Kosovo: Quiet Prelude to the War on Terror

In 1999 US Army forces deployed to the Serbian province of Kosovo as part of a peacekeeping mission to halt the killing and forced relocation of the region’s majority Muslim Albanian population by Christian Serbs. In the two years prior to the American-led intervention, Kosovo Serbs, backed by the Serbian army, used violence to halt a demographic makeover they feared would sever the region’s political and cultural allegiance with greater Serbia. Some 1,500 Albanians were killed and 400,000 driven from their homes by Serbian military, police, para-military forces, and local zealots.

The American intervention, part of a NATO-led task force known as “KFOR,” was largely successful, in that Serbian-Albanian violence quickly diminished. The province began to develop a political identity as an Albanian-dominated independent state that culminated in a declaration of sovereignty in 2008. The KFOR mission, on the heels of and modeled after the bigger US and NATO peacekeeping effort in Bosnia-Herzegovina earlier in the decade, continues today, but consists of less than 700 US soldiers in Kosovo at any time. By another measure of bottom-line cost—American casualties—the mission has also been successful. In the years since American forces first put “boots on the ground,” fewer than twenty Americans have died in Kosovo, most as a result of illness or accident. For whatever reasons, the “Global War on Terror” following 9/11 has been able to quell or ignore Christian-Muslim tension in the Balkans. While war raged and then dragged-on in Iraq and Afghanistan, KFOR has also continued, largely peaceful and out-of-the-spotlight. As early as 2001, when the infantry battalion I was part of rotated into the US sector and took up residence at Camp Monteith near the northeastern city of Gnjilane, the KFOR mission had a decided side-show quality in the Army at large and the world’s mind as well. A sister battalion from our brigade was already fighting in Afghanistan, and many of us were jealous of them beyond words because they were where the action was, and we weren’t.

Photographer Bill Putnam was a soldier in the Public Affairs unit of the infantry task force of which I was the executive officer, or second-in-command. Putnam would return to Kosovo in 2002 and go on to take striking photographs in Iraq while still in the Army and later as an embedded photojournalist in both Iraq and Afghanistan.

Only recently I returned to look closely at Putnam’s archive of Kosovo pictures. My sense was that Army operations in Kosovo foreshadowed and rehearsed similar approaches the US military would employ in Iraq and Afghanistan. As late as 2001, though, the material appearance of American soldiers was different from what it would soon come to be. But if one looks closely one can see not traces of a vanished past, but a soon-to-be-present future in the process of its emergence.

Putnam’s photographs for the most part have a long-ago and far-away feel that sets them apart from his war photography of Iraq and Afghanistan. Part of it is the landscapes are different—European farms-and-forests, not southwest Asian cities and desert. So, too are the white faces of the Kosovars and their Western dress.

It is also the uniforms—US soldiers are dressed in their dark-green “Battle Dress Uniforms” just prior to giving them up for the desert camouflage of “chocolate chips” and  “Army Combat Uniforms.” Not only are the uniforms of an older vintage, but so too is the equipment—load bearing web-gear, canteens, and M16 rifles, not armored vests, Camelbacks, and M4s. The visages of officers and enlisted men reflect purposefulness and enthusiasm, not anxiety, doubt, or confusion.

American forces patrolled in unarmored vehicles, usually in pairs but often individually. IEDs were unheard of and ambushes only a remote concern. The biggest danger was sliding off the narrow roads, especially in winter, when they were very icy. US KFOR forces often interacted with other members of the coalition, such as the two Russian soldiers standing at a checkpoint in the picture second below.

Cramped, impoverished villages built of shoddily-constructed concrete blocks vaguely resembled picture-postcards of European life. They conveyed a sense of provincialism and backwardness that would easily acquiesce to superior American ways of dealing with problems.

Cities were more bustling. Residents seemed too preoccupied by everyday life to kill in the name of politics and religion. But by the time we arrived, the Albanian makeover was nearly complete. Serbs huddled forlornly in their own neighborhoods and enclaves, and we protected their churches, not Muslim mosques, from destruction.

