Photographs by Ben Brody
Red Hook Editions, 2019
304 pages, 129 photographs
17 cm x 24 cm
Reviewed by Purnima Bose
Twenty-first century war in the United States “is simultaneously seen and unseen, both visible and invisible” (Lucaites and Simons 2).1 The “paradox of in/visibility of war,” a phrase coined by John Lucaites and Jon Simons, points to “the disparity between the actuality of persistent and repeated military conflict … and the absence of a sustained and acknowledged, lived experience of war on the U.S. home front” (2). The wars in Afghanistan and Iraq have largely disappeared from the public eye. Rarely covered on American broadcast news and the pages of print media, these wars are waged thousands of miles away, and they do not register in our everyday consciousness unless our friends and family members are targets of violence abroad. Even so the culture of war is ubiquitous on the home front. From the video games our children play to the security procedures we follow at airports to the tributes for the armed forces at sporting events, war has permeated our ordinary, quotidian lives. Lucaites and Simons’ phrase “the paradox of in/visibility” is shorthand for how these highly visible activities have become so normal that they render actual war invisible.
Explicitly and implicitly interrupting this dynamic, Ben Brody’s Attention Servicemember brings together wartime color photographs from his deployment to Iraq as a combat photographer and from his work as an embedded civilian photographer in Afghanistan, along with black and white scenes of domestic life in Massachusetts. The Iraq and Afghan wars explicitly enter our consciousness through images of U.S. soldiers on patrol, in the mess hall, on their cots, and on raids. The expressions on the soldiers’ faces vary: sometimes happy, at other times full of bravado, often intent on the task at hand, frequently enigmatic, and sometimes pensive. From Brody’s pictures, we intuit the heat and dust of Iraq and the austere beauty of the Afghan landscape. In several photographs, we sense the fear and resentment of Iraqis who are in the chokehold of a soldier or sitting blindfolded, cross-legged on the ground or handcuffed and in custody. These images bring the distant wars to us, making those conflicts obviously visible.
A more subtle challenge to the paradox of in/visibility inheres in Brody’s bookending of the war images with domestic ones, implicitly inviting a comparison of the battle front and home front. Black and white photographs of a spindly plant encased in icicles and scenes of American domesticity, whose dark backgrounds communicate a sense of dread, precede the title page and the color pictures of Iraq and Afghanistan. The war photos themselves include several interiors of Iraqi homes: one of a ransacked kitchen with appliances torn from the wall and an ominous stain on the floor, and another of a staircase decorated with plastic flowers. The only people visible in the photographic frames are individual U.S. soldiers, replicating the invisibility of Iraqi civilians in this conflict. General Tommy Franks, in 2002, famously remarked, “We [the U.S. military] don’t do body counts,” a statement that has been repeatedly quoted as policy in both Iraq and Afghanistan.2 And yet others have been keeping tally. Between 2003 and the end of February 2020, Iraq Body Count documented 207,759 Iraqi civilian deaths as a result of the war.3 Those deaths are invisible in the U.S., but they are hinted at through the absences in Brody’s photographs. We see no Iraqis in these homes and wonder what happened to them. Filled with pathos rather than families, these rooms are haunted by the specter of geopolitical violence.
The inclusion of both pictures of war and domestic scenes in Attention Servicemember implicitly raises another question about the kinds of visible and invisible violence that, as a result of the conflict, have invaded the American home. Invisible violence has taken the form of Posttraumatic Stress Disorder [PTSD], which the U.S. Department of Veteran Affairs estimates afflicts between 11-20% of veterans who served in Operation Iraqi Freedom and Operation Enduring Freedom (Afghanistan).4 Unfortunately, families of veterans suffering from PTSD, traumatic brain injury, and mental disorders also experience a higher incidence of domestic violence than others. We know too that veterans have a higher suicide rate than the general population. Continuities in violence between the battlefront and home front are rendered most explicit through Brody’s leitmotif of outstretched legs, with the torso cropped out of the visual frame. Several war photographs feature the reclining legs of what we presume are sleeping soldiers, and one presents the chilling image of a gory, bloody leg missing its foot. These images condition the questions that arise when, toward the end of the book, we see a woman’s outstretched legs emerging from a hot tub. Are we to read that picture as a commentary on the banality of suburban life or as a rationale for the earlier visual of grievous injury (e.g. war abroad keeps us safe at home)? And what do we make of the decision to shoot the war pictures in color and the home pictures in black-and-white? Is this a critique of the drabness of civilian life relative to combat experience?
Brody himself is highly conscious of the politics of in/visibility, interspersing wood cuts, line drawings, and autobiographical passages among his images. Throughout the collection, his voice provides ironic commentary on army regulations and describes his ingenuity in evading them. When he joined the army in 2002, he was “skeptical” of the war and “assumed this war was as likely to achieve its objectives as Vietnam did” (49). Broke and at loose ends, Brody enlisted as a combat photographer even though he had flunked his only photojournalism class. Curiosity about the war and, perhaps more importantly, what it revealed about the soul of America, motivated the twenty-two-year-old to join the army. Once in Iraq, he quickly learned the unofficial “visual doctrine” of the army: “photograph the war in a way that justified its existence and exaggerated its accomplishments” (54). In translation, this doctrine meant making the technological power of U.S. forces highly visible while rendering the brutality of the war invisible. “Photograph the bombs, the guns and the helicopters for all their ravenous beauty,” Brody writes, “but don’t photograph the obscenity of what they did to human bodies” (54). (A few pictures of corpses do appear in the book, but the bodies are always at a distance or hidden with a sheet speckled with flies, as if to emphasize the indignity of violent death. We never see the corpses of U.S. troops.) American soldiers were to look “calm or stoic” in photographs rather than “angry,” “frightened,” “exhausted,” or “confused” (55).
Brody also explains how the visible content of the photographs could be deceptive. The picture of the hospital opening ceremony does not reveal that its doctors have “long fled and squatters were preparing to loot the new copper wires” (54). The photographs of captured prisoners do not really portray “dangerous militants” but ordinary Sunni “targeted for sectarian reasons by the Iraqi Police” (54). His gloss on his photography reminds us that military propaganda might well be the original fake news.
By his second tour of duty, Brody has begun to self-censor his photographs to conform to the military’s expectations. At the same time, he is cognizant of how his images can acquire lives of their own and generate new meanings. His photograph of Captain Morris speaking on his radio during sunrise with helicopters visible in the hazy sky has “been appropriated across the political and cultural spectrum” (55). Appearing on book covers, as decorative wallpaper, and ads for vaping pens, batteries, and toy soldiers, the image is being used as a lure to get people to buy stuff. Several of those ads are included in Attention Servicemember. The photograph of Captain Morris means different things to different people. To take the sunrise in the image as an example: it can metaphorically suggest a new dawn for Iraq as a result of the U.S. intervention, but it can alternatively be interpreted as a sunset portending the end of American empire.
Several of Brody’s photographs illustrate how images can proliferate alternative meanings. In one picture of a tattered poster against an exterior blue wall with the remnants of faded graffiti, we see an American soldier grinning at the camera as he bends over a sitting prisoner. The soldier exerts pressure on the prisoner’s head with his left hand while the right hand is bunched into a fist. The two figures are superimposed on a variation of the Iraqi flag that features the words “Allah” and “Akbar” in Arabic interspersed among the blue stars. To the right of the image, capital letters proclaim, “TODAY IS SAME AS YESTERDAY.” As if to translate the English caption, a picture of an upright skeleton with a gaping mouth appears to run towards us. We do not know the original context of the picture of the soldier and prisoner. But one plausible interpretation of the image as a whole is that it indicts the U.S. and the Iraqi governments for colluding in the humiliation and killing of Iraqis. In this reading, the today of U.S. intervention does not differ much from the yesterday of Baa’thist Iraq. Both signify degradation and death for ordinary Iraqis. Rather than function as propaganda, this reworked photograph of a U.S. soldier offers a strong condemnation of the war.
Another stark image of an army poster displayed on a U.S. military base wall almost seems like a parody of the American mission in Afghanistan in its posing of the “DAILY SPARTAN QUESTION”: “What have we done for the Afghan people today?” The words are superimposed on a picture of two small Afghan boys gazing intently into the face of a seated American soldier in full battle regalia. I am tempted to rattle off a few responses to this question. For starters, since 2009, over 102,064 Afghans have been maimed or killed as a result of airstrikes, roadside bombs, or suicide attacks, albeit the majority of these casualties have been from Taliban attacks.5 (No one systematically tallied these figures prior to 2009.) Second, the U.S. government has squandered billions of dollars on creating the illusion of progress in Afghanistan through its contracts with corporations which have built dining facilities without kitchens, hospitals without provisions for running water, and roads that begin to crumble on completion, to name just a few examples of reconstruction malfeasance. And third, we have set up secret prisons where the CIA has implemented the quaintly termed “enhanced interrogation techniques” (another name for torture) that has led to the deaths of some prisoners by hypothermia. Given this depressing record of achievements, the Afghan people might very well wish that we had done far less for them.
Ben Brody’s Attention Servicemember was shortlisted for the Aperture and Paris Photo’s First PhotoBook Award. His haunting and enigmatic photographs dismantle the paradox of in/visibility by challenging us to see what is outside the visual frame. They force us to ponder the questions of what has been achieved by the distant wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, and at what moral cost?
 John Lucaites and Jon Simons. “Introduction: The Paradox of War’s In/visibility.” In/Visible War: The Culture of War in Twenty-First Century America. Ed. By John Lucaites and Jon Simons. New Brunswick: Rutgers University Press, 2017: 1-24.
 John M. Broder. “A Nation at War: The Casualties; U.S. Military Has No Count of Iraqi Dead in Fighting.” The New York Times, April 2, 2003. https://www.nytimes.com/2003/04/02/world/nation-war-casualties-us-military-has-no-count-iraqi-dead-fighting.html.
 “Iraq Body Count.” https://www.iraqbodycount.org/.
 “PTSD: National Center for PTSD.” U.S. Department of Veteran Affairs. https://www.ptsd.va.gov/understand/common/common_veterans.asp.
 Willem Roper. “Afghanistan Civilian Casualties Surpass 10,000.” Statista. February 24, 2020. https://www.statista.com/chart/20932/afghanistan-civilian-casualties-in-last-decade/.