Posted tagged ‘War photography’

Kosovo: Quiet Prelude to the War on Terror

October 24, 2018

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.

2015: An Updated War Literature and Art Compendium

December 7, 2015
Soldier with mine detector, Iraq, 2005, by Bill Putnam.

Soldier with mine detector, Iraq, 2005, by Bill Putnam. Used with permission.

I’ve updated the list of fiction, poetry, memoir, criticism, photography, and film I compiled last year about this time–new entries are bolded. 2015 was a busy year for contemporary war literature, with at least six novels published and four volumes of poetry. Also notable were new books by Colby Buzzell and Roy Scranton, two veterans who made their names as war writers but who are now expanding their reach to subjects far beyond their experiences as junior enlisted soldiers in Iraq.

Not many Iraq and Afghanistan titles are making year-end “best of” lists in major media venues so far in 2015, I’m sorry to observe. Critics–the “beadles of literature,” as they were called by early American novelist John Neal–apparently are not as impressed by this year’s offerings as they have been in past years by war-writers such as Phil Klay, Ben Fountain, and Kevin Powers. Or, perhaps they’ve decided “Mission Accomplished” in terms of what needs to be said artistically about fighting in Iraq or Afghanistan. Let’s hope that novels by Roy Scranton, Matt Gallagher, and others to be published next year reverse the trend. Movies about Iraq and Afghanistan also seemed scant in 2015—what am I forgetting?—but in 2016 film versions of Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk and The Yellow Birds will be released.

I’ve added a list of major theatrical, dance, and operatic performances that address war in Iraq or Afghanistan.

If you think I’ve missed an important or interesting work, please let me know.

Iraq and Afghanistan War Fiction:

Nadeem Aslam: The Wasted Vigil (2008)
Siobhan Fallon (Army spouse): You Know When the Men Are Gone (2011)
Helen Benedict: Sand Queen (2011)
David Abrams (Army): Fobbit (2012)
Ben Fountain: Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk (2012)
Kevin Powers (Army): The Yellow Birds (2012)
Joydeep Roy-Bhattacharya: The Watch (2012)
Sinan Antoon, The Corpse Washer (2013)
Nadeem Aslam: The Blind Man’s Garden (2013)
Lea Carpenter: Eleven Days (2013)
Masha Hamilton: What Changes Everything (2013)
Hilary Plum: They Dragged Them Through the Streets (2013)
Roxana Robinson: Sparta (2013)
J.K. Rowling (aka Robert Galbraith): The Cuckoo’s Calling (2013)
Katey Shultz: Flashes of War (2013)
Fire and Forget: Short Stories from the Long War, edited by Roy Scranton (Army) and Matt Gallagher (Army) (2013)
Paul Avallone: Tattoo Zoo (2014)
Greg Baxter: The Apartment (2014)
Hassan Blasim, The Corpse Exhibition (2014)
Aaron Gwyn: Wynne’s War (2014)
Kara Hoffman: Be Safe, I Love You (2014)
Atticus Lish (USMC): Preparation for the Next Life (2014)
Phil Klay (USMC): Redeployment (2014)
Michael Pitre (USMC): Fives and Twenty-Fives (2014)
Eliot Ackerman (USMC): Green on Blue (2015) 
Eric Bennett, A Big Enough Lie (2015)
Brandon Caro (Navy): Old Silk Road (2015)
Jesse Goolsby (USAF): I’d Walk With My Friends If I Could Find Them (2015)
Carrie Morgan, The Road Back from Broken (2015)
John Renehan (Army): The Valley (2015)
Ross Ritchell (Army): The Knife (2015)
Christopher Robinson and Gavin Kovite (Army): War of the Encylopaedists (2015)
Matt Gallagher, Youngblood (2016)
Matthew Hefti, A Hard and Heavy Thing (2016)

Iraq and Afghanistan War Poetry:

