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.

War Photography: Ed Drew’s Wild Blue Yonder

Ed DrewEd Drew is a US Air Force staff sergeant who is receiving publicity for his arresting photographs of fellow members of his helicopter squadron in Afghanistan.  He speaks engagingly about his photos and views on art at this link, and he maintains a blog that features his photography before, during, and after his deployment as well as his poetry.  Most remarkable about his Afghanistan photos is that they are “tintypes” or “wet plates”—a technique employed by Civil War photography pioneers such as Mathew Brady, but one that is far too cumbersome to be practical these days.  Drew’s inspired decision to shoot using such archaic technology lends his subjects a timeless, stately, and elegiac feel. Because the photos depend on such long exposure and development times, they convey deep stillness and penetration, as if their subjects gave up more and more of their souls the longer the camera lingered.  The choice of medium connects contemporary service with older traditions uncomplicated by problems associated with modernity, and suggest that soldiering is experienced and understood individually and in small units, shorn of global politics and large-scale social consequences.

Or, perhaps, the old-time-iness of Drew’s photos calls into question exactly those things—how dare we associate the high-tech, rigged-out warriors of the 21st-century with Brady’s bewhiskered 19th-century generals and battlefield dead—farmboys from north and south who fought the Civil War in bare feet?

Drew Squad

I’m on surer ground when I allow Drew’s photos—which I love—to trigger a train of memories about my own interactions with Air Force personnel in Afghanistan, of which there were many.  For example, I was and remain curious about the perspective of the airmen stationed at Manas Air Force Base in Kyrgyzstan, that purgatory through which soldiers and Marines passed on their way to and from Afghanistan hell.  Even more I wonder about the small groups of airmen (some of whom were women) who made their way all the way downrage to the tiny FOBs on which I did my tour.  All were great people, all were competent in their jobs, but the evidence that they had volunteered to serve their country specifically NOT by being placed in the way of direct fire weapons registered clearly on their faces upon arrival.  Maybe not scared, but confused and dismayed at the proximity of so many  Army infantry bubbas, men who daily rose to the challenge of rolling out the gate with a certain nonchalance or even swagger.

Not to be snarky, because Drew and his unit, an elite Combat Rescue team in Kandahar, saw plenty of action, but it is interesting that most of his photographic subjects are airmen decked out in soldierly kit and weaponry, with the hardened visages of experienced ground-pounding troops.  In truth, “caveats” protected most Air Force personnel in Afghanistan; they served base jobs and were prohibited from missions deemed likely to see combat.  But on the new-age circular battlefield, anything could happen anytime to anyone.  I’ve written elsewhere about an Air Force medic, who while on a routine supply run, found himself in a battle patching up dozens of US, Afghan army, and Afghan civilian casualties.  I also think of an Air Force captain who in response to a crisis was sent into sector as head of a squad of US Army soldiers to guard a lonely Afghan crossroads near the Pakistan border.  Almost immediately, his squad was hit and suffered casualties.  As night fell and bad weather set in, he found himself with wounded to care for, low water and ammunition, sketchy radio communication, and no hope of resupply, reinforcement, or evacuation until morning.  Not the most dire situation ever, from an infantryman’s perspective, but probably more than the Air Force captain bargained for when he raised his right hand.  For me, that sense of disorientation–an airman (and an artist at that) caught in a grunt’s war–helps explain Ed Drew’s curious eye and artistic hunger.

Ed Drew
Ed Drew

This post is dedicated to all the Air Force personnel with whom I served at Camp Clark and FOB Lightning, Afghanistan, 2008-2009.

Images copyright Ed Drew, courtesy of Robert Koch Gallery, San Francisco. Robert Koch Gallery website here.

Memorial Day Time Now










Rendering respect for bravery and sacrifice and aiding our memory of the military members who embody them are arguably the most important functions of war artistry.  Fallen soldier ceremonies, military funerals, public memorials, and national days of remembrance are shot through with artistic arrangements of space, time, sound, experience, idea, emotion, and memory, and all the better for it.  Those whom they honor and those who pay their respect deserve it and demand it.

