Goya on his Shoulder: Tim Hetherington, Genre Memory, and the Body at Risk

By Robert Burgoyne and Eileen Rositzka

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The figure of the body in narratives of war has long served to crystallize ideas about collective violence and the value or futility of sacrifice, often functioning as a symbol of historical transformation and renewal or, contrastingly, as a sign of utter degeneration and waste. As a number of recent studies have shown, the power of somatic imagery to shape cultural perceptions of war has had a decisive impact on the way wars have been regarded in history, and has sometimes influenced the conduct of war as it unfolds. In American war photography and film, the imagery of the body in war provides a particularly rich field of expression, articulating a layered record of violence and emotion, and the changing cultural frames through which it is perceived – a shifting iconography of war that is reinscribed, like a palimpsest, with each iteration. As Mikhail Bakhtin has written in a related context, photographic images of war “remember the past”, and make their resources available for new uses in the present.[1]

With Restrepo (2010), a documentary feature about a US combat team stationed in Afghanistan, and the accompanying book of photographs entitled Infidel, war photographer Tim Hetherington and writer Sebastian Junger provide a concentrated illustration of how genres serve as “organs of memory” for culture. In compositions and dramatic scenes that recall the long history of war photography and film – and that reach further back to the work of Goya and Rembrandt in subject matter and in styles of lighting, pose, and framing – their work calls on the memory of past representations to provide a new perspective on the wars of the present. With their concentrated focus on the body in war, Restrepo and Infidel also mark an intervention into contemporary debates in the emerging doctrine of “bodiless war” or virtual war – what is known in war policy circles as the “Revolution in Military Affairs” (RMA). In contrast to the decorporealised, bloodless war culture promoted and even celebrated in many contemporary theories of war, Restrepo and Infidel implicitly dramatise the limitations of so called “optical war” in many current conflict zones, emphasising the body of the soldier as a critical site of representation and meaning.[2]

As A.O. Scott puts it: “[T]hough it is composed in the prose of hand-held video, Restrepo has the spare, lyrical force of an elegy, inscribing a place for its characters in a tradition of war poetry stretching back to the epics of the ancient world.”[3] Viewed through the long lens of genre, Hetherington and Junger’s images are particularly valuable for the new questions they ask about the iconography of violence, vulnerability, and the embodied politics of war photography and film in a period caught between images of extraordinary corporeal violence and the persistent Western dream of “war at a distance”.

Restrepo is a record of the time in which Hetherington was an embedded photographer with the 80 man Battle Company in the Hindu Kush, the heart of the tribal areas in Afghanistan. Hetherington made five trips over the course of a year to the outpost Restrepo, sometimes with the journalist Sebastian Junger, and sometimes on his own. At one point, he was wounded and forced to leave Afghanistan to be treated. The isolated outpost that serves as the setting of both his film and the book, Infidel, was named in honour of the medic for Battle Company who was killed soon after arrival in Afghanistan. A few months after the 2010 Academy Awards ceremony, where Restrepo lost out to the documentary Inside Man, Hetherington was killed by an explosive while covering another war in Libya.

Two major concepts inform this essay: the concept of “genre memory”, originally set forth by Bakhtin, and the idea of “pathos formulas” as a recurring motif in the history of art. Both frameworks share the trait of describing a certain iconicity, a repetition of representational patterns throughout cultural history. The critical concept of genre memory primarily focuses on narrative patterns, which for Bakhtin serve as “organs of memory” for culture, the crystallisation of past social experiences – structures that “remember the past, and make their resources available for the present”.[4] Telescoping Bakhtin’s work on the novel to 21st century pictorial forms, our essay explores the way the genres of war film and photography carry the imprint of the historical period in which they first emerged as a strong form – in the work of Thomas Edison and Alexander Gardner, among others – and retain the layered record of their changing uses.

The construct of “pathos formulas,” as defined by culture historian Aby Warburg, indexes the universal images of emotional expression and gesture that form a consistent language of art. Giorgio Agamben defines the pathos formulas of Warburg as “an indissoluble intertwining of an emotional charge and an iconographic formula in which it is impossible to distinguish between form and content.”[5] Warburg’s Mnemosyne project, or Bilderatlas, serves a function similar to genre memory in demonstrating a migration of expressive forms across time and cultures. Colleen Becker notes: “Just as much as it leads its viewer down a particular path of visual cultural heritage, the Bilderatlas is a map of worlds within worlds that is as reliant on the interpreter’s own repository of knowledge and subjective point of view as it is on an equally biased collective cultural memory”.[6]

In order to highlight Hetherington and Junger’s contribution to the genre of war photography and film, and to suggest what we think are some of the key influences on their work, we begin by discussing a small selection of early war films and war photographs that have become part of the sedimented memory of history and nation over the last 150 years. We argue that the visual iconography of war that emerged in the earliest examples of war photography and film informs and shapes contemporary work, and sets a framework for current discussions of risk, vulnerability, and the value or futility of embodied violence.

A History of Violence: Battle Photography in the American Civil War

The emergence of war photography in the work of Alexander Gardner and Matthew Brady in the American Civil War provides a powerful illustration of the close connection between aesthetic form and the history of violence that war film and photography evokes and appropriates. In these images, we find an early and immediate recognition of the power of violence to create aesthetically striking works. Early war photographers developed a distinct set of visual codes and conventions that centred on the aftermath of battle, the carnage of battle, and that also made use of aesthetic principles inherited from painting. Gardner called these scenes of battlefield death “a terrible beauty.”

