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MY FATHER'S WAR PICTURES, AND MINE |

May 02, 2012

Name: Colby Buzzell
Returned from: Iraq
Milblog: My War

I asked a couple co-workers, like me, Iraq War veterans, what they think of the photographs printed this week by the L.A. Times. You know, the ones with U.S. soldiers posing with the remains of Afghanistan suicide bombers. One of my colleagues shrugs: “Who didn’t come back from Iraq with pictures like that?”

I chuckled as I thought to myself, he’s right. No, neither of us came back home with a scrapbook full of soldiers playing naked Twister with Iraqi prisoners or using Iraqi KIAs as human urinals. But mentally flipping through the pictures I did take, I see the shot from that time our platoon was called out to where a car bomb had gone off in a heavily populated civilian part of Mosul. What sticks out in my recollection isn’t the carnage, but seeing guys in my platoon matter of factly pulling out their cameras for a Kodak moment.

I chuckled as I thought to myself, he’s right. No, neither of us came back home with a scrapbook full of soldiers playing naked Twister with Iraqi prisoners or using Iraqi KIAs as human urinals. But mentally flipping through the pictures I did take, I see the shot from that time our platoon was called out to where a car bomb had gone off in a heavily populated civilian part of Mosul. What sticks out in my recollection isn’t the carnage, but seeing guys in my platoon matter of factly pulling out their cameras for a Kodak moment.

When I look at these latest trophy photos to be published, which soldiers from the 82nd Airborne took in 2010 with the corpses of bombers in Afghanistan’s Zabol province, I don’t feel shocked. If anything, I feel bored.

 

I’ve experienced war. As an infantryman, I know what it’s like to go out and hunt armed insurgents, and I know what it feels like to be hunted by armed insurgents. I’ve watched insurgents killed and injured, and I’ve seen them try to kill and successfully severely injure my fellow service members. I’ve watched a decade of war go by, and it seems like the only time I see real outrage—a sign that America is really paying attention—is when a photograph of a service member posing with a dead insurgent touches some collective nerve. To me, these are just a bunch of pictures taken by desensitized soldiers screwing around. Nothing more, nothing less.

Photographs of war casualties are about as old as the camera. Legendary Civil War photojournalist Matthew Brady did it constantly, and photojournalists have followed suit ever since. If Confederate and Union soldiers had ready access to cameras, you don’t think they would’ve been recreationally photographing the war?

Gallery: 14 Controversial Photos

US Afganistan Photos

Damian Dovarganes / AP

My father, a retired Army lieutenant colonel, carried a camera with him in Vietnam. I found that out shortly after my mother passed away, and my father put the family house I had grown up in on the market. Growing up, he hardly ever talked to us kids about his experience in Vietnam. To get him to say anything was like pulling teeth. While helping him pack up, I came across a mini leather-bound Bible, with a note to my father from his mother quoting John 3:16 and passages inside highlighted by her. Next to the Bible was a box filled with hundreds of 35mm slides. It was the first time my father had seen the Bible or the photos since returning home from the war.

The dusty photo projector we were ready to give to Goodwill miraculously fired right up, so we decided to take a break from packing and go through the photographs. Beaming onto our living room wall were these beautiful shots of the Vietnam countryside, and shots taken from my father’s point of view while on foot patrols. He narrated the slides for me and as he saw different guys in his platoon, a warm smile would come to his face as he recalled old friends that he hasn’t laid eyes on in decades. We came to a shot of four or so young soldiers casually smiling, proudly standing around a bunch of captured weapons that, my father said, they discovered while searching a village.

His smile slowly disappeared. He remained silent for a second or two as he just furrowed his brows and studied the photo. Then he told me that all of the guys we were looking at were killed two days later during an ambush.

After that, it was time get back to work and look at those slides some other time, which of course we never did. I’ll always wonder what else was there. I imagine my father and I are part of a tradition of soldiers who have gone to war, taken a series of photographs and returned home to file them away, never to be looked at again.

I didn’t pack a Bible when I went to war, but I did take a digital camera. I remember thinking that I wanted to document my experience, just in case I ever wanted to look back on it. I haven’t, but the photographs are on my hard drive, though I can hardly picture them in my mind’s eye and don’t much care to open them.

I was in my mid-20s when I deployed, just a year or so older than my father was when he’d gone to Vietnam. Back then, you only had so many shots on a roll of film, which you then had to get developed. Now, you can shoot as much as you like and share the images a moment later without thinking anything of it, literally for the world to see.

