Updated March 6, 2020
Photographer Ben Brody’s collection of images of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan feel broken and disjointed.
Some are self-described slick military propaganda, like the one of a US Army Captain on a tactical radio in an anise field outside of Baghdad. And some reveal the searing truth about the futility of war, especially the landscape portraits that offer a helicopter view of the sweeping beauty and rich hues of Afghanistan’s impenetrable terrain, and then down into a hard landing where service members patrol amid tightly-spaced rows of grape vines along the Helmand and Arghandab rivers. There is a surreal still-life of a hamburger from a fast-food chain “inside the wire,” and a snapshot of the horrifying, back-yard banality of returning home.
The sense of disconnect in this photography collection is distressing until you realize it is the whole point of Brody’s devastating and powerful new book, ‘Attention Servicemember,’ published by Red Hook Editions.
These broken shards captured in Brody’s photography and written vignettes are exactly what we need to see and read on this Veterans Day, as cities and towns gather in small clusters of meaning and grief across America, honoring those who have served in the armed forces. But most poignantly in America’s longest war: the post 9-11 conflicts in Afghanistan and Iraq.
Veterans Day, or Remembrance Day as it is called in Europe, marks “the eleventh day of the eleventh month at the eleventh hour” – the precise moment of the 1918 armistice that ended World War One.
But the church bells and the honor guards mournfully blowing taps on Monday will echo with irony as America continues fighting and soldiers and civilians continue dying in Afghanistan and Iraq, where a war against terrorism eludes any such finality. The conflicts seem to go on forever, and Brody memorably captured this essence in a GroundTruth Special Report titled “Foreverstan: The Road to Ending America’s Longest War.” Some of the work from this report is featured in his new book.
We’ve been honored to support Brody’s work in the field and to call him a colleague as he curated and contemplated a body of work that stretches over 15 years from when he joined the US Army in 2002 and was sent on two tours in Iraq as a photographer for a public affairs unit to his “conversion,” as he once called it, to an independent, civilian photojournalist who made regular trips into Afghanistan from 2010 to 2015. Brody’s book curates an extraordinary level of craft through all these years. ‘Attention Servicemember,’ published by Red Hook Editions, has already received high praise, and been short-listed for the Paris Photo-Aperture Foundation PhotoBook Awards in the category of First PhotoBook.
“[The book’s title] is from a postcard I received from the army after I had already gotten out, making the absurd threat that if I failed to reenlist, I risked being discharged,” Ben Brody explained.
‘Attention Servicemember’ is reminiscent of the great works of war photography, particularly of Phillip Jones Griffiths classic, Vietnam Inc. The writing feels as haunting and honest a memoir as Michael Herr’s Dispatches. In this excerpt, Brody writes of the stark barbarity and dark comedy of war, of its fear and stupidity:
“It’s easy to get lost when there are no terrain features to orient you. On a moonless night in Iraq, out in the desert where the sky stretched impossibly wide, a gruff platoon sergeant called his soldiers to circle around him. They all clearly worshiped him and shared his open disdain for me, a photographer passing through.
Pointing due west at Jupiter, he began a navigation lesson for the younger soldiers. In a voice gravelly with hard-earned wisdom, he said, “Do you all see that? There is the North Star. Brightest star in the sky.”
Near the end of my second tour, I spent five days in continuous combat to photograph the 101st Airborne fighting through the blasted hellscape west of Iskandariyah. During the operation, two soldiers got chopped up with shrapnel in front of me and vehicles were blown apart. Desert jackals howled wildly in the night, while civilians and combatants alike died in thunderous airstrikes. When I submitted my story and photographs, the division Chief of Staff killed the whole story because he said it was “too negative,” meaning that my account didn’t conform to his tightly scripted vision of what victory was supposed to look like.”
Growing up north of Boston, Brody was never persuaded by the war, but entered into his service with his eyes wide open, writing, “I was 22 and thought the Iraq War would be a pivotal moment for my generation, as Vietnam was for my parents’ generation. I was skeptical, and assumed this war was as likely to achieve its objectives as Vietnam did.”
