In this collaborative visual essay, we consider an idiosyncratic assemblage of pictures of American soldiers. These are not iconic images that “speak for themselves” but less conventional ones that suggest both the technical expertise involved in producing and managing war’s violence and the vulnerability of soldiers at the heart of war. In considering these images as technical, we highlight the many forms of war’s material and technical expertise, expertise that is often disarticulated from the social, political, and ethical fields on which war equally relies.
The images range from grainy World War I–era photographs, recovered from cluttered archives, to digitally generated contemporary images that depict the results of war’s embrace of high technology. Their material qualities reflect something of their intended publics: the curled edges of a Vietnam War snapshot tucked away inside a shoebox (Jauregui); the high resolution of an advertisement that speaks to contemporary soldiers’ special knowledge of explosive force and special role as savvy gear consumers (MacLeish); the directed gaze of soldiers whose bodies bear the weight of innovations in prosthetics and weapons systems, both of which technologically extend the body (Serlin, Lawrie, Kaplan); and the precise composition of images used to display soldiers’ special prowess to medical or technical experts or else to cultivate such technical readings in a broader public (Linker, Masco, Wool).
In presenting these images, we take seriously Walter Benjamin’s warning that photographs unmoored from the historical arrangements of life that produce them are politically hazardous capitulations to fashion, “arty journalism” that “cannot grasp a single one of the human connexions in which [they] exist.”1 And so we inscribe each image with a caption, anchoring it in a world of human connections and gendered and racialized bodies. These captions rearticulate the relationship between technical expertise and ethics, reconnecting the matériel and personnel of war with the social and political worlds they entail.
These captions describe a material history of soldiers’ bodies whose themes recur across time. The unromantic vulnerability of the soldier on which war making depends (Jauregui, MacLeish, Masco); the technological and prosthetic interventions to which soldiers are subject and from which soldierly life itself is inseparable (Lawrie, Masco, MacLeish, Serlin, Wool); the forms of display involved in making soldiers into certain kinds of biopolitical subjects (Lawrie, Linker, Serlin, Wool); the way war remaps geographic and affective terrain (Kaplan, Masco); and the intimate relationship between place and feeling that war also exposes, binding homelands and homefronts to death zones while producing spaces of homosocial or national intimacy (Jauregui, Linker, Masco).
As we address these un-iconic soldier images to the politics of displaying vulnerable bodies, or rendering them resilient, we also incur collateral effects. In maintaining our focus on images of American soldiers, for instance, we contribute to the ignorance of other kinds of war-bound bodies and lives, from civilians to foreign belligerents to kinds of American soldiers—notably women—who are not pictured here. By displaying medical images of men whose names and lives we do not know, we contribute to the disabling history of what poet Eli Clare has called “gawking, gaping, and staring.” We are not innocent of these consequences. In pointing them out we show only how inseparable they are from many ongoing conversations about aesthetics, ethics, and the American warscape.2
By focusing on some of the nooks and crannies of the American warscape, rarified spaces of technical expertise, we hope to incite new and shared modes of reading and recognizing martial imagery and new approaches to thinking about how pictures of soldiers are made and made meaningful in some ways and not others at specific material, social, and ethical conjunctures.
As we look across these conjunctures, new kinds of political questions present themselves. What critical questions might we ask, for example, if we read an MRI scan as a picture of the inside of an injured soldier’s body (Wool)? What relations might become apparent if we see the human touch in the operation of an Unmanned Arial Vehicle (Kaplan)? What kinds of ethical attention might we cultivate if we view a medical photograph of an injured soldier as the image of a person who is being made an example (Serlin)?
Against the ubiquitous fashion of displaying iconic images bereft of human connections, we offer this collection of captioned pictures. We offer inscribed pictures as a movement against cool images of hot wars. In so doing, we hope to provoke conversations about the position of soldier bodies and their traces that extend beyond questions of what we see and what we don’t, beyond a politics of transparency and revelation, and towards a critical attention to the management and cultivation of many forms of soldier exposure.
— Zoë H. Wool
— Zoë H. Wool: This Is a Picture of an Injured Soldier— Beth Linker: Beware of the One-Armed Soldier— Beatrice Jauregui: Vulnerability of Soldier Bodies in the Vietnam War— Joseph Masco: Atomic Soldiers— Caren Kaplan: Drone Sight— Paul Lawrie: Race and Rehabilitation in Post–World War I America
— Kenneth MacLeish: In the Blink of an Eye
Beginning in the 1860s, the Armed Forces Institute of Pathology, now located on the grounds of Walter Reed National Military Medical Center in Washington, DC, began to build an internal technical archive of extraordinary case studies for clinical and educational purposes. During and after World War II, Walter Reed’s photographic unit produced thousands of photographic and film studies to capture new developments in rehabilitation medicine, providing documentary evidence of veterans being fitted with, wearing, and adjusting to new prosthetic devices.
