Brian Van Reet


War Camera
31 May 2017, 17:38
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Not long before I deployed to Baghdad, I bought a digital camera. I was in an unusual position, as a soldier headed overseas, but the impulse behind my purchase was the same as it would’ve been for anyone embarking on a significant journey. I wanted a camera to record it on.

In addition to the camera, I bought several books on Iraqi history. I already had a few more on Islam, since I had taken a couple classes in the subject before dropping out and enlisting in the months after the 9-11 attacks. I read about the majesty of the Abbasid caliphate, successors to the Prophet Mohammed, who founded Baghdad and presided over the beginning of a golden age for the Land of the Two Rivers. The dynasty was noted for the mathematical and scientific achievements of its scholars, for its poetry and literature and, generally, for its wealth and cultural grandeur, typified in the House of Wisdom, foremost library of the age, which was later sacked by Mongol raiders who flung texts into the Tigris until it was said the river turned the color of the ink.

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Sheikh being questioned, northeastern Baghdad

I was only the latest in a millennia-long march of foreign soldiers to come to this place. I arrived bearing slightly more historical knowledge than the average American G.I., but most of the exact same gear. We brought footlockers, duffels, weapons, and rucksacks—where most of us stowed our cameras. By the end of the year, nearly everyone in the platoon had one.

That detail was more important than it seemed. It was one symptom of a new era in warfare. If Vietnam was the first televised war, Iraq was the first one to be broadcast by those who were fighting it. A slew of documentaries have been made using first-person footage shot by soldiers, not to mention innumerable blogs, YouTube feeds, websites, and all other kinds of soldier-generated records left on both sides of the fighting lines.

Recently, I went back through the photos I took in Iraq. One thing that struck me was just how unexciting and inartful the bulk of them are—the photos are bad, even by touristic standards.

There is an excuse. We were highly limited by the war’s exigencies. We had a job to do, and it sucked. We could not go wherever we wanted. We usually weren’t supposed to eat the local food (I tried naan and chai). Every interaction with an Iraqi, however pleasant, was mediated by the fact that I was in uniform and occupying their country, some thought illegally. I saw very little of the country outside of Baghdad. I saw nothing of northern Iraq, which was relatively peaceful at that time and therefore had no use for me. I am told one can find lush plains and mountains there, and that it sometimes snows.

Neither did I get to lay eyes on the fabulous gold-domed mosque of Samarra (since destroyed and rebuilt), nor the ruins of Babylon, nor the Ziggurat of Ur, nor the magnificent arabesques inside the shrine to Imam Ali. Nor the Baghdad Zoo, the amusement park, any of the national museums—even within the capital, I was mostly confined to the area around Sadr City. It was badly impoverished, nothing a tourist would want to see. I could count on one hand the number of times we ventured from our dusty little camp across the city to the Green Zone, which had been carved out of the more traditionally beautiful and opulent quarter of Baghdad, where most of the grand palaces, government buildings, and historic sites stood.

Just about everything, grand or not, was pocked with at least a few bullet holes. It was a rough tour, and we did what we could to unwind. Plenty of lighthearted photos from that year show us fooling around in the barracks, doing things only teenagers would care to record. There is one series depicting a guy shaving another guy’s head, while the man being shaved gives the viewer the finger. There is another chronicling a prank involving a blow-up doll.

There were times we fought viciously, but I have no photos of combat. When I was shot at, or blown up, or shooting back, my camera was not the thing I reached for. My record is thus one of boredom, the down times, and there were plenty of those. War, as they say, is mostly monotony.

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Spools of concertina wire at the ruined U.N. compound, Baghdad

Artistic production can work as a kind of self-perpetuating compulsion. For as long as I can remember, I’ve had a strong urge to leave behind a record. With this said, I didn’t really think of myself as any kind of artist (and it is worth saying I definitely did not think of myself as a tourist—I was a soldier) when I was in Iraq. And it shows. Out of roughly 400 photographs I took there, only a couple dozen might ever be described as artful or beautiful.

These qualities came unexpectedly. It was the luck of capturing the subject at just the right moment. I was once ordered by our lieutenant to take a photo of a local sheikh to document his identity. The man’s likeness was snapped with little care, its purpose purely utilitarian, but it remains interesting to look at. There is something in him that is hard to pin down. He glances at the camera with a look of skepticism, the hint of disdain, a slight sneer rising in his lips, his pride and worry concealed, but at the same time, almost palpable. I could feel his disapproval of what I was doing, while capturing his image. I can still feel it. He was stunning.