Battle photography in the Civil War period was very restricted because of the weight of the equipment, the time it took to make an exposure, and the difficulty of developing the glass plate negatives in a battlefield setting. The immediacy we have come to associate with battlefield photography – the close-ups and visceral imagery of struggle in the thick of the action – was not possible given the long exposure times and the extreme difficulty of transport. The subject matter and the framing of these works, however, was also shaped by a set of formal constraints: according to the photography historian Joel Snyder, Civil War battlefield photography was motivated by the desire to show an unmanipulated, unnarrated view, usually in long shot, of the places and effects of war.

[T]he Civil War photographs utilize a set of formal devices that work to assure the audience of the absence of a ‘narrator’, or of an agent who is directing the attention of the audience. This is accomplished by adopting a ‘standard’ point of view, by emphasizing clarity and formal detail, by moving back and showing everything, in short, by creating a form that has the effect of denying that the photographer had devised any form at all. The Civil War photographs were viewed as having no form of their own, or, more accurately, as having the form of the subjects they depicted.[7]

In Gardner’s Civil War photographs of the battlefields of Antietam and Gettysburg, however, we find much that is echoed in later battle photography, and much that is unique to that period.[8]

 

Confederate dead at the Dunker Church, Antietam

Confederate dead at the Dunker Church, Antietam.

“A lone grave on battlefield of Antietam”

“A lone grave on battlefield of Antietam”.

 

Gardner’s work, which was exhibited in New York City in 1862, had a profound impact on the viewing public. It was the first time that many civilians had seen the effects of battle, the actual death and destruction of war. It was a popular exhibition, and sobering. The New York Times wrote that it ‘”was like the exhibit had set a few dripping bodies fresh from the field in front of the sauntering flaneurs of Broadway’ bringing home to us the terrible reality and earnestness of war”.[9] The exhibit deeply affected the North’s sense and understanding of war. Richard Lowry has written that Gardner’s work created a new “public sphere” of witnessing, giving rise to critical questions about the costs of war, the value of war, but also, its emotional power – its “terrible beauty.” Gardner called his images “views”, the 19th century word for landscapes, and the word “views” brings to the fore the shock of images of the dead inscribed in an ordinary terrain – alongside fences, churches, in fields and woods. As Lowry writes, “Gardner uses the land as his canvas, fences, trees, horizon lines, ditches, the contour of the ground, fix the bodies and the detritus of battle in space”.[10]

This is a key sentence, as it highlights the aesthetics, the interior framing of Gardner’s images of war. Although he compared himself at one point to the gravediggers that appear in his photographs – and in some ways, he was in competition with them, rushing to get to the bodies before the gravediggers had done their work – he was clearly influenced by the landscape painters of the period.

 

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Images of dead soldiers at Antietam.

 

Gardner also photographed the officers, the staff, and President Lincoln on his visits to the battlefields. Many of the soldiers pictured in the officers’ portraits are named, as if they wished their cultural status to be acknowledged. In the juxtaposition of these two types of war photos, Gardner also underlines a theme that will be seen throughout the genre – the anonymous enlisted men, and the anonymous dead, standing in for the generalized experience of war, against the named men of rank and privilege, with their particularized identities and histories.[11]

 

Photographs of Abraham Lincoln and military officers “Studying the Art of War”

Photographs of Abraham Lincoln and military officers “Studying the Art of War”

 

Gardner’s photographs were circulated and exhibited at a time when doubt and anxiety about the war was rising, and as the numbers of dead and maimed was increasing. For everyone, Gardner’s images helped the country understand what it was looking at. Not only did he introduce the country to a new way of seeing war, he discovered for himself what would become a compelling theme throughout his war career: the profound social and psychic disruptions of death and the labor of healing.[12]

A very different reading of war photography in the Civil War period, however, is given by Kathy Newman.[13] In a study of battlefield photographs and the extensive photographic catalogues of wounded soldiers taken by Union doctors, Newman foregrounds what she calls the “embodied politics of war and photography.” Paraphrasing Elaine Scarry, she writes: “During and after the Civil War, photographic representation of corpses in the landscape was an important mechanism of legitimation by means of appropriation.” Newman argues that Gardner’s “landscape of death, the romantic softness … serves to neutralize the Civil War’s ‘images of rupture,’ both the literal rupture of limbs as well as the figurative rupture of the nation.”[14] Although these images clearly argue against the brutality of the American Civil War, they also serve “to contain the horror of war, and to contain the role that horror played in the construction of the nation-state”. Images of death and injury, she writes, contributed to the foundation of a creation myth.[15] The medical photographs of wounded soldiers, like the battlefield photographs of Gardner and others, appropriate the violence of war in order to convert it, in Newman’s words, to redefine the embodied politics of war as the “heart of the (second) birth of our Nation.”