In this photograph, taken ca. 1949, there seems to be little distinction between the material fact of rehabilitation and what the photograph depicts. The image is stylized to expose, rather than to aestheticize, the painful process of acclimating to a new below-the-knee prosthetic appliance. But what, exactly, are we looking at? The submission of an extraordinarily vulnerable veteran’s body to the clinical gaze? The performance of masculine normalcy despite, or because of, bodily trauma? The surreal tension between the natural, organic leg and the artificial, post-surgical appliance, looking more like an athletic boot or fetish gear than an active tool of rehabilitation? The sartorial tension between standard-issue military shorts and white civilian ankle socks?
Part of the implicit mandate of this genre of medical photography is to produce an image in which the viewer recognizes the subject’s capacity to do what she or he used to do before experiencing bodily trauma. It is a mandate for depicting the human body that is both essentially romantic and romantically essentialist. Here the veteran grapples with how to conduct himself physically despite the ontological heft of the prosthetic appliance. His gesture—hand on hip, shoulders slouched, eyes meeting the gaze of the camera—suggests some eerie hybrid between classic medical photography and the studio portraiture of George Platt Lynes or Cecil Beaton. That both genres rely on the collision between habitus and homoeroticism is not accidental, just as the choice of the photographer here not to crop out the light source during the printing process is not accidental. Indifferent to commercial considerations, the composition’s casual relationship to official documentation is seemingly echoed in the soldier’s nonplussed expression.
Medical photographs that visually preserve a record of the rehabilitation process consolidate and crystallize the aura of technical expertise that is the framework and underlying motive beneath the project of medical photography in the first place. Yet the professional and ideological motives imputed to medical photography as a genre do not displace its multivalent qualities but, rather, open up the genre to further scrutiny. It bears witness to the contrast between the institutionalized subject and the enduring quotidian gestures of everyday life.
This is and is not a picture of an injured soldier. Like the high-technologization of both military tactics and aesthetics, the absence of images of injured soldiers is often said to lubricate the production of war violence by removing American flesh and blood or displaying it sparingly and only when it is clean, contained, and dry.
This is a picture of a soldier’s brain, but mediated by a whole team of researchers with a suite of technology and ideologies about evidence and about the body and the mind and the mechanisms that connect them. Here, I take it starkly out of its context in a neuroscientific research article. There, it is not a picture of an injured soldier but a representative map showing a pattern of blood flow that, researchers suggest, may be a marker of Posttraumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) or, perhaps, mild Traumatic Brain Injury (mTBI).
PTSD and mTBI are known as “signature injuries” among US soldiers in the US-led military interventions in Iraq and Afghanistan (the signatures etched in other kinds of bodies are less well known to us). PTSD and mTBI are also usually called “invisible injuries.” Yet they are increasingly made knowable through the production of images like this one. And so this picture of an invisible injury does not show us what we expect to see of an injured soldier. It does not strike us with the force that images of injured soldiers are supposed to.
What ethics of attention—beyond bare life and morally weighted icons of soldier bodies—might be possible if we learned to read expertly mediated images as traces of the management of war violence? Might this introduce a productive friction into the many clean scenes that we do not see as showing war at all, while still remaining sensitive to the ethical precarity of rendering suffering spectacular?
This is an image of an injured soldier and in that sense it is a grave exposure.
At the height of the Great War, as many as 12,000 still photographs were taken every day, and each shot—whether taken by an official military photographer of the Signal Corps or by a private photographer with a government permit—had to pass the censorship standards set by the newly created Committee on Public Information (CPI). Photographs of the war dead were prohibited, as were images of military formations, war matériel, and ports of embarkation. War dead ruined morale, the CPI reasoned, and the photos of military operations contained information that could be strategically valuable to the enemy.
It is in this context of censorship and morale-boosting that the image “Beware of the One-Armed Soldier,” featured in the wartime journal Carry On: A Magazine on the Reconstruction of Disabled Soldiers and Sailors, must be analyzed. Whereas pictures of the war dead were considered dangerous, this image of two obviously maimed soldiers flaunting their war-torn bodies in the center of the frame was thought to boost morale and bolster pro-war sentiments.