Juliana Spahr: This Connection of Everyone with Lungs (2005)
Brian Turner (Army): Here, Bullet (2005)
Walt Piatt (Army), Paktika (2006)
Sinan Antoon, The Baghdad Blues (2008)
Jehanne Dubrow (Navy spouse): Stateside (2010)
Elyse Fenton (Army spouse): Clamor (2010)
Brian Turner (Army): Phantom Noise (2010)
Paul Wasserman (USAF): Say Again All (2012)
Colin Halloran (Army): Shortly Thereafter (2012)
Amalie Flynn (Navy spouse): Wife and War (2013)
Kevin Powers (Army): Letter Composed During a Lull in the Fighting (2014)
Sylvia Bowersox (Army):  Triggers (2015)
Randy Brown, aka “Charlie Sherpa” (Army): Welcome to FOB Haiku (2015)
Colin Halloran (Army): Icarian Flux (2015)
Philip Metres: Sand Opera (2015)
Washing the Dust from Our Hearts: Poetry and Prose from the Afghan Women Writing Project (2015)

Iraq and Afghanistan Memoir and Reportage (selected). I’ve greatly reduced this list from last year—I’m only including works that seem supremely artistic, imaginative, conceptual, or literary in their approach. Or, those that seem uniquely alert to new possibilities for publication, such as Colby Buzzell’s and Matt Gallagher’s memoirs, which originated in blogs begun in Iraq.

Colby Buzzell (Army): My War: Killing Time in Iraq (2005)
Sebastian Junger: War (2010)
Matt Gallagher (Army): Kaboom: Embracing the Suck in a Savage Little War (2010)
Benjamin Busch (USMC): Dust to Dust (2012)
Brian Castner (Air Force): The Long Walk: A Story of War and the Life that Follows (2012)
Adrian Bonenburger (Army): Afghan Post: One Soldier’s Correspondence from America’s Forgotten War (2014)
Jennifer Percy: Demon Camp (2014)
Brian Turner (Army): My Life as a Foreign Country (2014)
Colby Buzzell (Army): Thank You For Being Expendable (2015)
Roy Scranton (Army): Learning to Die in the Anthropocene (2015)

Iraq and Afghanistan War Photography:

Sebastian Junger and Tim Hetherington: Infidel (2010)
Benjamin Busch (USMC): The Art in War (2010)
Michael Kamber: Photojournalists on War: The Untold Stories from Iraq (2013)

Iraq and Afghanistan War Film:

In the Valley of Elah, Paul Haggis, director (2007)
Lions for Lambs, Robert Redford, director (2007)
The Hurt Locker, Kathryn Bigelow, director (2008)
Standard Operating Procedures, Errol Morris, director (2008)
Stop-Loss, Kimberly Pierce, director (2008)
Generation Kill, David Simon and Ed Burns, executive producers (2008)
Brothers, Jim Sheridan, director (2009)
Restrepo, Sebastian Junger, director (2009)
The Messenger, Oren Moverman, director (2009)
Green Zone, Paul Greengrass, director (2010)
Return, Liza Johnson, director (2011)
Zero-Dark-Thirty, Kathryn Bigelow, director (2012)
Lone Survivor, Peter Berg, director (2013)
American Sniper, Clint Eastwood, director (2014)
Korengal, Sebastian Junger, director (2014)
The Last Patrol, Sebastian Junger, director (2014)
Fort Bliss, Claudia Myers, director (2014)

