The Pictures of War You Aren't Supposed to See
War is brutal and impersonal. It mocks the fantasy of individual heroism and the absurdity of utopian goals like democracy. In an instant, industrial warfare can kill dozens, even hundreds of people, who never see their attackers. The power of these industrial weapons is indiscriminate and staggering. They can take down apartment blocks in seconds, burying and crushing everyone inside. They can demolish villages and send tanks, planes and ships up in fiery blasts. The wounds, for those who survive, result in terrible burns, blindness, amputation and lifelong pain and trauma. No one returns the same from such warfare. And once these weapons are employed all talk of human rights is a farce.
In Peter van Agtmael’s “2nd Tour Hope I don’t Die” and Lori Grinker’s “Afterwar: Veterans From a World in Conflict,” two haunting books of war photographs, we see pictures of war which are almost always hidden from public view. These pictures are shadows, for only those who go to and suffer from war can fully confront the visceral horror of it, but they are at least an attempt to unmask war’s savagery.
“Over ninety percent of this soldier’s body was burned when a roadside bomb hit his vehicle, igniting the fuel tank and burning two other soldiers to death,” reads the caption in Agtmael’s book next to a photograph of the bloodied body of a soldier in an operating room. “His camouflage uniform dangled over the bed, ripped open by the medics who had treated him on the helicopter. Clumps of his skin had peeled away, and what was left of it was translucent. He was in and out of consciousness, his eyes stabbing open for a few seconds. As he was lifted from the stretcher to the ER bed, he screamed ‘Daddy, Daddy, Daddy, Daddy,’ then ‘Put me to sleep, please put me to sleep.’ There was another photographer in the ER, and he leaned his camera over the heads of the medical staff to get an overhead shot. The soldier yelled, ‘Get that fucking camera out of my face.’ Those were his last words. I visited his grave one winter afternoon six months later,” Agtmael writes, “and the scene of his death is never far from my thoughts.”
“There were three of us inside, and the jeep caught fire,” Israeli soldier Yossi Arditi, quoted in Grinker’s book, says of the moment when a Molotov cocktail exploded in his vehicle. “The fuel tank was full and it was about to explode, my skin was hanging from my arms and face — but I didn’t lose my head. I knew nobody could get inside to help me, that my only way out was through the fire to the doors. I wanted to take my gun, but I couldn’t touch it because my hands were burning.” [To see long excerpts from “Afterwar” and to read an introduction written by Chris Hedges, click here.]
Arditi spent six months in the hospital. He had surgery every two or three months, about 20 operations, over the next three years.
“People who see me, see what war really does,” he says.
Filmic and most photographic images of war are shorn of the heart-pounding fear, awful stench, deafening noise and exhaustion of the battlefield. Such images turn confusion and chaos, the chief element of combat, into an artful war narrative. They turn war into porn. Soldiers and Marines, especially those who have never seen war, buy cases of beer and watch movies like “Platoon,” movies meant to denounce war, and as they do so revel in the despicable power of the weapons shown. The reality of violence is different. Everything formed by violence is senseless and useless. It exists without a future. It leaves behind nothing but death, grief and destruction.
Chronicles of war, such as these two books, that eschew images and scenes of combat begin to capture war’s reality. War’s effects are what the state and the press, the handmaiden of the war makers, work hard to keep hidden. If we really saw war, what war does to young minds and bodies, it would be harder to embrace the myth of war. If we had to stand over the mangled corpses of the eight schoolchildren killed in Afghanistan a week ago and listen to the wails of their parents we would not be able to repeat clichés about liberating the women of Afghanistan or bringing freedom to the Afghan people. This is why war is carefully sanitized. This is why we are given war’s perverse and dark thrill but are spared from seeing war’s consequences. The mythic visions of war keep it heroic and entertaining. And the press is as guilty as Hollywood. During the start of the Iraq war, television reports gave us the visceral thrill of force and hid from us the effects of bullets, tank rounds, iron fragmentation bombs and artillery rounds. We tasted a bit of war’s exhilaration, but were protected from seeing what war actually does.
The wounded, the crippled and the dead are, in this great charade, swiftly carted off stage. They are war’s refuse. We do not see them. We do not hear them. They are doomed, like wandering spirits, to float around the edges of our consciousness, ignored, even reviled. The message they tell is too painful for us to hear. We prefer to celebrate ourselves and our nation by imbibing the myth of glory, honor, patriotism and heroism, words that in combat become empty and meaningless. And those whom fate has decreed must face war’s effects often turn and flee.