Birth of a Genre

Unlike the complex and dialectical messages that coalesce around Civil War photography, the public sphere that developed around the earliest war films had a very different valence and offered a different set of reading positions. The war film – perhaps the first great genre of film – emerged in the late 1800’s as a vehicle of patriotic fervour, framing the body of the soldier as a symbol of cultural transformation, the rise of a new imperial America. Film was used to whip up enthusiasm for the Spanish America War in 1898, a war for which there was no real point or purpose. Film production companies discovered that there was a huge audience for these war “actualities”. It has been argued, in fact, that war films “saved” the film industry in America, generating interest and enthusiasm in a medium that already by 1898 was becoming boring and predictable and was losing audiences. Some companies renamed themselves – Edison’s Biograph Company became The War-Graph, another studio renamed itself the War-Scope – in order to capitalize on the war fever that they had helped generate. The showing of “war actualities” was often the highlight of a mixed programme of vaudeville skits, musical numbers, and comic routines.[16]

In these early film “actualities”, we can see the basic elements of the war film genre: the soldiers’ farewell to the civilian world; life in the camp; horseplay; ordinary work details; scenes of preparation for battle and marching; battle scenes; and scenes centred around the burial and mourning of the dead.[17]

 

9th Infantry Boys’ Morning Wash (Thomas A. Edison, 1898)

9th Infantry Boys’ Morning Wash (Thomas A. Edison, 1898).

10th U.S. Infantry, 2nd Battalion Leaving Cars (Thomas A. Edison, 1898)

10th U.S. Infantry, 2nd Battalion Leaving Cars (Thomas A. Edison, 1898).

 

In many ways, the Spanish American War was a media event, created in large part by the media, with enthusiasm for the war generated by newspapers (as seen through the “yellow journalism” propagated by William Randolph Hearst in particular), and by films, which promoted the war energetically. Film crews were sent to Cuba to record what war action they could, but because of the weight of the equipment, and the difficulty of developing the film in a battlefield setting, most of the film material consists of troops in camp, on parade, embarking and disembarking boats, and of blatant reenactments, such as the Raising of Old Glory Over Morro Castle, which depicts a flag being raised in front of a poorly painted backdrop. Even Georges Méliès, who had an American production company, got in on the act, staging a sinking of the Maine – the instigating event of the war – in an aquarium.

As part of the rise of a nascent visual culture in the United States, the media event of the Spanish American War was an attempt to create a new national consensus, a new sense of social unisonance, putting to rest the divisions of the Civil War between North and South. These themes were, importantly, clustered around a new national ideal of masculinity. With Theodore Roosevelt taking the lead, the American male was being constructed, in 1898, as a figure suited for a new “imperial” role in the world: athletic, fit, active, and white.[18]

Thus, against the enervated “city types” who had left the farm and the work of physical labour behind in favour of office jobs and intellectual work, a new ideal of the male body took shape during the build-up to the Spanish American War. Disciplined and physically powerful, the male enlisted man was the emblematic figure of this type, frequently pictured with heavy machinery as part of the mise-en-scène, or depicted in the costume and equipment of military life – a construction of masculinity reinforced by the mise-en-scène of war.

 

Parade of Marines, U.S. Cruiser “Brooklyn” (Thomas A. Edison, 1898)

Parade of Marines, U.S. Cruiser “Brooklyn” (Thomas A. Edison, 1898).

 

In her essay, “The Gender of Empire”, Kristen Whissel demonstrates that these films helped shape an American national identity around the ideal of a white, militarized masculinity and thus established codes of virility suitable for a new Imperial America. Against the “overcivilized” masculinity ushered in by modernity, war could uncover a latent “masculine primitive”, allowing young men to engage in what Roosevelt called “the strenuous life”. Whissel argues that homosociality, the display of mechanized bodies, and the celebration of disciplined behaviour coincided with the “cult of the body” that was developing during the period. Soldiers, sometimes partially nude, were shown with military props such as canteens, rifles and knapsacks, as well as the machines of war – tanks, battleships, and artillery guns. Whissel notes that the emphasis on mundane activities allowed the camera “to focus and linger over the image of native white masculinity as it made itself into a new embodiment of national-imperial identity”.[19] The “bodily rhetoric of soldiery” of war films suggested the men’s active participation in the construction of a martial masculine ideal, while female audiences were inscribed into chivalric fantasies of rescue and protection.[20] Indulging in a vision of unity and order, spectators of the time could share the genre’s imagination of power, mastery, and control over disparate populations, and over “technological modernity”.[21]

The contrast between Gardner’s Civil War photographs and Edison’s war actualities of the Spanish American War illuminates the range of messages that coalesce around the body in war. In Edison, for example, the body of the soldier is conceived as a symbol of historical transformation and renewal; in the work of Gardner, by contrast, the bodies of the dead and wounded appear primarily as emblems of war’s utter waste and degradation. In a major study of Modernist literary responses to the catastrophic violence of World War I, Sarah Cole describes the representation of war’s violence in terms of themes of enchantment and disenchantment. Enchanted violence, she writes, is conceived as either the “germinating core of rich symbolic structures”, or the emblem of grotesque loss. “To enchant, in this sense, is to imbue the violent experience with symbolic and cultural potency; to disenchant is to refuse that structure, to insist on the bare, forked existence of the violated being, bereft of symbol”[22].

In many art works, however, these themes are folded together. In the war photographs of Gardner, for example, the ghastly imagery of violent death was rendered, as Gardner himself called it, as a “terrible beauty” through the aestheticising use of landscape and framing. Although Gardner captures the grotesque imagery of war’s violence – swelling heaps of bodies, the eyes of the dead staring whitely into space – the aesthetic placement of the body in a landscape conceived as a “canvas” gives the representation of death a pictorial aspect. It becomes a “view” in Gardner’s word, framed by the branches of trees arching upward, or by other features of the battleground. Similarly, in the portraits of wounded and maimed soldiers taken in the Union hospitals, the attention to framing, to the folds of drapery and the contemplative facial expressions of the subjects, both the violence of war and it’s aesthetic appropriation is evident. The men’s bodies are rendered with an artistic, attentive softness. Violent death and injury is depicted here as both disenchanted and enchanted.