Iraq and Afghanistan War Theater, Opera, and Dance 

Exit 12 Dance Company, directed by Roman Baca (USMC), New York City (2007)
Duty, Honor, Profit:  One Man’s Struggle with the War in Iraq, written and directed by D. Richard Tucker/ACT Theater, Seattle (2008)
The Telling Project (participatory staged readings), founded by Jonathan Wei (2008)
Theater of War (staged reading of Greek drama and interactive cast-and-audience discussion), directed by Brian Doerries (2008)
The Great Game: Afghanistan (drama), directed by Nicolas Kent and Indhu Rubasingham, New York City (2009)
Bengal Tiger at the Baghdad Zoo (drama), written by Rajiv Joseph, directed by Moises Kaufman, starring Robin Williams, New York City (2011)
Home of the Soldier (musical drama), written by Ben Cunis, directed by Paata Tsikurishvili/Synthetic Theater, Arlington, VA (2012)
You Know When the Men Are Gone (drama), based on stories by Siobhan Fallon, directed by Joel Mullennix and Amy Kossow/Word for Word Performing Arts Company, San Francisco (2013)
Goliath (drama), written by Takeo Rivera, directed by Alex Mallory/Poetic Theater, New York City (2014)
Dijla Wal Forat: Between the Tigris and the Euphrates (drama), written by Maurice Decaul (USMC), directed by Alex Mallory/Poetic Theater, New York City (2015)
The Lonely Soldier Monologues, based on Helen Benedict’s The Lonely Soldier: The Private War of Women Serving in Iraq, Concept Theater, London (2015)
The Long Walk (opera), based on Brian Castner’s memoir of the same name, music by Jeremy Howard Beck, libretto by Stephanie Fleischmann/American Lyric Theater, Saratoga, NY (2015)

Iraq and Afghanistan War Criticism:

Elizabeth Samet: Soldier’s Heart: Reading Literature Through Peace and War at West Point (2007)
Stacey Peebles: Welcome to the Suck: Narrating the American Soldier’s Experience in Iraq (2011)
Elizabeth Samet: No Man’s Land: Preparing for War and Peace in Post-9/11 America (2014)
Brian Doerries: The Theater of War: What Ancient Greek Tragedies Can Teach Us Today (2015)
Ikram Masmoudi: War and Occupation in Iraqi Fiction (2015)

The lists are subjective and idiosyncratic, neither complete nor authoritative. Still, they might help those interested more clearly and broadly view the fields of contemporary war literature and film. My lists do not reflect hundreds of stories, poems, and photographs published individually in anthologies, magazines, and on the web. Some of my favorite stories, by authors such as Mariette Kalinowski, Maurice Decaul, Will Mackin, and Brian Van Reet, and photographs, such as the one by Bill Putnam published here, thus do not appear. Another deficiency is the lack of works by international authors and filmmakers, particularly Iraqi and Afghan artists. That project awaits completion.

In Our Time

July 21, 2015

On the 116th anniversary of Ernest Hemingway’s birth, I’m republishing my tribute to him that I first posted on my old blog 15-Month Adventure. It recounts, in the style of Hemingway, a visit to the Conflict Zone war photography exhibit in New York City in 2012. The photo described in the story, taken by Jed Conklin, can be found in the gallery (#5 of 20, to be specific) at this New York Times story on the exhibition. Read my story, please, read the link, and then read today at least one story from In Our Time, Hemingway’s great collection of home-from-war fiction.

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The veteran made his way across the first floor and took the elevator up to the third floor. There were so many people in the gallery that he could not see the photos on the walls. He had to squeeze people aside just to look at them.

The pictures were really good. Some were of soldiers in action, like one of a Marine pulling another Marine to safety. Another showed a soldier staring through the window of a Humvee that had just been attacked. The windshield was splattered with blood and gore, and an M4 rifle lies on the hood of the Humvee.

The picture was intense, but it was the rifle on the Humvee hood that got him. He remembered using that same space for quick meetings, and how soldiers would spread their weapons and gear across the flat surface to free their hands to take notes or look at their maps.

Now, in the picture, the M4 looked forlorn as it lay separated from the soldier inside the vehicle. But also sinister, the jet black weapon and its equally black sling sprawled on the yellow-brown Humvee hood like a nest of vipers on the desert floor.

Other pictures showed soldiers in calmer moments. Many were of Iraqis and Afghans. Some were taken during moments of fear, pain, and loss, others in the midst of daily life. These pictures were good, too.

The veteran looked at every picture twice. Then he stood outside on the sidewalk and thought about going back in to see them one more time. He watched the crowd come and go and decided to head home. The cab driver seemed willing to talk, but the veteran let the cab roll on quietly, up the Avenue of Americas and then Park Avenue to Grand Central.

Four Hispanic men were clowning around in the line at McDonald’s. One of the men began singing a song in English, “Open Arms” by Journey. The guy could really sing. He sounded just like Steve Perry. He was really good. But then he stopped, and he and his friends started cracking up again in Spanish.