This is for the best, I think. It means there’s now ample documentation of aspects of war, like trophy photos, that people who haven’t experienced war need to see. Perhaps Americans need to see these photographs for the same reason that Franklin D. Roosevelt pushed Life magazine in 1943 to run a cover photo of dead American soldiers sprawled out on a Papua-New Guinea beach. The president felt Americans were becoming a bit too complacent about the war, and he wanted to remind them of the reality of what was going on across the oceans.

Today, the American public doesn’t much like our wars, and they’re not paying much attention to them either—and the government would love nothing more than for citizens to remain disengaged as they ever so slowly wind down. And what better way for that to happen than to simply not show us the war? Photographs help Americans see the wars, to remember something wise that Robert E. Lee said during the Civil War and that still holds true: “It is well that war is so terrible, or we should get too fond of it.”

Having experienced Iraq, I’m damned to see the world through a different lens. I’m not quite sure what most civilians see when viewing these graphic images: maybe it’s one of those things where if you stare it long enough a hidden picture us supposed to emerge? But having been there, what I see in the photos, and what I hope others do, is a look at what these wars are doing to all of us.

 

The above essay originally appeared on The Daily Beast.

Colby Buzzell's work has been featured on The Sandbox several times previously. Here is a link to his post RETURN TO SENDER.  And here is MEN IN BLACK, a short film adapted by Richard Robbins from My War.

Colby Buzzell is the author of My War: Killing Time in Iraq and Lost in America: A Dead End Journey. He served as an infantryman in the United States Army during the Iraq War. Assigned to a Stryker Brigade Combat Team in 2003, Buzzell blogged from the front lines of Iraq as a replacement for his habitual journaling back in the states. In 2004 Buzzell was profiled in Esquire’s “Best and Brightest” issue and has since contributed frequently to the magazine. The Washington Post referred to his article “Digging a Hole All the Way to America” as “A Tour de Force Travelogue,” and his article “Down & Out In Fresno and San Francisco” was selected for The Best American Travel Writing 2010. His work has also appeared in the San Francisco Chronicle and on This American Life. He currently lives in West Virginia.

Comments

Any soldier that will pose next to a dead human body, as if that body is a trophy, is not normal.
Normal behavior by a soldier after killing the enemy is regret of the death and sadness. The dead human had a life and most likely relatives who will miss them. We all learned in basic training what our conduct should be with combatants and civilians. In the first few weeks of basic training were told not to bring dishonor to ourselves or our country. Before we became soldiers we took an oath to uphold and defend the U.S. Constitution.

I have two questions regarding the conduct of the soldiers who posed next to the dead humans: Where were their NCO’s and Officers during the pose? Have the entrance requirements to join the U.S. military been so lowered, that we now allow entry to the U.S. Military by psychopaths?

You have to expect this type of behavior from the public. They are not experienced in the "art of war." This is one reason why the public accepted Bush's wars so blindly. They should have their noses rubbed in the violence, death, blood and fear. However, that being said, publishing those photos you and other combantants have is just plain wrong from a strategic point of view. In an all out war, yes - those types of photos produce fear in the opponent's troops and may result in some strategic advantage.

However, the situation in Afghanistan is different - we're fighting against an armed insurgence composed of the the very people we're they trying to protect.

It is similar to Vietnam - the outrages of war committed by our troops there only served to strengthen the resolve of the residents of that country who were fighting a foreign invader.

We should have learned our lesson in Vietnam - a long war against an insurgent population which WE LOST!!!!

I agree with the above post about lowering standards. The Bush admin. did just that. They let in high school dropouts, people with criminal records and actual nazis! These people have no business being in theater.

Publishing these photos resulted in our troops being placed in more danger than necessary and our mission in Afghanistan at risk! If you can't understand that, you have no business being in our military, which is SUPPOSED to be the best in the world, not just the cruelest.

I think there is a distinction to be made here. The images of war and tyrany do need to be out there. And, the public can deal with it. While at war, we do need to see the occasional dead/mutilated body, our own troop's or the enemy. That's not the problem.

The problem is photographs of our troops having fun with the remains. Is playing with human remains part of the art of war? We wonder how these soldiers picked up such an obscene and vulgar habit. We wonder how these soldiers will behave in society when they get home.

By the way, playing with fresh human remains is a great way to pick up a disease, like HIV and Hepatitis-C. It would be a tragedy for someone to survive the war and then die at home over such a thing.

The problem is photographs of our troops having fun with the remains. Is playing with human remains part of the art of war? We wonder how these soldiers picked up such an obscene and vulgar habit. We wonder how these soldiers will behave in society when they get home.

Your drawings are beautiful!
Please stay safe, and we here in the US are very proud of our service ment and women, who are trying to make the world a little better.
God Bless You,

All of the picture references I found for that refer to either RHU or someone reposting it from the cheezburger site, no news at all.

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