The intertwining of enchantment and disenchantment in representations of violence in war can be traced throughout the history of art. As Alex Danchev says, “Every war photographer has Goya on his shoulder,”[23] a statement that calls to mind Goya’s extraordinary series of images entitled ” Disasters of War,” and “The Follies” – perhaps the greatest, most searing examples of how art trades on the power of violence, appropriating its force, neither embracing it nor turning away.[24]

 

Francisco Goya, “No se convienen” (“They do not agree”); “Desastres de la guerra” (“The Disasters of War”), plate 17, 1810.

Francisco Goya, “No se convienen” (“They do not agree”); “Desastres de la guerra” (“The Disasters of War”), plate 17, 1810.

Francisco Goya, “Enterrar y callar” (“Bury them and be silent”); “Desastres de la guerra” (“The Disasters of War”), plate 18, 1810/12.

Francisco Goya, “Enterrar y callar” (“Bury them and be silent”); “Desastres de la guerra” (“The Disasters of War”), plate 18, 1810/12.

 

From Gardner’s “Terrible Beauty” to Steichen’s “Body at Risk”

A few decades later, the aestheticising of bodies in war was given a very different affective charge. Edward Steichen’s World War II photographs, taken aboard the USS Lexington, were framed as an attempt to “concentrate on the little guy”, to provide a visual record of a sentiment – that the machines of war would be obsolete one day, but men never would be”.[25]

 

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Enlisted men aboard USS Lexington. Images taken by Steichen’s Photographic Unit in 1943.

Enlisted men aboard USS Lexington. Images taken by Steichen’s Photographic Unit in 1943.

 

Steichen, who started his illustrious career as an art photographer, and then became famous as a fashion photographer for Vanity Fair, was made the commanding officer of the Navy photographic corps in World War II at the age of 62. In his images, we see a complex mix of iconography, emphasising sailors at rest, at work, and in various poses of masculine performance. The postures, the uniforms, the tattoos, the behavioural details and gestural codes seem to turn these photographs into an anthropological survey of the men in their natural habitat – the ship at sea. Steichen’s study is like a view of an unknown species, captured in a moment of isolation.

Steichen’s attempt to find a style appropriate to the grim business of war is paradoxically articulated through the pictorialist compositions of his images, the fashion-spread performative maleness of some of the tattooed figures. The major theme here is the open display of fraternal affection and physical cohesion that the images communicate. How then, we might ask, in this display of sailors’ bodies with no evident martial attitude or military iconography, is the war present at all? How does the body at risk, and the discourse of enchanted and disenchanted violence come into play in these portraits?

The theme of the body at risk is expressed in two ways. The first is through the external frame, the known historical context that informs these photos. The war is here in the imagery, the uniforms, and in the framing discourse that attends these images. Many of these portraits have also been annotated with words about the soldier’s subsequent death or injury. The second way the shaping violence of war is expressed, however, is through the internal frame of the sailors’ figure behaviour – specifically, in the deeply moving and somewhat unsettling imagery of male camaraderie, the close physical contact of one soldier with another. Writing about a different conflict, the author Sebastian Junger has spoken of the “truth of combat as a form of bonding,” that war is the “only chance men have to love each other unconditionally”.[26]

The affectionate, physical dimension of war can be visualised as a process, a transition from civilian to military life. As Hermann Kappelhoff has shown, the Hollywood war film can be broken down to several narrative and affective constellations as temporal figurations, which he calls “pathos scenes”, building on the pathos formulas of Warburg. One of the pathos categories that can be applied to Steichen’s images is entitled “transition between two social systems”. Kappelhoff describes scenes that include rituals of integration into the community of the troop, or centre on images of quotidian moments of military life, which, in turn, mirror the domestic structures of civilian life.[27] Regardless of the differences between photography and film, it is this process, this emerging of an alternate male society that Steichen tries to capture. His images express both a certain point within this development and imply a complex transition from one state to another.

Patricia Vettel-Becker refers to the enchanting appeal of Steichen’s photographs as a “homosocial romance of male bonding”.[28] The images, however, acquire a very different meaning in the context of his 1945 Museum of Modern Art exhibition Power in the Pacific: Battle Photographs of Our Navy in Action on the Sea and in the Sky. Despite Steichen’s belief that presenting a “real image” of war to the public could contribute to “ending the specter of war”, the combat pictures his unit had taken were woven into a heroic, transformative narrative. The introductory wall text for Power in the Pacific reads:

Here is the war in the western seas, and here are the men who fight it. Here are the tools of the warrior’s trade—the guns, the ships, the airplanes. Here is the force that America sent into Far East waters—Midway, Saipan, Guadalcanal, the beach of bloody Tarawa, Lingayon Gulf, and Guam and Truk, and far-off gloomy Formosa. Yesterday these men were boys; today they are seasoned warriors. Yesterday the airplanes were but lines on a thousand blueprints; today they sting the air with death, and shake the earth with blastings. Yesterday the ships lay stacked in piles of shapeless metal; today they cleave the trackless sea, belching steel and brimstone against the slimy swamps, the mountain caves, the jungle.[29]

 

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Steichen’s photographic inscription of the soldiers’ bodies into the machinery of war.