Overall, though, violence was rare, and could be handled with “crowd control” techniques, not combat.

Serbians and Albanians eager to fight were seen as hooligans with local agendas and grievances, not as operatives in a larger nationalist movement or global jihadist conspiracy. Detaining a troublemaker required extensive chain-of-command coordination, but the feel of such operations was that of locking up a small-town punk in the county jail for a few days until his anger subsided.

Most missions were “key leader engagements” with local officials, always negotiated with the help of interpreters, many of them women, wearing US Army camouflage.

American forces lived on Camp Monteith, an old Serbian Army base, and Camp Bondsteel, a proto-FOB magically construed out of nothing in an abandoned field by well-paid contractors. Many soldiers never left Monteith and Bondsteel, encampments complete with pizza parlors and Morale, Welfare, and Recreation centers. Mortar and rocket attacks that threatened the lives of soldiers on the camps just didn’t happen.

Kosovo allowed the US military to rehearse deployment, peacekeeping, and counterinsurgency tasks that would later characterize Operations Iraqi and Enduring Freedom. FOB life, vehicle patrols, religious conflict, security operations, interpreters, and key leader engagements seemed manageable and relatively benign. Very often though, KFOR approaches, such as traveling in one or two vehicle convoys, would prove inadequate for dealing with far-deadlier threats to come. Missions that were routine in KFOR  metastasized in Iraq and Afghanistan and become much more fraught. What came peacefully and relatively easily in Kosovo might have inspired a false confidence in US capability that quickly unraveled in Iraq and Afghanistan. Hints of all this, I believe, can be found in Putnam’s photographs, if one knows where and how to look.

On the right of the picture below is Captain David Taylor, a company commander in our infantry task force. The picture is taken on Hill 874 outside Gnjilane, Kosovo in 2002. In 2006, Major Taylor was killed by an IED in Baghdad, Iraq.

More Bill Putnam photography can be found here.

Memorial Day 2015

Photograph by Bill Putnam
Photograph by Bill Putnam–please click to enlarge.

Memorial Day is the quietest of national holidays and probably should be even quieter still. It’s hard to say anything in honor of fallen soldiers, Marines, airmen, and sailors that isn’t inadequate to their loss and thus seems fraudulent and self-serving. Even so, it’s hard to resist saying something, and perhaps even necessary. Below are the names of soldiers killed in Iraq and Afghanistan with whom I served, taught, or knew well. All were good men, and their memory informs my sense of what war writing—to include Time Now—can do and be. Here’s to all the good men and women who died in Iraq and Afghanistan, and all those who died in our previous wars, too.

On the right in the photograph above is Captain David Taylor, one of my lieutenants when I commanded a company in the 82nd Airborne Division. In the picture, taken in 2001, he’s standing on a hill outside Gnjilane, Kosovo, where he served as a company commander in a task force of which I was the executive officer. In 2006, Major Taylor was killed in an IED attack in Baghdad.

I’m also thinking about First Sergeant John Blair, Sergeant First Class Kevin Dupont, and Staff Sergeant Alex French, all US Army advisor team members who died in action in Khost or Paktya province, Afghanistan, while I was there. Also, Specialist Peter Courcy and Private First Class Jason Watson, who were assigned to Camp Clark, as was I, when they died in an IED blast just outside Khost city. Colonel Ted Westhusing and Lieutenant Colonel Joe Fenty, friends who died in Iraq and Afghanistan respectively, and former students Captain Dennis Pintor, killed in Iraq, and First Lieutenant Todd Lambka, killed in Afghanistan. Finally, Major Bill Hecker, whom I knew only through email, but who before dying in Iraq in 2006, published a book on Edgar Allan Poe, an achievement that impressed me enormously.

In my thoughts, I also remember the deaths of allies who fought on our side in Iraq, Afghanistan, and all the wars before.

Below is a photograph I took today in a small cemetery in Franklin Township, New Jersey, of a flag placed on the gravestone of a Revolutionary War veteran. I’m glad he is remembered and now add my measure of tribute.


