psychological journey in which he penetrates a realm of existence–both within himself and in the world–that transcends time and space and finite human limits. . . . Through his dream the poet confronts the chaos and confusion of the mind and the facts of suffering and death. He discovers spirit, as well, and thereby comes to know the possibilities for human life. He possesses all of existence through his vision. . . .”

That makes sense, a little, of a crazy-but-wonderful poem. Please check it out in its entirety and let me know what you think.  My favorite lines come near the end:

I swear they are all beautiful,

Every one that sleeps is beautiful . . . . every thing in the

        dim night is beautiful,

The wildest and bloodiest is over and all is peace.

Which brings us back to Bill Putnam’s pictures of the dark, sleepy in-between times of a combat tour. I hope you enjoy them as much as I do.




A daysleeper:

Abu in Bermel

And, finally, a sleeper in a transient barracks:

Anyone who has deployed to Iraq or Afghanistan will recognize this scene.

More Bill Putnam photos here.

The critic quoted above is E. Fred Carlisle.  His comments on “The Sleepers” and those of other critics can be found here.

2 thoughts on “War Photos: Bill Putnam’s Sleepers”

  1. Thank you, “everydayj.” I’ll quote from an email about the pictures from a friend:

    “So powerful, each of them, in different ways. I think my favorite is possibly the next to last. There’s something about its combination of the bored and tedious (moments in between) and banal activity (the shadowed man is attending to some business, the shirtless one eating something and eyeing the camera, the third engaged with his laptop) that makes it in sum a really intriguing rendering of ‘off time’ at war. I also appreciate how they are together but have, at the moment, nothing to do with one another, even as intimacy or trust are the baseline of these not-immediately-social activities…. such rich images.”

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