Brody’s photography for Army Public Affairs are public domain, as he points out, and he reproduces them in the book with blunt awareness about their meaning and their purpose. He focuses on one photograph in particular from his second tour in Iraq which depicts a heroic looking captain haloed by the light of dawn on a radio with two helicopters hovering over a tree line as service members patrol through a field outside of Baghdad. The image was widely “appropriated across the political and cultural spectrum” and Brody shares some of the screen grabs for how it was used in military propaganda and to advertise everything from batteries to vape pens.
Brody writes, “It’s a decorative wallpaper, it’s patriotic, it’s a war crime, it’s disinformation. It inspires hope and dread and purchases of cutting-edge tactical radio equipment. But when I see the picture, I just smell the anise and the cordite. I feel the electric eels twisting in my guts and the little girl screaming in the house that we finally broke into.”
Brody’s journey to Afghanistan as an independent war photographer provided the opportunity for his images to become his own, and they are honest and clear. They are stark and surreal, and they are definitely through the lens of a journalist who saw profanity in much of the war and humanity in the people caught up in it. One image that I have always been drawn to in Brody’s work is of an American soldier sitting in the dirt on the side of the road, locked in eye contact with a young Afghan boy who is squatting. It looks as if they are trying to have a conversation across different languages, different cultures, a vast and indifferent gulf to bridge.
When I told Brody that I saw a kind of timeless “LIFE magazine” quality to the image, he shrugged with indifference, maybe even politely hiding some contempt about that interpretation. Instead, he alerted me to the real and distant peril in the photo which is in the center of the frame: a figure on a motorcycle on the near horizon tearing toward them and kicking up dust on the road. The irony in Ben’s photography in capturing the draw-down of a failed war is the art of this book.
“Sneaking around and defying the institutionalized censorship was sometimes productive, but it became clear to me that trying to pierce the veil of the military’s theatrics and public affairs messaging was yielding diminishing returns. I decided that photographing the theatrics in a straightforward way was the more revealing strategy,” he writes.
One example of this strategy is the photograph of an artillery pit at a small outpost in eastern Afghanistan. As he photographed the 100-pound shells blasting out onto the horizon and exploding in the hills. It wasn’t war, it was “a morale-building exercise for the cooks and mechanics who never got to go out [beyond] the wire.”
“The sergeant major, imploring them to reenlist, was wildly shouting every time a round went out: “All your buddies back home are working at Walmart!”
But the soldiers Brody served with and the stories he has captured seem to be of service members who just aren’t buying it any more, revealing a narrative of growing fatigue and questions, even among veterans including Brody himself. A recent set of polls support this idea. As reported by the New York Times, there is a sense that veterans are increasingly disenchanted with these wars in contrast to the widespread support that was shown under President George W. Bush. Nearly two thirds of veterans now say the war in Iraq was not worth fighting, according to a study by the Pew Research Center, which is slightly higher than the percentage of civilians who feel the same way. Slightly less veterans and civilians view the war in Afghanistan as not worth it, with 58 percent of veterans and 59 percent of civilians feeling the war was not a worthy cause.
More than half – 55 percent – of veterans oppose continued US military presence in Syria. Opposition to “endless wars,” as president Trump has called them, runs wide and deep among veterans. It is interesting and somewhat distressing that Trump, a fortunate son who dodged the war in Vietnam due to “bone spurs,” seems to see this questioning more clearly than most of the Democrats who seek to challenge him.
In the end, Brody’s book is an elegy of America’s longest war and the images feel like the roar of shells uselessly pounding the hills of Afghanistan and echoing back like the growing regret expressed in the polls and the mounting questions about the meaning and value of the war.
There is a single image that always stays with me, that feels as if it pulls together and then scatters to the wind each of the fragments of the book. It’s a shot of a helicopter, or “bird,” landing with a pallet of supplies on a dusty hillside in Afghanistan. The bird’s rotors are kicking up the trash and debris from the base in a brown haze, a kind of visual expression of the shitstorm that is Afghanistan.