 

Genre Memory in the Work of Tim Hetherington

In the work of Tim Hetherington, the themes of touch and intimacy are joined to the imagery of masculine violence in an explicit way. In his film biography of Hetherington, Junger says that the core question that haunted Hetherington had to do with question of “young men in power, young men in violence, and how young men see themselves in war”. Prompted by Hetherington’s photographs, he asks if war is part of the “hard wiring” of young men and stresses the way young men “see themselves in ways that are informed by images of other soldiers in war”.[30]

In drawing on the genre memory of war representation, however, Hetherington and Junger’s work also brings into relief a key dimension of war that has so far not received critical attention – what the geographer Derek Gregory describes as the “corpography” of war. “By ‘corpography’ I mean a mode of apprehending, ordering and knowing the battle space through the body as an acutely physical field in which the senses of sound, smell, taste, and touch were increasingly privileged (over the optical-visual register of cartography) to produce a somatic geography or a corporeality”.[31]

Detailing the bodily experiences that characterize 20th century combat, Gregory draws on soldiers’ memoires, letters, and literary accounts to highlight and recover the texture of sensory experience in three very different settings: the trench warfare of World War I, where the senses of touch, smell, and hearing were far more critical to survival than vision; the desert campaigns of World War II; and the rainforests of Vietnam. He further argues that war in the contemporary period in the Middle East is equally defined by corporeal engagement.

The structures of feeling that I have been (un)earthing have not been left behind by later modern war, buried in the mud of the Western Front, baked in the sands of the Western Desert, or burned in the napalm-soaked forests of Vietnam. Through the circulation of military imagery and its ghosting in video games, it is too easy to think of contemporary warfare as optical war hypostatised: a war fought on screens and through digital images, in which full motion video feeds from Predators and Reapers allow for an unprecedented degree of remoteness from the killing fields. It becomes tempting to think of the wars waged by advanced militaries as ‘surgical’, even – a bizarre conjunction – body-less … And yet, for all their liquid violence, today’s wars are still shaped and even confounded by the multiple, acutely material environments through which they are fought and which they, in their turn, re-shape.[32]

It is here, we suggest, that the work of Hetherington and Junger marks an intervention in the contemporary cultural imaginary of war, dramatizing the limitations of so called “optical war” or “bodiless war” in the conflict zones of Afghanistan. The concentrated attention to the touchscape of modern war in their work, moreover, provides a fresh perspective on older traditions of visual representation, illuminating the genre codes of war photography and film in a new way. The visual and acoustic design of Restrepo, in particular, captures the haptic geography of combat in a remote mountain outpost in the Korengal Valley. The film highlights the concentrated experience of sound and touch, providing a first-person account of the way the body inhabits contested space, the way the intensities of war confuse and overwrite the sensory codes of vision, and the compensatory drive of somatic mastery, which is projected in vivid displays of masculine athleticism in the relative safety of the enclosure.

What Steichen called “the machinery of war” is all but absent in these images. Like Steichen, Hetherington expresses the brotherhood of the men in directly physical, gestural forms – in close physical contact, in the “bloodying” of new men, and in the tattoos they give each other with a tattoo gun they have brought up to the camp.

 

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Portrayals of a “brotherhood of men” in Hetherington’s Infidel.

 

The history and memory of battle, moreover, are inscribed directly on the bodies of the soldiers pictured here in the form of tattoos, which become the indexical signs of combat, a tactile record of vulnerability and extreme experience that in many ways is at the heart of war and war representation. As Gregory describes it, “in order to survive ground troops had to invest in modes of apprehension that extended far beyond the visual; they remained not only vectors of military violence but also among its victims; and their bodies have to be comprehended as intensely physiological and affective organisms”.[33]

 

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Tattooed bodies are a central motif in Hetherington’s Infidel, marking the soldiers’ physical memory of combat.

 

The tattoo photographs that are such a prominent feature of the book Infidel express a particularly complicated set of messages. In some cultures, tattoos are seen as magical, a form of protection, and a way of warding off death. Popular in times of historical transition and crisis, tattoos serve as a talisman and as an alternative way of inscribing the self in history. Sailors were commonly tattooed, both as a way of memorializing the places they’ve been to and also as a form of identification. The sailor’s tattoos would be recorded in the ship’s manifest. If they were washed overboard, their tattoos would be the only way their bodies could be identified.

In Restrepo, the body becomes an icon of war itself, a form of memorial inscription. Several soldiers, in addition to elaborate pictorial images, tattooed the names of their fallen brothers on their arms. As Vettel-Becker notes, tattoos can be regarded as “emblems of membership in a sacred brotherhood; their application is conceived as an initiation rite, the achievement of manhood through violence and pain, which is endured with the support of other men”.[34] Steiner, one of the soldiers stationed at O.P. Restrepo, says this about the two tattoos of winged bullets on his chest:

Vinnie drew up this bullet with wings on it and I told him to give it to me when he ordered his tattoo gun. At the time in Afghanistan I had been hit two times, so he did two of them. They hold meaning to me. The tattoos that I have that was done in Afghanistan by a guy that I fought with – you know, we hurt together, we stuck together – I am prouder of these tattoos than any of the fifteen others I have.[35]

Depictions of war in Restrepo and Infidel revolve around touch – the heat, cold, and dirt, the intense exertion, the texture of skin. Although Hetherington’s images of white, muscular soldiers may be compared to the displays of imperial masculinity celebrated by Edison in his War-Graph actualities, and by Roosevelt in his appeal to the brave “game boys” of military adventure, they also relay the heightened sensuality of Steichen’s World War II sailors to a contemporary war setting. Scenes that contain a high quotient of violence – the firefights with insurgents, the roughhousing, the bloodying of new recruits – are here juxtaposed with shots of soldiers sleeping and other scenes of quiet reflection.