On the train, the veteran read Hemingway’s In Our Time. The stories were good. The best was “The Battler,” but the one that made him wonder most was “Soldier Home.” The protagonist, a WWI vet back from the war, goes to see his sister play “indoor baseball.” What the hell was indoor baseball?

He was thinking about that when he noticed the woman across the aisle. She had been fiddling with her phone and computer and drinking a 24-oz. can of beer. Now, though, she was upset. At first he tried to ignore her, but it was impossible. She had a bloody nose that would not stop bleeding.

“Can you watch my stuff for a minute?” she asked.

She hurried to the bathroom. The veteran moved across the aisle to stake a better claim on her things. After a while, she returned, and he went back to his side of the train.

When the veteran’s train arrived at his station, he got off and he went home.

Conflict Zone

On War Photography: Tactics, Techniques, and Procedures

June 9, 2014

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.

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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.”

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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.

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

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“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:

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

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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:

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

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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:

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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.

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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:

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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.

Please take time to explore the web presence of the photographers whose work I have featured in this post.  Official websites and Facebook pages below:

Damon Winter website

Bill Putnam Photography

Gagan Dhiman Photography

Michael MacLeod Facebook

Ed Drew Photography

Luc Delahaye Facebook

War of Words, Words of War

April 21, 2014

Last week I was fortunate to hear masterful short-story war authors Phil Klay and Hassan Blasim read in separate events to West Point cadets, faculty, and interested community members.  Both Klay and Blasim were eager to share their enthusiasm for literature and what they have learned about war for the benefit of future officers.  Both, I think, were pleased to find receptive audiences—Blasim, no fan of Saddam Hussein but equally appalled at the destruction of Iraqi civilized, artistic, and intellectual life in the wake of his displacement by American forces, and Klay, a Semper Fi Do or Die Marine in the heart of the belly of the Army beast.  Both read powerfully, both were charming raconteurs in informal discussion, and both were inspirational about the necessity of imagination and art to help people—future Army officers—understand the complexity of war and the human experience of it.  Hats off to my bosses and colleagues at West Point who have worked hard to make contemporary war artists and writers relevant to the education of cadets.

This week, Klay and Blasim read together in New York City, where I took this picture of them together:

Klay Blasim

Also this week, I participated in two Vassar College classes that explored the Iraq War through fiction and photography.  The class had read David Abrams’ Fobbit, and now we were privileged to have Abrams join us by Skype—shades of deployment!—to discuss his black humor vision of Operation Iraqi Freedom.  Abrams has written about the experience in his blog The Quivering Pen and even included two wonderful student response papers to his novel.  The following class, the professor, Dr. Maria Hoehn of Vassar’s History Department, brought in Michael Kamber, a photographer who has covered both Iraq and Afghanistan for the New York Times.  Kamber has recently published an important and fascinating book called Photojournalists on War:  The Untold Stories from Iraq.  In it, Kamber compiles hundreds of photographs too graphic for military censors and media editors and published them along with their photographers’ accounts of their taking.  Kamber is adamant that photographs can shape consciousness and politics and he is vehement in his indictment of a military-media complex that has restricted, censored, and otherwise blocked distribution of the photographs that would truly inform the American public about the Iraq War.

photojournalists-on-war-michael-kamber-cover-hr

This swirl of words and impressions came as a series of publications and events brought veterans and veteran fiction into high relief.  George Packer’s glowing assessment of the contemporary war lit scene in the New Yorker was great, but its fulsome praise was undercut by Cara Hoffman’s  indictment in the New York Times that that same scene has been inhospitable to women’s first-person accounts of war.  Next came the news of yet another shooting rampage by a veteran.  One could sense public patience with vets draining away with each new article; we who were once heroes are in danger of morphing into monsters.  As if that wasn’t bad enough, the New York Times ran an opinion piece that confidently asserted a causal relationship between military service and membership in white supremacist groups and then an article that made the current generation of West Point cadets sound like bloodthirsty ingrates for their admission of regret that they would not probably not see combat in Iraq or Afghanistan.

