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The Dreadful Details: The Problem of Depicting War

ISSUE:  Summer 2007

On September 18, 1862, Alexander Gardner and his assistant James F. Gibson arrived on the field at Antietam—just one day after the terrible battle that remains the deadliest single day in American history. Gardner, by then, was a member of General George B. McClellan’s staff, serving as something like the Civil War’s official photographer—an idea hatched by Gardner’s longtime friend and former employer Mathew Brady. Because of his official capacity, Gardner had unfettered access to the battlefield, and he went quickly to work, setting up his tripod, making his exposures, and developing his glass plate negatives on the spot in his traveling dark room. The images Gardner made were not technically the first photographs of war; there were no charges, no cannon fire, no muskets or drawn sabers. What Gardner captured, however, was the grim aftermath of battle, the undeniable reality of young men torn apart, pierced through, sprawled in open fields, huddled in wagon traces, their limp bodies dragged and stacked for mass burial.

When the photographs were unveiled a month later at Brady’s walk-up gallery on Broadway in New York—announced only by a small placard, inscribed “The Dead of Antietam”—they touched off a controversy that has persisted ever since. What were the ethics of portraying scenes of such carnage? The New York Times reporter recoiled at what he saw, recognizing that if Brady “has not brought bodies and laid them in our door-yards and along the streets, he has done something very like it.” The camera lens—that cold, unblinking Cyclops—did not embellish the scene or soften the loss of a loved one with visions of false heroics. These portraits of the dead were “taken as they fell, their poor hands clutching the grass around in spasm of pain, or reaching out for a help which none gave.” Such brutal imagery, the reporter conceded, “has done something to bring home to us the terrible reality and earnestness of war,” but the full lists of the dead from Antietam had not yet been released, and many next of kin were still awaiting letters, so he confessed he “would scarce choose to be in the gallery, when one of the women bending over [the photographs] should recognize a husband, a son, or a brother in the still, lifeless lines of bodies, that lie ready for the gaping trenches.”

This issue of the Virginia Quarterly Review features similar images of carnage—but taken during our current war in Iraq and taken at considerably greater risk than anything Gardner ever experienced. Indeed, the three photographers included here—Carolyn Cole, Ashley Gilbertson, and Chris Hondros—have each received the highest honor for war photography: the Robert Capa Gold Medal, given by the Overseas Press Club of America for the “best published photographic reporting from abroad requiring exceptional courage and enterprise.” These photographers have won this award for their work in Iraq, and here they discuss the dangerous conditions under which those photos were taken, the psychological impact of covering this war, and the sense of responsibility that drives them.

Not long after Ashley Gilbertson returned from his most recent rotation in Iraq, we stood at the bar in a dive in midtown Manhattan as he described how the essay he was writing was changing as he composed it. He had originally intended to explain why he would not return to Iraq—it was too dangerous, too depressing, too diffuse to cover anymore. But, as he worked on the essay and his wife Joanna helped him shape it and redraft it, he had come to realize that he probably would return to Iraq, that he couldn’t keep himself away. Joanna sat on her stool, listening to Ash bark this insight over the music blaring from the loudspeakers. She wore an expression of forced calm, a thin smile meant to disguise deep panic as sardonic detachment. But if that ironic distance is a stereotype of writers and photographers who cover Iraq, it isn’t the reality—not in my experience. The risk to themselves is too real to dismiss them as grief vultures preying on the suffering of others.

As a case in point, writer Matthew Power remembers activist and journalist Brad Will, who was killed last year in Oaxaca while covering the teachers’ strike there. Power shows the complicated mix of bravado and compassion that one must have to be a conflict journalist, the cocksure belief that you can get yourself out of anything—which sometimes gains you access to worlds others would never dare visit, and sometimes leaves you in situations you cannot escape. In Power’s portrayal, Will becomes as magnetic as he is reckless, as much genuinely hopeful as he is a wannabe. In short, he becomes—like all journalists, all writers, all artists—a stand-in for us all and a reminder of the necessity of embracing the world in all its imperfections and horror.

The alternative is to rigorously insist on a sense of order—a move, as Adam Kirsch argues later in this issue, that not only led to Ezra Pound’s limiting artistic ideals, but to his Fascism and “contempt for actual human beings.” Alternatively, too much belief can lead a poet like W. H. Auden to see purgative value in war—what he called “necessary murder.” In the end, as Kirsch shows, Auden found his way to the other side by recognizing that the role of the poet is not to order the world as Pound and Yeats attempted, nor merely to celebrate its ideals as he had done as a young man; instead he came to see the role of the poet as one of witness, one who puts aside his own ideals for a clear-eyed vision of the world.

There could be no better example of the value of such writing than the thrilling and heartbreaking poems of Jiří Orten, translated by Lyn Coffin and introduced in this issue by Edward Hirsch. As Hirsch points out, Orten wrote most of these poems under the heel of Nazi Germany—indeed, he ultimately died after a traffic accident because the Gestapo-controlled hospital would not admit a Jew—but his poems, in Coffin’s elegant translations, positively ache with their longing for the world. The selection of his work begins with a litany of what the Nazis have denied him, but they cannot control his remarkable gift as a sympathetic observer. “What are we but runaways from tender executioners?” he asks in one poem, and in another suggests, “God’s no longer there. // God knows where he is.” But Orten’s poems succumb neither to platitudes nor despair, neither to the Fascist impulse toward order nor a nihilistic acceptance of chaos. But he is not merely a witness; he is a reliable witness.

In 1866, when the guns of the Civil War had finally fallen silent, Alexander Gardner gathered his photographs of Antietam together with similarly desolate images of Fredericksburg, Gettysburg, and the siege of Petersburg into his Photographic Sketch Book of the War. He admitted that countless pages had already been devoted to describing the war but asserted that, “Verbal representations of such places, or scenes, may or may not have the merit of accuracy; but photographic presentments of them will be accepted by posterity with an undoubting faith.” And later, in text to accompany the grisly portraits of the dead at Gettysburg, Gardner explained what he saw as the simple value of such imagery: “It shows the blank horror and reality of war, in opposition to its pageantry. Here are the dreadful details! Let them aid in preventing such another calamity upon the nation.”

In short, we must continue the painful work of bearing witness for posterity, of looking with the camera’s unblinking stare at the horrors of humankind. Harder still, we must condemn much of what we see in the world even as we resolve to live in it and love it anyway.


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