May 24, 2009

Pink skivvies: Whitewashing The Afghan Campaign

Soldiers from the U.S. Army First Battalion, 26th Infantry take defensive positions at firebase Restrepo after receiving fire from Taliban positions in the Korengal Valley of Afghanistan's Kunar Province on Monday May 11, 2009. Spc. Zachery Boyd of Fort Worth, TX, far left was wearing 'I love NY' boxer shorts after rushing from his sleeping quarters to join his fellow platoon members. From far right is Spc. Cecil Montgomery of Many, LA and Jordan Custer of Spokan, WA, center. (AP Photo/David Guttenfelder)
“Any soldier who goes into battle against the Taliban in pink boxers and flip-flops has a special kind of courage … I can only wonder about the impact on the Taliban. Just imagine seeing that: a guy in pink boxers and flip-flops has you in his cross-hairs. What an incredible innovation in psychological warfare.” –Defense Secretary Gates

So this May 11 image of Spc. Zachary Boyd of Fort Worth, Texas, fighting the Taliban in his pink “I love NY” boxer shorts, has “gone iconic.”
Lauded by Secretary Gates himself, I don’t think I could provide an analysis any better than Daryl Lang’s at the Photo District News blog:

Rare is the war photograph that connects with so many people—from a soldier’s family, to newspaper editors, to the Secretary of Defense. What makes this picture work?

  • For starers, it’s a well-shot, well-composed photo that tells a story in about two seconds. Which of these things is not like the other?
  • This photo plays into America’s aspirations for its soldiers: Bravery, camaraderie, and charming human foibles.
  • It gives people a gentle reminder that young soldiers are still doing exhausting, dangerous work in Afghanistan. At the same time, the photo carries just enough humor that nobody feels bad when they see it.
  • It shows the war at its simplest: Us versus the enemy, a shooting match between two distinct armies.

In other words, it’s a white-washed version of a complicated war. This picture is like a Norman Rockwell painting. It assures us things are as they should be. This observation is not meant to diminish Guttenfelder’s work; obviously this is not his only picture from Afghanistan. But it does reveal why war journalism is so tricky. It’s easier to summon an audience when you show people what they want to see.

And then, here are a few take-aways from photographer and occasional BNN contributer Matt Lutton of dvaphoto:

•What I was reading in this photo was the irony of that 9/11 connection, given the “I love New York” underwear. The literal ‘this is what has come of 9/11’ for the nation and this soldier: kids sitting on some hilltop under attack, in their pajamas, virtually naked in front of the bullets.

•Too, the ‘rolling out of bed to fight a war’ is such a strange thing, echoes war video games?

•And in this situation, if he were awoken to run out to fight, what a snap from dream to reality. it should be for a nation. too.

(image: David Guttenfelder/A.P. May 11, 2009. Korengal Valley, Afghanistan)

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Michael Shaw
See other posts by Michael here.

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