In the midst of these gloomy accounts came a personal triumph, but one whose relevance to contemporary war literature I’m still trying to figure out. The current Maryland Historical Magazine features an article I wrote about early American novelist John Neal.  Neal is unknown to most, but he authored seven novels between 1817 and 1823–a time when very few other American writers took novels seriously.  Neal obviously did.  He called novels “the fireside biography of nations” and said, “People read novels who never go to plays or to church.  People read novels who never read plays, sermons, history, philosophy, nor indeed any thing else.”  Novels, for Neal, were places “where imaginary creatures, invested with all the attributes of humanity, agitated by the passions of our nature, are put to the task of entertaining or terrifying us.”  Ominously, he wrote that readers were excited by immoral and criminal characters more than virtuous ones.  Speaking of two popular authors of the time, Neal claimed that “all their great men are scoundrels….  their good men are altogether subordinate and pitiably destitute of energy and wholly without character.”  Be that as it may, Neal urged that all writers “write fiction–let them put out all their power upon a literature that all may read, century after century–I do not mean quote, and keep in their libraries, but read.”

Is any of this true, then or now?  Is any of it important?  Tomorrow I travel to Wesleyan University in Connecticut to participate in a “Writers on War” panel with Roy Scranton and Joydeep Roy-Bhattacharya.  I’m interested to hear what they and our audience have to say.  And what about David Abrams?  Michael Kamber?  Phil Klay?  Hassan Blasim?

Death in Tani: RIP Photojournalist Anja Niedringhaus

April 6, 2014
Anja Niedringhaus, An Afghan Boy with German troops, near Kunduz, September 2009

Photograph by Anja Niedringhaus: An Afghan Boy with German troops, near Kunduz, Afghanistan, September 2009

The death last week in Afghanistan of Associated Press photojournalist Anja Niedringhaus came as I was preparing a series of posts on contemporary war photography.  I read about Niedringhaus’s killing by an Afghan National Policeman on the very day I was presenting on war imagery at an academic conference.  Her death at the hands of our nominal allies saddened me and cast a blight on what otherwise seems to have been a successful election in Afghanistan.  Niedringhaus and fellow AP journalist Kathy Gannon, who was wounded in the same shooting that killed Niedringhaus, were in Khowst Province, on the eastern border with Pakistan, precisely to cover the elections.  Khowst interested me, for as most of my readers know that is where I served the majority of my tour in Afghanistan.  Curious where the shooting had taken place, I read farther into the obituaries to learn that Niedringhaus had died while sitting in a parked car outside the police station in a nominally friendly and peaceful district just south of Khowst City.  The district’s name was Tani.

I have been to Tani many times and even wrote about it in a post by the same name in my old blog 15-Month Adventure.  Here’s an excerpt:

“The most evocative of all [local place names] was Tani.  It was just such a pretty name and all our visits there were so pleasant.  As you drove out, on a paved hardball road past some of the more interesting houses in Khowst, the children waved.  Nothing bad ever happened there, or could happen there, it seemed.  The locals were friendly and helpful. The police were orderly and efficient.  Beyond Tani, the hardball gave out, and the IED-infested gravel road rose up toward the deadly mountain passes on the Pakistan border.  But nothing bad could happen in Tani itself.”

Niedringhaus’s killing makes those words foolish, further proof of war’s ability to ruin that which it has touched in ways obvious and in ways we could never anticipate.  RIP Anja Niedringhaus and thank you for your great photographs of Afghanistan and elsewhere.  The upcoming series on war imagery is dedicated to you.  AP’s own obituary, with more photographs of and by Niedringhaus, is here.

Below is a picture of me at the police station in Tani alongside a young ANA lieutenant, an ANA senior officer, and the Afghan National Police station commandant.  I wrote about this photograph in another 15-Month Adventure post called “Orientalism,” where I first conceived of the idea of starting a blog dedicated to war art and literature.

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A Night Out with Photographer Bill Putnam

December 30, 2013

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


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