The photograph is carefully staged, so that the fleshy, disfigured stumps of the two amputee soldiers are concealed beneath crisply pressed uniforms: order brought to wartime disorder. The physicians and rehabilitation specialists who orchestrated this shot chose to feature two highly functioning disabled soldiers (as opposed to the wheelchair-bound onlookers seen in the background). Despite their missing limbs, these soldiers had “overcome” their injuries to the point of being able to fight once again in what was then considered the manliest of all martial arts: hand-to-hand combat. The physicians in charge of Carry On intended the photograph to be inspirational to other disabled soldiers and their families. But more importantly, they wanted to convince the wider medical profession and military officials that rehabilitative medical care (a new specialty at the time) was an essential component of warfare. As the photo demonstrates, rehabilitation medicine promised to minimize, and even erase, the human cost of war.
This combat “action shot” was taken by a New Jersey native who was drafted into the US Army at age 19 and deployed to Vietnam from 1969 to 1970. The GIs are firing mortar rounds at enemy troops near the DMZ (Demilitarized Zone). The image, faded with time, marks both the visible and invisible vulnerabilities of soldier bodies.
Notice the “casualness” of their positions and interactions with materials: the shirt of the RTO (radio telephone operator) on the right is completely unbuttoned, exposing his torso; as he grips a pen in his hand, three soldiers in the center clutch mortar shells while they try to plug their ears with their fingers against the deafening noise; one youth stands in the far left background, just watching, and holding a cigarette, its smoke blending with the plume rising from the muzzle.
No one wears a helmet or other armor (compare with this mortar crew in Iraq in 2004, and this artillery unit training to go to Afghanistan); and yet they seem to have an almost prosthetic relationship with their weapons and communication devices, reminding us that much of the permanent impact of war on the soldier body—from hearing loss and lung disease to joint injuries and damaged vision—is invisible, unspectacular, easy to disregard or even to disdain. This is especially true today, when critics can dismiss the challenges of combat veterans by declaring that the military is now an “all-volunteer force” devoted to destruction across the globe.
Even as they are empowered to kill, soldiers are extraordinarily vulnerable and subject, often unwittingly or involuntarily, to visible and invisible wounds. Though many people would prefer to eschew the ethical complexities of recognizing vulnerabilities and wounds among soldiers, which may generate an uncomfortable empathy with executors of violence, it is vital to acknowledge how soldiers’ vulnerabilities and wounds are brought home and shared with their families and communities—indeed, all of us—for as long as they remain alive.
This photograph is from a 1950s US Army exercise, known as Desert Rock, a multi-year project at the Nevada Test Site, intended to examine the effects of the atomic bomb on soldier performance. The goal was to psychologically harden the soldier to embrace a new concept of war and to constitute the nuclear battlefield as a space where soldierly virtues—discipline and respect for the chain of command—were still operative logics. Here, the atomic soldier becomes exposed as a laboratory test subject in two ways: first, as a biological organism encountering the heat, blast, and radiation of a nuclear weapon and, secondly, as a psychological being remade at the level of emotions to believe a nuclear war could be fought with infantry.
Picturing a future US expeditionary force armed with tactical nuclear devices of all kinds, this was an early US military effort to engineer a new kind of soldier for the nuclear age, one of many such efforts. The Desert Rock series reveals that to be a soldier is to give one’s body over to the state, literally and figuratively, to fight its wars, and to follow the chain of command regardless of the context.
In a serious way, to be a soldier is to be an experimental subject, one that is not only tested in terms of physical and mental abilities but also subject to the theories, technologies, ambitions, and miscalculations of others. The atomic soldiers of Desert Rock, for example, were ultimately injured not by foreign bombs but by US nuclear technologies detonated within the continental United States. In the 1980s, survivors were offered financial compensation for the long-term health effects of radiation injury from these “tests.” But this image—widely circulated in mass media at the time to demonstrate American resolve and technical prowess in an escalating Cold War—remains emblematic of the shifting technological capacities of war and the sacrificial logics of soldiers and citizens in the nuclear age. It also underscores the ongoing national security-state investment in normalizing war as simply a mode of everyday life and an endless opportunity for American self-fashioning as invulnerable body.
Images produced by drones seem to be among the least embodied pictures of US soldiers imaginable: they seem remote and instrumental rather than subjective and evocative of emotion; and they appear to be “unmanned” and robotically produced—not human. But drone sight is always already embodied and affective because it is produced and analyzed, albeit in varying degrees, by human beings in specific sites.
It’s true that, unlike earlier analogue intelligence imagery that had to be analyzed by expert interpreters, the data produced by drones and satellites is often scanned by machine. Yet it takes a room full of military personnel to operate a drone and intelligence “assets” on the ground to provide vital information for any missile strike. “Unmanned” is a misnomer.
