Photographer Ben Brody’s new book, “Attention Servicemember” (Red Hook Editions, 2019), is one of the most fascinating and compelling works on the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan that I’ve come across in recent years.
The power of the book rests not only with the photos, but also with all of the other elements. What is most compelling to me is Brody’s dissection of the roles he played during the wars, from being a combat photographer whose images were used by the government propaganda machine, to being an independent journalist trying to get at the “truth” of what was happening on the ground, to ultimately coming home as a veteran and trying to find his place in “normal” society.
The book examines the various roles Brody played in four chapters: First we go to Iraq, then we see images of Brody’s photos used as propaganda, next we have personal recollections and, finally, we are in the war in Afghanistan. Photographically, it is bookended front to back by black-and-white images Brody made on his return home to Massachusetts. The combination of all of these elements, especially the personal recollections, is what makes the book so compelling.
One recollection, for example, finds Brody ruminating on the restrictions of being a combat photographer. In particular, he remembers not being allowed to photograph anything related to the memorial services for soldiers because, he says, “the brigade commander considered that negative press coverage.” As a combat photographer, he says, “you don’t get to choose. There is only doctrine, down to the smallest detail.”
I can’t think of any other photobook that attempts to look at war from so many different angles, from the viewpoint of one person who was directly involved in each. There are books that examine the brutal consequences of the theater of war; books that examine the toll that war has on soldiers who return home; and books that look at how war imagery has been used as propaganda. But Brody’s book encompasses all of these things, from a first-person point of view. That is a rare and very powerful thing.
His book comes at a time when our world is grappling with how information is disseminated. You can see it happening every day, especially in politics. Just this week, The Washington Post released “The Afghanistan Papers,” a monumental, deeply researched report showing that senior U.S. officials “failed to tell the truth about the war in Afghanistan throughout the 18-year campaign.”
When The Post’s investigation was published, Brody reached out to me connecting some of the dots to his book. As he said, The Post’s “fantastic original reporting on the fog of lies and self-delusion about the war in Afghanistan” was also, in a way, the topic of his book. I agreed and then asked Brody what compelled him to make his book.
Here’s what he said:
“I was a war photographer for 15 years. I started as a soldier, assigned to make propaganda about the Iraq War. Then I left the military and worked as a photojournalist in Afghanistan, often embedded with U.S. troops. What kept me focused on this work was not a love of battle and adventure, and not a quest for truth and understanding. There was no truth or understanding that I could find. It was the lies that I found so riveting.
"The Washington Post’s recent investigation found that military and governmental leaders have been willfully pushing a much rosier narrative about Afghanistan than a realistic observation on the ground would dictate. The scale of the report is a monumental indictment, but the premise is already well-known to anyone who lived in the fog of lies and self-delusion that has defined the wars in Iraq in Afghanistan for two decades.
"When I set out to make my first photobook, ‘Attention Servicemember,’ I wanted it to be relatable for people who hadn’t been in the military or gone to war. That’s challenging for a number of reasons. Combat is a singular experience, surrounded by exotic equipment on strange battlefields. People have certain expectations of what war is supposed to look like, reinforced by a feedback loop of photojournalists, Hollywood filmmakers, video game producers, and the soldiers themselves, responding to what they see in the media. And, of course, the public has been offered lies about the wars from their outset.
"Photography, and photobooks in particular, offered me a solution to these challenges. ‘Attention Servicemember’ is designed like a military field manual - clear, direct, and unsentimental. I used photography to examine the lies, including my own self-censorship and the propaganda I made. The text conveys our total disorientation through hilarious stories such as when a legendary platoon sergeant pointed due west at Jupiter and began a navigation lesson for his soldiers. ‘That there is the North Star,’ he said. ‘Brightest star in the sky.’
"The past 15 years have left me with recurring nightmares and a sheen of menace and dread cast over everything in my beautiful little town in rural Massachusetts. So I photographed what that looks and feels like to me as well. That’s what really made me want to make this book - not just to try to understand what happened during the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, but what happened to ourselves, and what we brought home.”
“Attention Servicemember” is already gaining notice and receiving accolades. Drew Sawyer, curator of photography at the Brooklyn Museum, says, “With a military-document design that is understated instead of campy, this photobook probes the collision point of warfare, media and a soldier’s deeply personal reckonings with the two.” It has also started to pop up on best photobooks of 2019 lists. Rémi Coignet, editor of the Eyes magazine and author of two books about photobooks, named it one of the 10 photobooks he enjoyed this year, saying: “This is by far the best war book I’ve seen since Why Mister, Why? by Geert van Kesteren.”
Brody’s book is well worth examining, especially in this day and age when information, and how it is used, is playing such a huge role in our lives.
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