Saul Alfaro, who lost his legs in the war in El Salvador, speaks in Grinker’s book about the first and final visit from his girlfriend as he lay in an army hospital bed.“She had been my girlfriend in the military and we had planned to be married,” he says. “But when she saw me in the hospital — I don’t know exactly what happened, but later they told me when she saw me she began to cry. Afterwards, she ran away and never came back.”
The public manifestations of gratitude are reserved for veterans who dutifully read from the script handed to them by the state. The veterans trotted out for viewing are those who are compliant and palatable, those we can stand to look at without horror, those who are willing to go along with the lie that war is about patriotism and is the highest good. “Thank you for your service,” we are supposed to say. They are used to perpetuate the myth. We are used to honor it.
Gary Zuspann, who lives in a special enclosed environment in his parent’s home in Waco, Texas, suffering from Gulf War syndrome, speaks in Grinker’s book of feeling like “a prisoner of war” even after the war had ended.
“Basically they put me on the curb and said, okay, fend for yourself,” he says in the book. “I was living in a fantasy world where I thought our government cared about us and they take care of their own. I believed it was in my contract, that if you’re maimed or wounded during your service in war, you should be taken care of. Now I’m angry.”
I went back to Sarajevo after covering the 1990s war for The New York Times and found hundreds of cripples trapped in rooms in apartment blocks with no elevators and no wheelchairs. Most were young men, many without limbs, being cared for by their elderly parents, the glorious war heroes left to rot.
Despair and suicide grip survivors. More Vietnam veterans committed suicide after the war than were killed during it. The inhuman qualities drilled into soldiers and Marines in wartime defeat them in peacetime. This is what Homer taught us in “The Iliad,” the great book on war, and “The Odyssey,” the great book on the long journey to recovery by professional killers. Many never readjust. They cannot connect again with wives, children, parents or friends, retreating into personal hells of self-destructive anguish and rage.
“They program you to have no emotion — like if somebody sitting next to you gets killed you just have to carry on doing your job and shut up,” Steve Annabell, a British veteran of the Falklands War, says to Grinker. “When you leave the service, when you come back from a situation like that, there’s no button they can press to switch your emotions back on. So you walk around like a zombie. They don’t deprogram you. If you become a problem they just sweep you under the carpet.”
“To get you to join up they do all these advertisements — they show people skiing down mountains and doing great things — but they don’t show you getting shot at and people with their legs blown off or burning to death,” he says. “They don’t show you what really happens. It’s just bullshit. And they never prepare you for it. They can give you all the training in the world, but it’s never the same as the real thing.”
Those with whom veterans have most in common when the war is over are often those they fought.
“Nobody comes back from war the same,” says Horacio Javier Benitez, who fought the British in the Falklands and is quoted in Grinker’s book. “The person, Horacio, who was sent to war, doesn’t exist anymore. It’s hard to be enthusiastic about normal life; too much seems inconsequential. You contend with craziness and depression.”
“Many who served in the Malvinas,” he says, using the Argentine name of the islands, “committed suicide, many of my friends.”
“I miss my family,” reads a wall graffito captured in one of Agtmael’s photographs. “Please God forgive the lives I took and let my family be happy if I don’t go home again.”
Next to the plea someone had drawn an arrow toward the words and written in thick, black marker “Fag!!!”
Look beyond the nationalist cant used to justify war. Look beyond the seduction of the weapons and the pornography of violence. Look beyond Barack Obama’s ridiculous rhetoric about finishing the job or fighting terror. Focus on the evil of war. War begins by calling for the annihilation of the others but ends ultimately in self-annihilation. It corrupts souls and mutilates bodies. It destroys homes and villages and murders children on their way to school. It grinds into the dirt all that is tender and beautiful and sacred. It empowers human deformities — warlords, Shiite death squads, Sunni insurgents, the Taliban, al-Qaida and our own killers — who can speak only in the despicable language of force. War is a scourge. It is a plague. It is industrial murder. And before you support war, especially the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, look into the hollow eyes of the men, women and children who know it.
Chris Hedges, a Pulitzer Prize-winning correspondent who covered conflicts for two decades in Central America, Africa, the Middle East and the Balkans, writes a column published every Monday on Truthdig. His latest book is “Empire of Illusion: The End of Literacy and the Triumph of Spectacle.”