Thus a long history of aerial observation brings the “mind’s eye” to the digital reconnaissance and tactical image, extending the military gaze from its human progenitors through its prosthetic machines; neither quite unmanned nor traditionally embodied but, perhaps, something in between. Drone sight comes from the body of the nation and serves as its eyes; it sites all of us, dividing people into possible targets—the viewed—and the viewers.
What a culture or society makes possible to see is individually enacted by any one of us, whether we are a soldier serving as an analyst at an air force base or a war protestor scanning the news before going to work. If our eyes work together with the machines we have invented to sense this world at war, it is also possible for our eyes to make operational the view from above in newly meaningful ways.
During and after World War I, federal efforts to rehabilitate disabled African American veterans produced new forms of racial knowledge and racial labor control in postwar America. Though the war did not create the impetus for state surveillance and discipline of working bodies, it intensified that impetus and encouraged the proliferation of new regulatory institutions and practices.
Chief amongst these was the Federal Board of Vocational Education (FBVE), which was charged with rehabilitating the citizen-soldier into the citizen-worker. FBVE policy linked scientific management and a rising eugenic mind-set to develop a catalogue of racial taxonomies in which labor fitness was linked to color and the body. Through the stages of diagnosis, training, job placement, and hospitalization, FBVE officials struggled to determine whether they could, or even should, mend broken black bodies so often understood as defective by definition.
African American veterans saw their disabilities dismissed by federal officials as a “stroke of luck” and an attempt “to unjustly profit from their natural inferiority.”3 FBVE medical officials believed that African Americans’ innate, atavistic, and unruly savagery placed them outside of the prevailing modern mechanistic mind-set that informed much of contemporary vocational rehabilitation.
Visual aesthetics were crucial in the production of these new forms of disabled racial corporalities. The above image is remarkable for positioning its wounded black subject within a mechanistic framework of rehabilitation not as a recipient but as a producer of prosthetics at the Walter Reed Hospital compound for wounded hands and arms in Washington, DC.
The typical image of the deployed American combat soldier is of a torso bulked out by body armor, face recessed turtle-like under the brim of a Kevlar helmet, waist and shoulders slung with harnesses for weapons and ammunition. It is a figure of armored toughness and lethal capacity.
Soldiers I knew during my fieldwork at Fort Hood talked to me a lot about armor and protective gear, though often with an ambivalence that belies the apparent invincibility of such a figure—about how heavy and cumbersome armor was to wear, about what it would or wouldn’t offer protection from, about steel plates that caved in or Kevlar that caught a piece of shrapnel before it entered flesh. The protections afforded by contemporary armor technology have changed how it is possible to imagine sending soldiers into harm’s way, just as the nature of those harms—bombs that explode from the roadbed under moving vehicles, kinetic penetrators that pass indifferently through metal and flesh alike—has in turn altered the kinds of protection that are necessary. Armor extends soldiers’ capacities, but it also births new vulnerabilities, and both within and beyond the world of everyday war making, the way these things look matters.
The political palatability of American wars tends to diminish with the rising injury and death of American troops, so armor’s techno-magical promise of invincibility is quite political indeed. In a setting where soldiers are especially vulnerable to disfiguring and debilitating soft-tissue injuries from shrapnel, the glasses in this advertisement from Army Times and others like them have doubtless saved the sight of many, many soldiers. But the aesthetics of armor are at work here too. The reflected likeness of an IED’s fireball spreads across the soldier’s protected eyes. We see him looking at this destructive force, close enough that it must be filling his vision. A close-up shows a piece of shrapnel the size and shape of a broken pencil tip lodged in one of the lenses. From the pages of a military periodical, the advertisement hails the soldier as a consumer responsible for his own safety and holds out the redeeming promise of technology to keep him safe, whole, and “in the fight.”
- Walter Benjamin, “Little History of Photography,” in Selected Writings, Volume 2 (1927–1934), edited by Michael W. Jennings (The Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 1999), p. 626. ↩
- See Barbara Ehrenreich, Blood Rites: Origins and History of the Passions of War (Henry Holt, 1998); Cynthia Enloe, Bananas, Beaches and Bases: Making Feminist Sense of International Politics (University of California Press, 1990); and Catherine Lutz, “Making War at Home in the United States: Militarization and the Current Crisis,” American Anthropologist, vol. 104, no. 3 (2002), pp. 723–735. ↩
- Elizabeth Upham “Selective Placement of the Disabled,” The Vocational Summary, vol. 2, no. 2 (June 1919), p. 35. ↩