Military Weekend: ‘War Photography?’
Each time I publish a post in my “Military Weekend” series with photographs of our troops “doing what they do best” — serving our country — I am well aware that some may see this attempt to honor and thank our military men and women as an act of “glorifying war” or of promoting the “military-industrial complex.”
While “my” photos very seldom depict the actual violence of war, I find many of the photographs aesthetically beautiful (redundancy?) and a credit to the skills of the (military) photographers.
It could be the photo of a Marine standing watch beneath a starry sky…
Of our soldiers moving under smoke concealment…
Of a mighty aircraft carrier plying the ocean at sunset…
Or of Navy demonstration aircraft painting an arc of clouds in the sky.
To me they are beautiful.
But not to all.
For some it may be difficult to see any beauty or artistry in images of soldiers, tanks, fighter aircraft or aircraft carriers or, worse, in photos depicting the reality of war.
The New Republic had an excellent article recently titled “Is War Photography Beautiful?”
The author, Jordan Teicher, starts as follows:
Writers have been grumbling about the ideological perils of war photography nearly as long as photographers have ventured into conflict zones, but in the years since Susan Sontag’s 1977 treatise On Photography, which took leery scrutiny of photography to new heights, it’s become something of a pastime for critics. The result has been what the writer Susie Linfield has described as “a tsunami of too-easy scorn.”
Teicher continues, “It’s not hard to understand the inclination. Photographs of pain are particularly fraught territory and they therefore deserve extra study, particularly when the lines between photojournalism and art blur. But too often, the critique amounts to the same hand wringing about beauty’s proximity to destruction.”
Teicher then critiques a new book by David Shields, “War is Beautiful,” which reviews thousands of New York Times front page war photos between the 2001 invasion of Afghanistan and the present day and which Shields finds to be “an unrelenting parade of beautiful images whose function is to sanctify the accompanying descriptions of battle, death, destruction, and displacement…glamorized war and the sacrifices made in the service of war.”
Teicher is highly critical of Shields’ interpretation of the photos, of how they are presented in his book and of what Shields implies was the intent of the Times in publishing them:
Photographs are subjective, but presented as they are in Shields’ book—with their captions buried in the back of the book—readers are forced to first evaluate them according to Shields’s own, rigid interpretation. .. A photo in the “Pietà” section, for instance, which is meant to demonstrate how “mourning is always muted and respectful,” shows exactly the opposite: A Palestinian man holding the bloody body of a boy killed by Israeli rockets wails, his eyes clenched in agony, as mayhem swirls around him. A photo in the “Nature” section, meanwhile, of an Army officer walking through a poppy field in Afghanistan, seems like an ironic, if mostly harmless, take on the contrast between life and death. Shields, however, wants the photo to serve as example of how the Times makes military action out to be “a habitat, the preserve of masculine desire for war.”
Teicher then points out:
In truth, war may not be beautiful, but not every moment in a war zone is horrifying either…Sometimes, when they’re not killing or being killed, soldiers shoot hoops or play cards or laugh with buddies; that doesn’t mean war is fun and games. Sometimes, a soldier will protect an innocent civilian, but that doesn’t mean he won’t accidentally kill someone else. Sometimes the sky is filled with color and war planes alike. The former doesn’t have to sanctify the latter.
What all of that does illustrate is that war is often contradictory. Reporting it in all its complexity is not glorification but a service. To reject that—as Shields, who proclaims on the book’s front cover that he no longer reads the Times, has—is to misunderstand the messy and complicated business of war itself.
The following photographs — some old, some new — are presented, as always, to honor our men and women in uniform, to better understand and appreciate their service and sacrifice and because so many are indeed beautiful photographs.
Have a great weekend!
Coast Guard Cutter Bristol Bay sits still in the middle of Lake Erie as its crew takes a short break to view the ice, March 8, 2015.
The guided-missile destroyer USS Chung-Hoon sails toward a rainbow in the Pacific Ocean, Nov. 10, 2015.
U.S. paratroopers parachute from C-17 Globemaster III aircraft for a joint forcible entry operation as part of military demonstration during Operation Trident Juncture near San Gregorio, Spain, Nov. 4, 2015.
U.S. Marine Corps Sgt. Bobo, a military working dog, picks up the scent of aircrew members of a simulated aircraft crash as part of Blue Chromite 16 at the Central Training Area on Okinawa, Japan, Oct. 28, 2015.
An U.S Air Force KC-10 Extender refuels an F-22 Raptor fighter aircraft prior to strike operations against ISIL in Syria, Sept. 26, 2014.
A U.S. Marine Corps MV-22 Osprey stages on a hasty landing zone during a drill at an undisclosed location in Southwest Asia, Nov. 16, 2015. U.S. Marine Corps photo by Lance Cpl. Clarence Leake
U.S. Navy Seaman Allyson Jones rebuilds a temperature-regulating valve aboard aircraft carrier USS George Washington in the Atlantic Ocean, Nov. 14, 2015.
Sailors aboard the fast attack submarine USS Seawolf remove Arctic ice from the hull after surfacing at the North Pole. Seawolf conducted routine Arctic operations. (U.S. Navy photo/Released)
The Military Sealift Command hospital ship USNS Comfort (T-AH 20) transits the Atlantic Ocean at night while deployed in support of Continuing Promise 2015. (U.S. Navy photo by Mass Communication Specialist Seaman Kameren Guy Hodnett)
An Army Green Beret takes to one knee during a noncombatant evacuation exercise as part of Southern Strike 16 on Meridian Naval Air Station, Miss., Nov. 3, 2015. New York National Guard photo by Air Force Staff Sgt. Christopher S. Muncy
An F-15E Strike Eagle sits on the flightline at Incirlik Air Base, Turkey, in support of Operation Inherent Resolve and counter-ISIL missions in Iraq and Syria. (U.S. Air Force photo/Airman 1st Class Cory W. Bush)
Coalition forces and their military working dog patrol a village during a clearing operation Sept. 28, 2012, in Archi district, Kunduz province, Afghanistan. (U.S. Navy photo by Mass Communication Specialist 1st Class Cassandra Thompson)
U.S. sailors aboard the USS Chancellorsville fire a pencil flare in waters south of Japan, Nov. 17, 2015. U.S. Navy photo by Petty Officer 2nd Class Raymond D. Diaz III
Arleigh Burke-class guided-missile destroyer USS Fitzgerald (right) comes alongside the Military Sealift Command fleet replenishment oiler USNS Pecos for a replenishment-at-sea during Multi-Sail 2015. (U.S. Navy photo by Mass Communication Specialist Seaman Patrick Dionne)
Lead photo: U.S. Marines with Kilo Company, Battalion Landing Team 3rd Battalion, 6th Marine Regiment, 24th Marine Expeditionary Unit, prepare to assault a simulated objective during Exercise Eagle Resolve 2015 at Failaka Island, Kuwait, March 24, 2015. (U.S. Marine Corps photo by Sgt. Devin Nichols)
All photos: DOD