On War Photography: Tactics, Techniques, and Procedures

The photojournalist creed is that news photographs are neither staged nor edited.  Credibility depends on the collective belief of editors, readers, and peers that a photojournalist’s work represents objective reality.  Of course there is artistry and craft involved in technical choices about cameras and film and in subjective decisions about which frame of many to transmit and publish.  But the basic premise is that photographs, especially those taken of conflict, constitute reliable documentary evidence.

Photojournalist Brian Walski, for example, was scandalized early in the Iraq War when he merged two pictures together to create a more striking image that was subsequently published in the Los Angeles Times.  Walski was fired and the Times forced to issue an apology for violating press photography ethical prohibitions on altering original photographs.


Later, New York Times photographer Damon Winter earned prizes for photographs taken in Afghanistan with an Iphone.  But controversy arose concerning Winter’s use of the Hipstamatic editing app.  To photojournalist purists, doing so represented an egregious after-the-fact manipulation of images meant to register as “authentic” and “credible.”


But Winter was not the only one who experimented with up-to-the-minute apps and techniques.  Ann Davlin, in an article for the photography website Photodoto called “The Latest Photographic Trends to Defeat Your Competitors,” surveyed Instagram to determine what were the most popular editing tricks of the first decade of the new millennium–a period that roughly coincides with our contemporary wars.  Intrigued by the article, I searched the Internet and my own stock of photographs for war images that also illustrate the techniques Davlin describes.

The most popular trend Davlin notes is one I’ve already mentioned:  “phoneography,” or the use of phone cameras.  I’ve featured Bill Putnam’s work many times on this blog because I think the world of it. Putnam is a hardcore camera geek who Tweets things like “The @16x9inc adapter is Heavy. Solid. Huge, bigger than I expected. But workable. Same compression of a 60 but view of a 27. #dlsr #video.  But on his last deployment to Afghanistan, he took many pictures with an Iphone and used Hipstamatic to enhance them.  The Iphone, he reports, was just ever-handy, and potential subjects rarely blanched at requests for pictures.


Second on Davlin’s list is “macrophotography,” or extreme close-ups. Again I’ll use a Bill Putnam example:


“HDR photography” refers to “high dynamic range” manipulation and editing of images to create special lighting effects.  Sounds technical, but you’ll recognize the effect as soon as you see it below:


“Light painting” refers to emphasizing or highlighting streaks of light:


Davlin’s next category is “nostalgic photography,” or the creation of vintage effects through the use of apps such as Hipstamatic.  USAF airman Ed Drew took nostalgic photography a step further by actually employing 19th-century tintype techniques to capture pictures of his fellow airmen in Afghanistan:


“Panoramic” or “wide-angle photography” is the last of the popular special effects listed by Davlin.  A great example is below:


In addition to the categories proposed by Davlin, a few other motifs or trends exemplify contemporary combat photography.  The first is night optic technique and style:


The second is not so much a style or technique but a contemporary means of distributing and consuming images:  photography (and video) that reflects the influence of reality TV, video share services such as YouTube, TV news video, and close circuit surveillance aesthetics.  The video below, taken by a security camera at a small outpost in Afghanistan, is not for the faint-hearted.  Live footage taken about five miles away from where I was at the time, it shows a car bomb explosion that killed 13 Afghan children.


My final category is photography that reflects the aesthetics of drone warfare or first-person shooter games.  My examples are not actual photographs from the warzones, but I little doubt that envisioning the war from the aspect of a UAV reigning carnage from the sky or a soldier aiming down the barrel of a weapon permeates our optical sense of how the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan have unfolded:


War photojournalism and artistic photography bring to the fore questions about treating violence and suffering as aesthetic subjects. How are we supposed to respond when we view graphic images that seem to glorify or prettify war?  On what terms can a graphic image be considered beautiful?  The ethical and aesthetic questions become even more complicated when photographers self-consciously manipulate images using the latest technology to generate effect.  I’ll have more to say on these questions in future posts.