 

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Hetherington’s “Sleeping Soldiers”.

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Caravaggio, “Sleeping Cupid”, 1608.

 

In these images, also, genre memory is evoked – a genre memory that reaches back to older traditions of pictorial art. Hetherington’s “Sleeping Soldiers,” perhaps the most striking and unusual works in this catalogue, picture soldiers regressing from their hardened military identity to a state of incautious boyishness, abandoning the reality of war for a few hours of peaceful dreaming. Like Caravaggio’s “Sleeping Cupid”, who has put his bow and arrow to rest, the young men are caught “off duty”, reminding us, in these quiet, contemplative frames, of their fragility.

 

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Still frame from Hetherington’s video installation, “Sleeping Soldiers”.

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Édouard Detaille, “The Dream”, 1888.

 

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One of Hetherington’s “Sleeping Soldiers” compared to 17th century paintings. Bottom left: Caspar Netscher, “Interior with a Sleeping Soldier“, c. 1660. Bottom right: David The Younger Ryckaert, “
Man Sleeping“, c. 1649.

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Left: Christopher Nevinson, “Dog Tired”, 1916. Right: John Singer Sargent, “Two Soldiers at Arras”, 1917.

 

The use of chiaroscuro and soft focus accentuates the sense of pathos the images communicate, reinforcing a palpable elegiac mood in which the violence of war, its grotesque waste and loss, is bracketed out in favour of the imagery of enchantment, where war becomes again poetic and metaphoric.

 

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Two portraits from Infidel compared to a 1629 self-portrait by Rembrandt.

 

Conclusion

Brian Castner has characterized the Afghanistan war as a “stage without a play”, arguing that it has yet to acquire the narrative contours – the clarified plot-line, the shaping focalisation, the well-drawn dramatis personae – that gives wars their cultural salience. In his review essay on John Renehan’s novel, The Valley, Castner writes, “If World War II is the Good War, Korea the Forgotten War, Vietnam the Bad War, and Iraq the New Bad War, then Afghanistan, it would seem, is the Lonely War. Or maybe the Ignored War. It is, at least, the Undescribed War”.[36] Without a narrative through line, the war in Afghanistan has so far been underrepresented – for the most part, it has played itself out in an artistic vacuum. The few Western authors who have written fictional narratives set in the Afghanistan War, for example, have resorted to surprisingly traditional narrative paradigms – comparing the conflict to the Greek epics, with The Iliad serving as a principle intertext, or more compellingly, to the American frontier Western, in which the stark and alien landscape of Afghanistan serves as a contemporary version of the Monument Valley of John Ford. In the words of Brandon Willits, “Americans have always wanted a frontier to test themselves against. It’s that Frederick Jackson Turner idea”.[37] And as another author, Kevin Maurer, says, “Afghanistan is far more riveting than Iraq because it’s a whole different world. Baghdad is a Middle Eastern city, but it is a modern city. In Afghanistan that barely exists … you can go get lost in Afghanistan, you can be on some hill on some outpost. In Iraq you were never that far out”.[38] As Castner concludes, “Afghanistan, ancient and fresh … challenges us for a new treatment.”[39]

Our discussion of the imagery of the body at risk in war photography and film has centred on the idea of genre as an “organ of memory”, a way of seeing the world that carries experience from one generation to another, and from which new potentials emerge. Genres, as Bakhtin has written, are the “residue of past behaviour … the crystallization of earlier interactions”. They “resume past usage” and redefine present experience in an additional way.[40] War films and war photography provide a particularly vivid example of the way the past can shape new potentials in the present. The violence of war, its intensified emotion, and even the geopolitical context in which it occurs are retained in the genre forms of war film and photography, which provide something like an emotional archaeology of the past – a multi-layered record of violence and emotion and the shifting cultural frames through which it is perceived. The particular “ways of seeing” afforded by the eyes of genre, however, also provide a powerful resource for artistic innovation.

Hetherington and Junger’s work is a case in point: standing against the dream of bodiless war, their films and photographs claim a place for embodied war in the current cultural imaginary, which is dominated by the ideology of “war at a distance”, of so called “hygienic” or virtuous war.[41] Foregrounding the body of the soldier as a medium of sensory experience and as a body at risk, their work recalls the long history of war photography, painting, and film, dramatizing the importance of the figure of the body in narratives of war, and the power of somatic imagery to shape cultural perceptions of conflict. In Restrepo and Infidel, haptic experience and embodied vulnerability unfold as the central fact of war, the heart of warfare. Here too, however, a certain cultural imaginary is invoked, visible in Junger’s discussion of “young men in war” and of the “hard wiring” of young men for the violence of war, a theme that sacrifices any consideration of context, as if war was an existential constant. Nonetheless, in this framing of contemporary western war, centred on the haptic geography of combat, we can see an initial sketch, an introduction, to a critical understanding of the corpography of war in the current period.

