The Journal of Military History 69.1 (2005) 211-215
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There's no way around it," rues Michael Herr in Dispatches, the Under Fire of the Vietnam generation, "if you photographed a dead Marine with a poncho over his face and got something for it, you were some kind of parasite. But what were you if you pulled the poncho back first to make a better shot, and did that in front of his friends? Some other kind of parasite, I suppose. Then what were you if you stood there watching it, making a note to remember it later in case you might want to use it? Those combinations were infinite, you worked them out, and they involved only a small part of what we were thought to be. We were [End Page 211] called thrill freaks, death-wishers, wound-seekers, war-lovers, hero-worshippers, closet queens, dope addicts, low-grade alcoholics, ghouls, communists, seditionists, more nasty things than I can remember. . . . And there were plenty of people who believed, finally, that we were nothing more than glorified war profiteers. And perhaps we were, those of us who didn't get killed or wounded or otherwise fucked up."
War photography is a lethal line of work. Peculiarly vulnerable to sniping of all sorts, its professional credentials, ethical cargo and political kinesis are subject to incessant questioning, and self-questioning. Is it a craft or a calling? A document or a statement? Does it verify or prettify? Sensitize or anaesthetize? Does it side with remembering or forgetting? Intervention or abstention? Does it leave the world as it is or seek to change it? Does it speak to moral scruple? What does it have to say?
"Patrol went up a mountain. One man came back. He died before he could tell us what happened." War is hell. Photography is tourism. The war tourist beats even the sex tourist in the exploitation stakes. "What passing-bells for these who die as cattle?" In the age of the military-industrial-media-entertainment network—James Der Derian's MIME-NET—where can we turn? We can turn to the old verities, trapped with a new light-fingered light-source: the ejaculatory force of the eye, as Robert Bresson put it, through a view-finder. Camera obscura. Leica aperta. Nikon icon. The pity is in the poetry. In a culture saturated by MIME-NET, war photography is the new war poetry. The passing-bells are plangent still. They are rung by the photojournalist. Don McCullin, an aesthete with combat fatigue, is Wilfred Owen incarnate—Owen who carried photographs of the dead in his wallet—the haunted witness, attending the roll-call in his darkroom. "It was like All Quiet on the Western Front. Men marching through the mist. Men I'd seen killed came up out of the mist of war to join me." Photographs are prophecies in reverse, as Roland Barthes remarked. Men at arms are shot and shot again. They bleed, reminiscent, in black and white. Contortionists, they practise composition. (McCullin, master of the frame, is partially colour-blind.) The visual lexicon of war is as well-learned, and as searing, as the verbal one; the strategy is the original shock and awe. Abraham Lincoln in his first inaugural address spoke of "the mystic chords of memory, stretching from every battlefield...