A Night Out with Photographer Bill Putnam

IMG_1244A trip to DC allowed to reconnect with Bill Putnam, the former US Army combat cameraman and embedded journalist whose work I have featured many times in this blog. Bill and I first met in Kosovo in 2002 where we were both part of Task Force 2-14, based in Camp Monteith in the northern part of the American sector. Later Bill served in Iraq as both a soldier and a civilian photojournalist and then twice in Afghanistan, first with the 101st Airborne Division in Paktika province and then in Helmand at Camp Leatherneck as the public affairs officer for a unit charged with training Afghan security forces. He currently lives in Washington and is going to school while looking for new photographic opportunities.

For me, Bill’s pictures are so alert to their subjects’ eyes that they read like uncanny straight shots into whatever it is the subjects think most important.  What they most want you to know, or what they most need to hide, or both.  Below, for example, is a shot Bill took of Afghan National Police recruits in training at Camp Leatherneck.

Afghan Natonal Police at Camp Leatherneck

In DC, we met at a dark, moody bar blasting classic and contemporary punk rock—hell yea–and traded our stories and plotted future projects. Bill told me the backstory of the pictures I’ve published here and brought me up-to-date on his current endeavors.  Here’s to you, Bill, and thanks for everything you’ve contributed to Time Now–you’re a true acolyte-of-war, now moving on to other things.

Bill Putnam website

Bill Putnam Twitter

Bill Putnam Facebook

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.

Bill Putnam Photographs, Iraq September-November 2005

I’m bringing these pictures back to the top because Bill Putnam has emailed me information about them that is worth sharing.  Earlier I had written that they were from 2007-2008.  As you will read, I was off by several years.  I wrote that they were grim-but-beautiful artifacts from a grim, not-beautiful time.  I wasn’t wrong about that.  Below are Bill’s comments:

The photos were taken in Iraq during my time there as a freelancer between September and November 2005. The top two were shot during a stay with a Stryker company in eastern Mosul, around the walls of Ninevah. The bottom was made on Bayji Island near Bayji, Iraq.

A bit about each… It’s funny you picked three of my favorites from that time.


The top one was made fairly early in the morning after an all-night raid. The unit, Centurion Company, 2-1 Infantry, had been sent out with an SF team and bunch of Iraqi Army to hunt down a car bomb builder. They didn’t find him. This was early in the unit’s deployment (they were the guys who were extended in 2006 for three months during an early and not so effective “surge” into northwest Baghdad). To me it says a lot, not really about that war, but just war in general, especially war down at the nasty end of the spear. Hunter, the guy pictured, just looks exhausted. War is exactly that – exhausting in every sense – but this is physical exhaustion. The kid waving the gun (it was unloaded) was actually playing with a newly-installed laser pointer.


The middle photo was made in a Stryker as the company was heading back from a meeting with an Iraqi police colonel in a precinct. I liked the detail of this kid (I’ve forgotten his name, sorry) as we ride back to the FOB.


The bottom photo was made during my first week of a two-month embed with Abu Company, 1-187th Infantry. Unlike the first two which were shot digitally, this was shot with black-and-white film on a Leica rangefinder camera. It was early in the morning of the op’s second day. The two guys on the right are Bill and Michael, the platoon’s RTO and doc. The guy off in the distance is Tim, the platoon sergeant. The whole battalion was out there looking for weapon caches, doing what all grunts do in a counter-insurgency (even if we weren’t calling it that back then). If I remember it was cold that morning. We’d spent that night huddled in an abandoned house. The guys were tired and you can see that in Bill and Mike’s body language.

Thanks, Bill, for your photos and your comments.  We look forward to seeing the best of your current work documenting the transition of military responsibility in Afghanistan from US to Afghan control.

Used by permission.

Bill Putnam website: Bill Putnam Photography

Bill Putnam Twitter feed:  @BillPutnamPhoto

Bill Putnam 2

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?

Bill Putnam 1

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.

If you visit Bill’s website you’ll notice his skill at portraiture.

That skill is also featured in this article from the Pittsburgh City Paper.

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.

%d bloggers like this: