Tim Hetherington was the British photojournalist who collaborated with Sebastian Junger on the making of Restrepo, the documentary of life on a combat outpost in eastern Afghanistan. Later, in 2011, Hetherington was killed in Libya during the civil wars there. His pictures that interest me most are those taken “inside the wire”—soldiers lounging about, roughhousing, or sleeping in their forlorn combat outposts. The times in-between the patrols and other missions that take them “outside the wire” into the much more dangerous open spaces.
The two pictures below generate impressions and bring back memories. The first presents a study in shades and textures of brown:
Considered as a slice of deployed life, the photo strikes a nerve that those who haven’t served might not understand completely. In the Army, “uniform discipline” is a big deal. The idea is that it is important for soldiers to adhere to uniform standards—everyone at all times in the prescribed uniform. To uniformity zealots, that soldiers are allowed to idle about shirtless in the daytime is probably the reason things aren’t going so well in Afghanistan on the grand scale. The breakdown of uniform standards, the thinking goes, is a clear indication of a sloppy, badly-led unit. More than half believing this sentiment myself, I never let my soldiers in Afghanistan be “out of uniform” in my presence or when they were outside the wire, conducting missions, and otherwise representing the unit. Be that as it may, the photo speaks more directly to another aspect of the war experience. The happy soldiers suggest that, death and petty uniform policies aside, life on a combat outpost was a man’s man’s idyll of guns, muscles, and tattoos. Smoking and joking, they wait for the next battle to begin.
This second picture reflects a more homely moment in outpost life:
Everything about it is characteristic: the low light, the wood bunk, the “poncho liner” blanket, the gear and water bottles stewn about, the blue bedding and green white-flecked tiles—apparently standard issue across Afghanistan. The bare feet adding poignancy to it all. In the first picture, the soldiers laugh by day, stripped nearly naked. In the second, the soldier, contorted and not looking very comfortable at all, sleeps at night with his uniform on.
This picture by Bill Putnam shows a US Army patrol taking a brief halt on top of an Afghanistan hill.
I like it for its muted color palette–grey, green, brown, some black–and the array of emotions reflected in the faces and bodies of the soldiers. Some are relaxed, others display tension. Their equipment hangs upon them not obtrusively, but organically, even the weird mounts for night vision goggles that protrude from their helmets like antennas and the M4 in the foreground that seemingly sits far too high on its bearer’s torso. The way their gazes go off in different directions and the bulb like prominence of the helmets reminds me of Larry Burrows’ great picture of a hilltop scene taken during the Vietnam War:
Burrows’ picture is far more dramatic, of course, and rightfully famous. But who’s to say the soldiers in Bill Putnam’s picture aren’t themselves minutes away from a similar scene of devastation and carnage?
I’ll begin populating this blog by featuring some of my favorite Iraq and Afghanistan war photographers. First up, Bill Putnam. Bill and I served together on a deployment to Kosovo when he was an active-duty soldier. Now out of the Army, he has embedded with the 101st Airborne Division on tours in Iraq and Afghanistan.
Here, though, I’ll highlight Bill’s work at greater range, in part because he gave me permission to use these pictures (a while back, and for a different project, true) and in part because they were taken in eastern Afghanistan, where I served. Most of all, I like the tilt of the rockscrabble terrain, the blue skies and billowing clouds, and the soldiers that stitch the earth and sky together.
In the spring of 2013 I will teach a class titled “The Arts of War.” The course will focus on war literature from Iraq and Afghanistan, and the course theme will be the homecoming and aftermath. Selections from Homer’s Odyssey will get the class started, as will Sophocles’ Philoctetes. We’ll also look at Hemingway’s In Our Time, particularly “Soldier’s Home,” as well as some other poems, stories, and memoirs from the great tradition of war literature. Turning to contemporary texts, we will read the following:
“Time now,” in military radio-speak, refers to the present moment. Most commonly the phrase is used in reports such as, “We’re returning to base, time now,” or, “Request artillery support, time now.” I like its urgency, the way it doesn’t just name but intensifies the temporal dimension of the event to which it refers. Kind of like the way art intensifies the life it represents, so as to make it both more understandable and more deeply felt.
This blog features art, film, and literature about the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. As I write this post, in June 2012, imaginative representations of the wars have begun to accrue complexity and depth. Still, no site I know of devotes itself to cataloging and discussing these artworks–a great lack in my opinion, since in the final analysis our artists will explain best how the wars were experienced and how they are remembered.
Until January 2015 I was an active duty Army officer. I served in infantry units at Fort Drum, New York; Fort Bragg, North Carolina; and in Korea. In 2008-2009, I was an advisor to Afghan National Army forces in Khowst and Paktya provinces in Afghanistan. You can read about my experiences there in my blog 15-Month Adventure.