I’m very interested in the aesthetics (and politics) of memorialization and remembrance, and will write about these subjects in posts to come.  Today, though, let’s just pay tribute to soldiers, marines, airmen, and sailors killed in action in Iraq and Afghanistan.  Above are pictures taken at a fallen soldier ceremony held at Camp Clark, Afghanistan, in October 2009.  The ceremony honors SSG Alex French, a member of the Georgia National Guard who was killed by a suicide bomber while on patrol in Khowst province.  The photographer was Senior Airman Evelyn Chavez, a member of an Air Force public affairs detachment covering the ceremony.

In memoriam 1SG John Blair, SFC Kevin Dupont, SSG Alex French, CPL Peter Courcy, and PFC Jason Watson, all Camp Clark, Afghanistan, soldiers with whom I lived and fought. RIP many other friends American and Afghan, former students, and all those killed in action in Iraq and Afghanistan.

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

Benjamin Busch

Busch-Crossing, 2005

Benjamin Busch is a Vassar graduate and two-time veteran of USMC tours in Iraq.  Now out of the service, he has proven a dynamo of artistic production, most if it directly and I suspect all of it implicitly related to his war experience.   He’s acted in TV series such as Generation Kill and The Wire, directed several short films, and written a memoir titled Dust to Dust.  He’s the son of novelist Frederick Busch, whose influence weighs heavy on his mind in Dust to Dust.  Father-son relationships get played out in lots of war literature, which I plan to document in upcoming posts.  For now, I’ll just say that perhaps Busch gets his amazing productivity from his father, who published at least 16 novels.  Or maybe it’s a Marine thing.

I haven’t read any of Frederick Busch’s novels, but Benjamin Busch might get his whimsical yet cerebral style from his father, too.  That quality certainly characterizes the photographs in The Art in War, a book of snaps taken during his Iraq tours.  In the book, Busch writes short explanations for each photograph.   In public performance, as he projects his pictures Busch reads the written commentary in a way that I find mesmerizing.  An example of Busch’s one-two image-word punch:


I went into a building near the entrance of an abandoned amusement park to take a picture of Mickey Mouse that was painted on a window from the inside. As I focused the lens on the series of American cartoon characters, a Marine appeared in the missing window that I had come through. There is an innocent wonder in his expression and despite his weapons and combat equipment he seems to be what he is, young and misplaced. An American child grown into armed maturity who still looks into the room, empty aside from me, for something that he expects to recognize. To see an Iraqi interpretation of an American icon next to the reality of American occupation made this photograph important to me. In the window beside Mickey is a cartoon image of an Indian, our Native American. This makes the triptych even more powerful as our own nation, America, began as an occupation of theirs.

Another, not so whimsical, but also reflective of Busch’s sensitivity to the material artifacts that structure and define our lives:

“Hand and Feet”

I caught this image in an evidence examination room in the Al Anbar Criminal Investigations Building. It had been abandoned for over a year and these plaster casts of feet from crime scenes had been moved onto a couch as former Iraqi police had sifted the room for valuable items. It is one of the most important photographs that I have ever taken in that, in the absence of a single person, it is completely human. I seek imagery that proves human presence without relying on the presence of people. The recent hand print in the dust on the back of the couch made this image speak to past, present and evidence of what is uniquely human.

The notion of imagery that “proves human presence without relying on the presence of people” returns me to an idea I introduced earlier:  that Busch’s art, even when it doesn’t explicitly reflect martial images and themes, is about war.  I like toying with this idea in relation to lots of artistic production of the 2000s.  For here, I’ll suggest that Busch’s wonderful short film Bright (2011) is one such work that can be interpreted in the context of our nation’s wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, even though it doesn’t mention them.  In Bright, actor Eric Nenninger plays a young white man so traumatized by an unspecified event that he is not just afraid of the dark but darn near paralyzed in life, too.  He lives in a brightly lit house with an older black blind man—played by Robert Wisdom—who seems to do better coping with his disability than his housemate.  Their post-trauma issues play out in a plot that evokes a national storyline set in motion by 9/11, and perhaps Busch’s personal journey, too.

Short Bright clip:  http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=N97HA1hCczs

The Bright IMDb page:  http://www.imdb.com/title/tt1798611/

All quoted text from War, Literature, and the Artshttp://www.wlajournal.com/19_1-2/busch.pdf

Tim Hetherington

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.

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.