January 2, 2015

America in the Age of Ferguson: A Child's Letter to Troops in Afghanistan

There’s actually a lot of themes to think about in Lucas Jackson’s 46 photo slide show from Afghanistan. On face value– which is pretty much how most people are going to click through the show — it’s a slice-of-life as American troops train, destroy and fix things, celebrate the holidays, and advise the Afghanis.

Zooming both and in and out, though, so many social themes come to mind. How do the pictures read, for example, if one looks at this body of images thinking “what are the things boys do?” or “how much is war/fighting/aggression overwhelming a male thing?”

caption: U.S. soldiers from the 3rd Cavalry Regiment watch Die Hard projected onto an outdoor wall as part of Christmas Day celebrations on forward operating base Gamberi in the Laghman province of Afghanistan December 25, 2014.

caption: U.S. soldiers from the 3rd Cavalry Regiment wrestle to pass time while waiting for an artillery exercise to begin on forward operating base Gamberi in the Laghman province of Afghanistan December 24, 2014.

Most significantly though — significant for being so innocuous – I took the time on my second pass through the gallery to actually read the letter in the photograph leading this post. (It’s the 18th photo.) The caption is just below. (Perfectly standard as it is, that is no expectation it would state anything about race.)

U.S. soldiers from the 3rd Cavalry Regiment read letters from children during a Christmas day lunch at forward operating base Gamberi in the Laghman province of Afghanistan December 25, 2014.

If you didn’t click, expand and read it above, the letter states:

12 – 4 – 14

Dear Soldier,

Thank you for supporting us and giving us freedom where no African Americans are enslaved and thanks for freeing them. We hope that you have a Merry Christmas, and in hopes of getting to see your family soon I pray you stay safe. I pray that the Marines, Air Force, Navy, and Army will have good food during the Holidays, but not bad food like prison food. Have a (…) New Year!!

Best Wishes,


I imagine it took you where it took me – which was into the world view of a likely black child with either a parent or close relative in prison (and/or close connection to others that do).  An obvious thing is how the kid links the role of the military and the defense of the nation’s freedom to the protection and the freedom of Blacks. As the child credits today’s military for freeing the slaves, it’s interesting how this historical view sits today with “the war on terror,” the increasingly ambiguous goals of the missions in Iraq and Afghanistan; the perception of a “war on Islam”; and, particularly, the militarization of police departments, particularly as applied to “containment” of recent protests over the deaths of Eric Garner and Michael Brown.

If it doesn’t formally link the two, the most challenging aspect of the letter is that it juxtaposes the freedom of blacks from slavery with their (disproportionate) incarceration now. And then, from a resource standpoint – given the military and the prison industrial complex are obligated to feed their respective populations — the child, quite brilliantly, actually, appreciates that one set of dollars might have something to do with the other and empathizes with the soldiers that they are not the ones short-changed.

I’m sure you have more insights and appreciate more dimensions of this letter then I’ve just touched on.  As always, I’m interested in your thoughts. Overall though, if the photo gallery adeptly captures the day-to-day life of the war machine at holiday time, what it more inadvertently offers us through this letter is stimulus, from the hand of a child (in the hand and the smiling presence of these two white soldiers), about the country’s social priorities and, especially, America and its defense in the age of Ferguson.

(updated for accuracy and clarity — especially in regards to the military and the Civil War.)

(photos: Lucas Jackson/Reuters caption 4: U.S. Army soldiers listen to U.S. Senator John McCain (R-AZ) speak during a Christmas day visit on forward operating base Gamberi in the Laghman province of Afghanistan December 25, 2014.)

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Michael Shaw
See other posts by Michael here.

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