 

infidel_07

infidel_08

Two images from Infidel; the bottom photo won the 2007 World Press Photo Award.

 


[1] For discussion of the concept of “genre memory,” see Gary Saul Morson and Caryl Emerson, Mikhail Bakhtin: Creation of a Prosaics. (Stanford, Calif.: Stanford University Press, 1990), 278 – 297. See also Robert Burgoyne, Film Nation: Hollywood Looks at U.S. HistoryRevised Edition (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2010).

[2] See, for example, Edward Luttwak, “Toward Post-Heroic Warfare”, Foreign Affairs (May/June 1995) and Luttwak, Strategy: The Logic of War and Peace. (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2001). See also Christopher Coker, The future of war: the re-enchantment of war in the twenty first Century. (Oxford, UK: Blackwell Publishing, 2004).

[3] A.O. Scott, “Battle Company: Loving Life, Making War,” The New York Times, June 24, 2010. Accessed May 15, 2015.

[4] See Gary Saul Morson and Caryl Emerson, Mikhail BakhtinCreation of a Prosaics. See also Robert Burgoyne, Film Nation: Hollywood Looks at U.S. HistoryRevised Edition.

[5] Giorgio Agamben, “Aby Warburg and the Nameless Science,” Potentialities: Collected Essays in Philosophy, translated and edited by Daniel Heller-Roazen (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1999), 90.

[6] Colleen Becker, “Aby Warburg’s Pathosformel as methodological paradigm,” Journal of Art Historiography, Number 9, December 2013, 11. Also see Elisabeth Bronfen, Specters of War: Hollywood’s Engagement with Military Conflict (New Brunswick: Rutgers University Press, 2012.

[7] See Joel Snyder, “Photographs and Photographers of the Civil War,” in The Documentary Photo as a Work of Art (Chicago: David and Alfred Smart Gallery, University of Chicago, 1976), 20.

[8] See Richard Lowry, The Photographer and the President: Abraham Lincoln, Alexander Gardner, and the Images that Made a Presidency (New York: Rizzoli, 2015).

[9] Anon. “Brady’s Photographs; Pictures of the Dead at Antietam, The New York Times, October 20, 1862, accessed May 15, 2015, http://www.nytimes.com/1862/10/20/news/brady-s-photographs-pictures-of-the-dead-at-antietam.html

[10] Richard Lowry, “Dead Bodies and a Standing President: Alexander Gardner’s ‘Terrible Reality’,” Presentation at the University of St Andrews, June, 2013.

[11] This thesis is developed at length in Lowry, The Photographer and the President.

[12] Lowry, “Dead Bodies and a Standing President”.

[13] Kathy Newman, “Wounds and Wounding in the American Civil War: A (Visual) History,” The Yale Journal of Criticism, 6:2 (1993), 63—85.

[14] Newman, “Wounds and Wounding”, 69.

[15] Newman, 65, 75.

[16] See James Castonguay’s study on the Spanish American War and its reception: http://chnm.gmu.edu/aq/war/recep1.htm

[17] See Robert Eberwein, The Hollywood War Film (Malden, MA: Wiley-Blackwell, 2010), 5.

[18] See Kristen Whissel, “The Gender of Empire,” in A Feminist Reader in Early Cinema, edited by Jennifer M. Bean and Diane Negra (Durham: Duke University Press, 2002), 141—165.

[19] Whissel, 152.

[20] Ibid., 158.

[21] Ibid., 159.

[22] Sarah Cole, At the Violet Hour (London: Oxford University Press, 2012), 43.

[23] Alex Danchev, On Art and War and Terror (Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 2009), 37.

[24] See Alex Danchev, “Infidels and miscreants: love and war in Afghanistan,” International Affairs, 87: 2 (2011), 435–443.

[25] Steichen in an interview with Wayne Miller (1954). In Wisdom: Conversations with the Elder Wise Men of our Day, Ed. James Nelson. (New York: W.W. Norton, 1958), 41.

[26] Sebastian Junger, War (New York: Twelve Hachette Book Group, 2010).

[27] See the following webpage: Empirische Medienästhetik. Database “Mobilization of Emotions in War Films.” Categories. Transition between two social systems. Freie Universität Berlin. Languages of Emotion, 2011, accessed May 15, 2015,
http://www.empirische-medienaesthetik.fu-berlin.de/en/emaex-system/affektdatenmatrix/kategorien/uebergang/index.html

[28] Patricia Vettel-Becker, “Destruction and Delight: World War II Combat Photography and the Aesthetic Inscription of Masculine Identity,” Men and Masculinities, 5 (2002), 82.

[29] Museum of Modern Art, Power in the Pacific. Wall text, exhibition records. New York: Museum of Modern Art Photographic Archives, 1945.

[30] Junger’s film biography of Tim Hetherington, Which Way is the Front Line from Here? (2013), is a powerful and disturbing memorial project. Hetherington, as the title of the film suggests, was interested in the most extreme combat conditions and experiences. What Junger says about soldiers becoming addicted to the intensity of the experience of combat, described later in this essay, appears to apply equally well to Hetherington.

