This past Saturday afternoon, photojournalist Ashley Gilbertson appeared in Charlottesville as part of the Festival of the Photograph, giving a talk co-sponsored by VQR and The Bridge Progressive Arts Initiative. Gilbertson read his essay and gave a slideshow of “Last Photographs,” a photo-essay forthcoming in this summer’s issue of VQR.
The essay documents three episodes from his work for the New York Times in Iraq, which illustrate the change in his understanding of his purpose there; where he first felt compelled to make a change in Americans’ perception of the war, he has now come to feel he’s “just recording history now, documenting the decline.”
Among the attendees was Ben Shaw, who very recently returned from his third tour of duty in Iraq as a Sergeant with the US Marines. Shaw’s first two tours included duty in Fallujah and in Baghdad. He re-enlisted for a voluntary third tour as a training officer for the Iraqi army and police force.
During a lively question-and-answer session following Gilbertson’s talk, Shaw said he could explain the initial reticence of soldiers and marines toward embedded journalists. “We don’t know who comes in with an agenda, whether it’s a pro-war or anti-war agenda, and we don’t want to feed either one,” he said. “This man [Gilbertson] simply says what he saw, and my hat’s off to him.”
- Ben Shaw (left) talking with Ashley Gilbertson (right). Also pictured are (left to right) Andrea Bruce, a photographer from the Washington Post and Joanna Gilbertson, Ashley’s wife.
Shaw also addressed another attendee’s question about the safety of embedded journalists, and about their separate-but-together relationship to the military units they cover. “If they’re with us, they’re ours,” he said. “We in the military would go through hell or high water to keep anything from happening to them. They go in with us, and they’re going to come out with us. In one piece.”
Gilbertson and Shaw seemed to agree that there’s a disparity between life on the ground on Iraq and the perception of that life available to the average American through the mainstream press. After the reading and discussion, I asked them to comment as they saw fit on two loose questions: based on your experience in Iraq, what do Americans need to know about that country, the war, and America’s role? And what do we need to understand before we can move forward? While it may come as little surprise that their answers differ substantially, those of us in the audience Saturday were impressed and heartened by the two men’s mutual respect for one another’s experience and opinion.
In reading the dailies it’s very difficult to get a sense of the overall tragedy in Iraq. A line in a story might read something like, “Forty three bodies were found around the capital today.” A horrible idea alone, but it often remains as just that, an abstract number in the paper. Reporters and photographers in Iraq have immense trouble moving around the country, and only limited mobility in Baghdad, and it’s extremely difficult, if not impossible, to find the families and portray the grief attached to those corpses or those killed in car bombs. I feel that when we see those numbers in the paper, we need to think about the fact that each and every one of those corpses found dumped or blown to pieces were once human beings, with families and lives and people who cared about them. The same goes for the enormous numbers killed in other violence around the country and for those soldiers that the Department of Defense issues short and cold statements about every day. Every time any type of death count is encountered, we need to remind ourselves of the humanity associated with it. Reporting the Iraq story is difficult at best, and as reporters, we rarely have the window to portray the pain of loss.
Above all else we need to stop approaching the war in Iraq as an exercise in foreign policy. It has become real for hundreds of thousands of Iraqis who have lost family members and at least 3,500 American ones. We need to approach Iraq from a utilitarian stand point, not a political one.
Americans are not seeing the critical importance of the United States’ presence in Iraq, nor our steady progress towards a sustainable self government for free Iraqis. Americans are daily inundated with violence and tragedy in Iraq—which is certainly a heart-wrenching part of this conflict; but they are not seeing, as it is extraordinarily difficult to quantify, the innumerable acts of violence that are thwarted by US efforts. Thus, Americans are wont to believe that our presence in Iraq is doing nothing more than costing billions of dollars, and the lives of our sons and daughters—that ultimately we are solving nothing.
Americans need to see the joint checkpoint manned by US troops and Iraqi soldiers. They need to see the US Soldier struggling to learn Arabic—the curse words first because they’re the most entertaining, but then the language itself, to better communicate, to better share tactics, to better understand each other.
Americans need to see the Iraqi soldiers that thank US weapons instructors for helping them, for teaching them life-saving skills, for treating them as professional colleagues in training, and in missions.
Americans need to see how much safer they are because of US efforts overseas—how keeping the fight in Iraq and Afghanistan is keeping the fight OUT of our homeland. Americans need to see the faces of the Iraqi men, women and children that rely on our patrols, our security, and our oversight for their safety. Americans need to see the face of an enemy who is dedicated to outright murder of his own countrymen, and the extermination—worldwide—of all those not like him.
Americans need to see why the men and women of the US armed forces continue to volunteer for service in Iraq—that the mission is a critical one, that the cause a necessary one, and that in our absence untold thousands of innocents would die as a consequence of merely being different.
Among the afternoon’s most powerful and illuminating exchanges was an aside following Gilbertson’s description of his security arrangements in Iraq. He described the New York Times’ support for its reporters, the resources available though his working relationship with the military, and the ease with which he could leave the country if necessary. “I could be in Germany in three hours on a plane,” he said. “And I don’t know how you guys”—gesturing toward Shaw—“can do it for so long without losing your minds.”
Shaw said, “We lose our minds.”