My Father’s War Pictures, and Mine

Veteran Colby Buzzell on why we shouldn't look away from the photos of soldiers posing with corpses.

Damian Dovarganes / AP

I asked a couple co-workers, like me, Iraq War veterans, what they think of the photographs printed this week by the L.A. Times. You know, the ones with U.S. soldiers posing with the remains of Afghanistan suicide bombers. One of my colleagues shrugs: “Who didn’t come back from Iraq with pictures like that?”

I chuckled as I thought to myself, he’s right. No, neither of us came back home with a scrapbook full of soldiers playing naked Twister with Iraqi prisoners or using Iraqi KIAs as human urinals. But mentally flipping through the pictures I did take, I see the shot from that time our platoon was called out to where a car bomb had gone off in a heavily populated civilian part of Mosul. What sticks out in my recollection isn’t the carnage, but seeing guys in my platoon matter of factly pulling out their cameras for a Kodak moment.

When I look at these latest trophy photos to be published, which soldiers from the 82nd Airborne took in 2010 with the corpses of bombers in Afghanistan’s Zabol province, I don’t feel shocked. If anything, I feel bored.

I’ve experienced war. As an infantryman, I know what it’s like to go out and hunt armed insurgents, and I know what it feels like to be hunted by armed insurgents. I’ve watched insurgents killed and injured, and I’ve seen them try to kill and successfully severely injure my fellow service members. I’ve watched a decade of war go by, and it seems like the only time I see real outrage—a sign that America is really paying attention—is when a photograph of a service member posing with a dead insurgent touches some collective nerve. To me, these are just a bunch of pictures taken by desensitized soldiers screwing around. Nothing more, nothing less.

Photographs of war casualties are about as old as the camera. Legendary Civil War photojournalist Matthew Brady did it constantly, and photojournalists have followed suit ever since. If Confederate and Union soldiers had ready access to cameras, you don’t think they would’ve been recreationally photographing the war?

My father, a retired Army lieutenant colonel, carried a camera with him in Vietnam. I found that out shortly after my mother passed away, and my father put the family house I had grown up in on the market. Growing up, he hardly ever talked to us kids about his experience in Vietnam. To get him to say anything was like pulling teeth. While helping him pack up, I came across a mini leather-bound Bible, with a note to my father from his mother quoting John 3:16 and passages inside highlighted by her. Next to the Bible was a box filled with hundreds of 35mm slides. It was the first time my father had seen the Bible or the photos since returning home from the war.

The dusty photo projector we were ready to give to Goodwill miraculously fired right up, so we decided to take a break from packing and go through the photographs. Beaming onto our living room wall were these beautiful shots of the Vietnam countryside, and shots taken from my father’s point of view while on foot patrols. He narrated the slides for me and as he saw different guys in his platoon, a warm smile would come to his face as he recalled old friends that he hasn’t laid eyes on in decades. We came to a shot of four or so young soldiers casually smiling, proudly standing around a bunch of captured weapons that, my father said, they discovered while searching a village.

His smile slowly disappeared. He remained silent for a second or two as he just furrowed his brows and studied the photo. Then he told me that all of the guys we were looking at were killed two days later during an ambush.

After that, it was time get back to work and look at those slides some other time, which of course we never did. I’ll always wonder what else was there. I imagine my father and I are part of a tradition of soldiers who have gone to war, taken a series of photographs and returned home to file them away, never to be looked at again.

I didn’t pack a Bible when I went to war, but I did take a digital camera. I remember thinking that I wanted to document my experience, just in case I ever wanted to look back on it. I haven’t, but the photographs are on my hard drive, though I can hardly picture them in my mind’s eye and don’t much care to open them.

I was in my mid-20s when I deployed, just a year or so older than my father was when he’d gone to Vietnam. Back then, you only had so many shots on a roll of film, which you then had to get developed. Now, you can shoot as much as you like and share the images a moment later without thinking anything of it, literally for the world to see.

This is for the best, I think. It means there’s now ample documentation of aspects of war, like trophy photos, that people who haven’t experienced war need to see. Perhaps Americans need to see these photographs for the same reason that Franklin D. Roosevelt pushed Life magazine in 1943 to run a cover photo of dead American soldiers sprawled out on a Papua-New Guinea beach. The president felt Americans were becoming a bit too complacent about the war, and he wanted to remind them of the reality of what was going on across the oceans.

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Today, the American public doesn’t much like our wars, and they’re not paying much attention to them either—and the government would love nothing more than for citizens to remain disengaged as they every so slowly wind down. And what better way for that to happen than to simply not show us the war? Photographs help Americans see the wars, to remember something wise that Robert E. Lee said during the Civil War and that still holds true: “It is well that war is so terrible, or we should get too fond of it.”

Having experienced Iraq, I’m damned to see the world through a different lens. I’m not quite sure what most civilians see when viewing these graphic images: maybe it’s one of those things where if you stare it long enough a hidden picture us supposed to emerge? But having been there, what I see in the photos, and what I hope others do, is a look at what these wars are doing to all of us.