[31] Derek Gregory, “Corpographies”, accessed May 15, 2015, http://geographicalimaginations.com/2014/07/16/corpographies

[32] Derek Gregory, “The Natures of War,” Geographical Imaginations, 2014, 65, accessed May 15, 2015, https://geographicalimaginations.files.wordpress.com/2012/07/gregory-the-natures-of-war-november-2014.pdf

[33] Gregory, “The Natures of War”, 63.

[34] Vettel-Becker, 86.

[35] Tim Hetherington and Sebastian Junger, Infidel (London: Chris Boot, 2010), 172.

[36] Brian Castner, “Afghanistan: A Stage Without A Play,” LA Review of Books, October 2, 2014, accessed May 15, 2015, http://lareviewofbooks.org/essay/afghanistan-stage-without-play

[37] Brandon Willits, quoted in Castner 2014.

[38] Maurer quoted in Castner 2014.

[39] Castner 2014.

[40] Morson and Emerson, 293.

[41] See for instance James Der Derian, “Virtuous War/Virtual Theory,” International Affairs 76: 4. (2000), 771-788.

 

Notes on Contributors

Robert Burgoyne is Chair in Film Studies at the University of St Andrews. His work centres on historical representation and film, especially on war in film and photography. His recent books include The Hollywood Historical Film (2008); Film Nation: Hollywood Looks at U.S. History: Revised Edition (2010) and The Epic Film in World Culture (2011).

Eileen Rositzka is a PhD candidate in the Department of Film Studies, University of St Andrews. In her dissertation she examines the war film genre in terms of how its notion of the cinematic positioning, or ‘reterritorialisation” of the body is modified throughout film history. Her research mainly combines aspects of cartography and embodiment, and takes a “corpographic” approach to genre as such.

 

Bibliography

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Bronfen, Elisabeth. Specters of War: Hollywood’s Engagement with Military Conflict. New Brunswick: Rutgers University Press, 2012.

Burgoyne, Robert. Film Nation: Hollywood Looks at US History. Revised edition. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2010.

Becker, Colleen. “Aby Warburg’s Pathosformel as Methodological Paradigm.” Journal of Art Historiography 9 (2013), 1-25.

Castner, Brian. “Afghanistan: A Stage Without A Play.” LA Review of Books, October 2, 2014. Accessed May 15, 2015. http://lareviewofbooks.org/essay/afghanistan-stage-without-play

Castonguay, James. “The Spanish-American War in United States Media Culture.” In Hollywood and War: The Film Reader, edited by J. David Slocum. New York: Routledge, 2006.

Coker, Christopher. The Future of War: the Re-enchantment of War in the Twenty First Century. Oxford, UK: Blackwell Publishing, 2004.

Cole, Sarah. At the Violet Hour. London: Oxford University Press, 2012.

Danchev, Alex. “Infidels and Miscreants: Love and War in Afghanistan.” International Affairs 87: 2 (2011), 435–443.

—– On Art and War and Terror. Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 2009.

Der Derian, James. “Virtuous War/Virtual Theory.” International Affairs 76: 4. (2000), 771-788.

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Hetherington, Tim and Sebastian Junger. Infidel. London: Chris Boot, 2010.

Junger, Sebastian. War. New York: Hachette, 2010.

Kappelhoff, Hermann. “Sense of Community: Die filmische Komposition eines moralischen Gefühls.” [Sense of Community: The Filmic Composition of a Moral Feeling.] In Repräsentationen des Krieges. Emotionalisierungsstrategien in der Literatur und in den audiovisuellen Medien vom 18. bis zum 21. Jahrhundert [Representations of War: Emotionalizing Strategies in Literature and Audiovisual Media from the 18th to the 21st Century], edited by Søren R.Fauth, Kasper Green Krejberg, and Jan Süselbeck, 43–57. Göttingen: Wallstein, 2012. (Translation kindly supplied by the author.).

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Luttwak, Edward. “Toward Post-Heroic Warfare.”, Foreign Affairs, May/June (1995).

Luttwak, Edward. Strategy: The Logic of War and Peace. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2001.

Newman, Kathy. “Wounds and Wounding in the American Civil War: A (Visual) History.” The Yale Journal of Criticism 6:2 (1993), 63-86.

Morson, Gary Saul and Caryl Emerson. Mikhail Bakhtin: Creation of a Prosaics. Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1990.

Scott, A.O. “Battle Company: Loving Life, Making War” New York Times Movie Review, June 24, 2010. Accessed May 15, 2015. http://www.nytimes.com/2010/06/25/movies/25restrepo.html?_r=0

Snyder, Joel. “Photographers and Photographs of the Civil War,” in The Documentary Photograph as a Work of Art: American Photographs, 1860–1876, edited by Joel Snyder and Doug Munson, 17-22. Chicago: The David and Alfred Smart Gallery, The University of Chicago, 1976.

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Vettel-Becker, Patricia. “Destruction and Delight: World War II Combat Photography and the Aesthetic Inscription of Masculine Identity,” Men and Masculinities 5 (2002), 80-102.

Whissel, Kristin. “The Gender of Empire: American Modernity, Masculinity, and Edison’s War Actualities.”In A Feminist Reader in Early Cinema, edited by Jennifer M. Bean and Diane Negra. Durham: Duke University Press, 2002.

 

Filmography

Restrepo (Tim Hetherington and Sebastian Junger, 2010).

Which Way Is The Frontline From Here? The Life and Time of Tim Hetherington (Sebastian Junger, 2013).