Reading The Pictures is dedicated to the analysis of news photos and media images.
January 23, 2012

U.S. Air Power in Afghanistan: From Ineffective to Disastrous — but Kinder, Gentler, and a Different Kind of Sexy

Not surprisingly, media embedding continues to pay off for the Pentagon in terms of sympathetic coverage. The latest example is a 2,000 word story, published by the NYT, praising the restraint and adaption of the U.S. Air Force and American fighter pilots in the Afghan theater when the larger point is that the utility of America’s overwhelming air presence has fluctuated between extremely limited and thoroughly counterproductive, the resource a brilliant example of overkill.

Stennis hicks 4

Tracking the heroic exploits of one fighter squadron (that’s Captain Dell Bull), the story is deferential to the (economy-bleeding) U.S. war machine, the accompanying photo story approaching the promotional. (Only two of the captions on the 15 muscular, dramatic and romanticized photos taken in the skies or aboard the aircraft carrier U.S.S. John C. Stennis, for example, even make reference to the main point — the diminished effectiveness of these military resources. And in the photos, you see no evidence of it at all.

I wanted to mention this photo, in particular (#7 in the slideshow). Photos of fighter jets, bombs, pilots on flight decks, and control rooms with lots of electronics and colored lights are sexy, but they’re also pretty standard. In contrast (to all the other shots of boys, and boys doing boy-things), this blonde servicewoman in a bright shirt and cool tats on both arms, running a cloth over an opened-up F/A-18, emphasizes how militaristic imagery can be seductive in a more contemporary way.

Stennis Hicks 3

It’s hard to tell, but do the eyebrows, or just the expression, suggest that’s a woman on the deck in front of those Super Hornets, also?

These photos obscure the declining value of the lethal hardware and “collateral damage” with portraits, women, body art, color and large format imagery to amplify cultural cool.

(Updated 9/16/2015. Edited text and added 1 photo.)

(photos: Tyler Hicks/The New York Times. caption 1: Aviation ordnancemen, commonly known in the Navy as “red shirts,” assemble 500-pound training bombs. caption 2: Capt. Dell Bull and other pilots and weapons specialists received a briefing at 5:30 a.m. aboard the aircraft carrier John C. Stennis. caption 3: Working in the hangar bay of the John C. Stennis. There are 44 F/A-18s aboard the carrier. caption 4: Captain Bull, who leads a team of three FA-18F Super Hornets, prepares for a mission in Afghanistan. embedded caption: Senior officers gathered to smoke cigars and socialize after the last planes wrapped up their missions and returned to the John C. Stennis on Jan. 12.)

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