To find heartbreaking beauty in the Iraqi people was not difficult. It might seem harder to find it in the country’s decay and eventual destruction—but it wasn’t, at least not from a purely aesthetic standpoint. A movement of art has grown around the idea of “ruins photography,” which concerns itself with abandoned places—modern structures that have fallen into disrepair. There was no lack of that in Baghdad.

Walls sheered off to reveal the interiors of honeycombed rooms; the bounded infinitude of spools of razor wire; a human shadow and broken glass behind metal bars; close ups of silver gouges in steel cut by an exploding RPG; a Gordian knot of jury-rigged power lines meeting in midair: Any beauty in these photos derives from their ugliness, in the way it can be composed and framed to reveal certain awful truths. The foolish waste of the war. The vanity of all human striving. Our ever-elapsing mortality, the ways in which we neglect our labors, and how everything can fall to pieces at any given moment, even if we are careful. We and our failures are the context outside the frame. We are what the photos point to but never show. The kind I am talking about rarely depicts people.

Ruins can be rendered beautiful to look at, if not to live in. But there is another type of ugliness that is just ugly, and a corresponding genre of war photograph, which I have seen more than I would like, and which I am glad I never took myself. Many Iraqis already knew what was happening at the Abu Ghraib prison west of Baghdad, but the entire world saw for itself after a cache of photos showing detainee abuse was broadcast by 60 Minutes in late April, 2004.

That scandal broke a few weeks after I arrived in country. It’s hard to overstate the impact of those images. It seemed like, almost overnight, the mood on the street changed for the worse. Some of the children still smiled, and always would, but a growing number jeered and threw rocks at our vehicles as we passed. Ugliness begot ugliness, with one terrible image contributing to the creation of another. We watched online as insurgents paraded to their deaths hostages dressed in prison-orange jumpsuits, the choice of costume a photographic call and response.

In spite of the increasing horror, most of us kept on posing, smoking and joking, looking hard in front of our million dollar killing machines. Showing fear was something you learned not to do in the army. For many of us, however, it was our worst fear, to wind up on a video like that. We may have been young and reckless, but we were savvy enough to realize we were living in a strange new age, one in which an image could persist forever, despite never having existed as a physical object. Dying in Iraq was bad enough, but dying every day for all time on the Internet was unfathomable. The stakes were high, like a fight against the worst kind of immortality. The victor was the one who persisted long enough to set the terms of remembrance. However feebly, we were all trying to do that. All of us carried cameras.

Brian Van Reet with tank

The author posing with battle-damaged tank

In the years since my time in the war, a handful of people have asked if I would consider going back to Iraq (this time, as an actual tourist) if the fighting there were ever to end. Some have posed this question sarcastically—as if anyone in his right mind would want to vacation in Baghdad. Others were more in earnest, perhaps thinking of Vietnam veterans who’ve returned to Southeast Asia, decades after their combat tours, or the World War II vets making one last pilgrimage to the Normandy coastline.

Who knows what the future holds. Certainly, Iraq is home to a vast amount of history and culture that I am still interested in, and there are magnificent places there that I wish I had seen. But I’m afraid I never could feel like just another tourist, even if Baghdad’s streets were suddenly made as safe as my hometown’s.

True tourists experience new destinations in a peculiar present tense, a kind of limbo that obscures their past and future lives. A temporary escape from one’s existence is part of the allure of traveling. Back in Iraq, on the other hand, I would always have one or both feet in my past life. Which, in a way, would suit me to the place. During my time there, I got the feeling its people looked to and were highly aware of the past, and the impressive heritage it has given them, an awareness that was only heightened and made more painful by the state of the country after more than thirty years of warfare and sanctions.

Now it has been nearly forty years of war and misery for Iraq. I am not an optimist by nature and can’t see wanting to go back there in my lifetime. But I have been proven wrong before. There could be more room for hope than memories allow. Baghdad has been destroyed in the past, but it has also been rebuilt in the past, before being destroyed again. It was once the most majestic city in the entire world, and it may yet become majestic again. The future is unknown. History does repeat itself. This is the rare case where I wish it would.

A version of this essay first appeared in ShortList, Issue 470

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