The American-led war in Iraq had been going for two years when I contacted Riley. It felt far away and vague. I wanted to place myself in closer proximity to individuals who participated in, and were affected by it. What was the war doing to real people, to Iraqis and soldiers?
This is a protest against the dominant cultural narrative that positions political leaders and media outlets as the definitive experts on the current wars. Soldiers are trained not to self-reflect. They are not encouraged to speak philosophically or authoritatively. Riley and his story. protests against this system; it supports a representation of war by a person who was a participant in it and is affected by it daily.
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I believe that people can be experts of their own experiences. This is a simple idea, but it’s radical in the current socio-political context where people with first hand, intimate experiences of war are not treated as experts. Truth telling as an activity is very important to me. I am not filling books with content; I am providing a framework for people who may not otherwise have a public voice. Today, when the wars are barely in the news at all and a state of total war has become the norm, it is critically important for us to allow new and often repressed knowledge to inform our decisions and challenge our cultural acceptance of war.
I didn’t think I had a good excuse or reason to think critically through my deployment before Monica started asking me questions. When I think about the soldiers I was deployed with, we each chose one of two methods of rationalization (probably without realizing it) to help make sense of our experiences and subsequent emotions:
1. I was defending my country/freedom/unit/brothers/etc.
2. I was there for oil, control of the Middle East/money/etc.
Depending how I was feeling on a given day, I could relate to either.
When Monica asked questions like, “Can you look at this picture and tell me what you see?” I began to realize that my emotions didn’t fit into either of the above categories. The questions that other people had asked me usually had pre-supposed answers. People want to know, which side are you on? Are you patriotic or a protestor?
After attempting to answer hundreds of such questions, I have come to recognize a deficiency in our language surrounding war. Many of the soldiers I know don’t fit neatly into either camp, pro or anti war, but when asked (and given time to respond), usually have pretty deep reflections about their own experiences of it.
I think many soldiers recognize the need to talk in a more nuanced way. But that recognition isn’t always conscious. I think of the example of my dad after Vietnam and both my grandfathers who came back from WWII and didn’t talk about it. If the role models that we have didn’t express their feelings, we think there must be no effective way to do it. We don’t see our experiences as crucial to the larger discussion of war. I think the human mind wants really badly for things to be simple. But everything involves hundreds of steps. In our collaboration on the book my role is very specific: I share my experiences; I try not to summarize. We have come to see that it brings the most honest thoughts. When I talk to Monica about my experiences, I do it one sentence at a time, breaking things down into small pieces.
As we developed a process for unearthing and analyzing Riley’s materials, I realized that rather than going to Iraq to shoot my own images, I needed to uncover the already-lived stories and archives here. They were waiting for analysis, not just mine, but Riley’s, too.
One issue that surfaced right away in talking to Riley was that the digital camera is an important tool for soldiers. How did they use this tool? How did the pictures serve them when they were home? In combat, I believe the camera helped Riley protect himself from events his mind could not handle. For example, he had all these pictures he didn’t remember taking. He didn’t remember the events themselves, either. Is the camera a tool, a form of prosthetic device that helps soldiers ‘record’ events their memory has suppressed?
At home, Riley used the photographs as visual prompts to recollect (or ‘re-collect’ as he says) his memories and to make sense of his experiences working in the hospital at Abu Ghraib. At home, we become witnesses to the psychological toll of these experiences.
I believe that if we can sidestep political rhetoric, the incessant photographic barrage of aestheticized violence, and instead witness war from this intimate perspective, perhaps our cultural acceptance of war could be challenged. Riley is not saying war is natural; he’s looking around himself in combat saying, ‘What the fuck?’
Riley used a camera as an alternative to his gun. In the book he recalls driving under an overpass, seeing a figure, and thinking, “Is he an insurgent? Is he one of us? Do I shoot him? Everybody in my vehicle thought about it… I thought, ‘I’m not going to shoot him, because I don’t want to kill him and nobody else is shooting… But I have this camera.’ So I just snapped a picture.”
The context surrounding these photographs illuminates soldiers’ circumstances and also those of Iraqis. Through the sites of our guns and our cameras, Iraqis are in serious jeopardy. Sometimes when we photograph Iraqi interpreters and contractors, we put them in danger because insurgents will see their pictures and kill them or their families for allying with U.S. forces. Because of this, Riley blocked out all of their faces.
As I reassembled Riley’s words and photographs into a book, I imagined readers holding it close, in their hands and laps. This way of interacting with information about the war was so different from my own experience of being bombarded with silent images and talking heads in the news that kept the war ‘over there.’ Handled intimately in our hands, could this book start to challenge our belief that we do not know that we are uninformed?
A lot of people have had some very wise things to say in response to our book. There are people with whom I would never have been in contact otherwise. From a personal standpoint, the book reached a pretty huge audience outside of my personal circle, including people in peace movements, people with traumatic experiences and memories in general. These are not therapists, just people who have had experiences and have shared them with me because of the book’s effect.
I imagine that each face-to-face conversation about the book is a small protest to the silence and complacence that is the norm.
For me, making the book really was a beginning. I do my own lectures now, too, which addresses the challenge presented by the fact that words on a page are permanent; a fair amount of people who read the book make an assumption about what I believe today. But some of my opinions have changed since we’ve spent hundreds of hours thinking about it.
For example, at first I had a lot of guilt about forgetting. I really thought there was something wrong with me that I couldn’t remember. Since the book, I’ve had so many people approach me and tell me that they’ve had a similar experience, or that their son did. I don’t see it so much as a personal flaw anymore.
Now, I would like to see the book get out to a lot more soldiers – to a bigger platform so that the book will be unavoidable for people who might not seek it out. I know things often start in the art world and then expand outward, but there are not a whole hell of a lot of soldiers in the museums. Or, the ones who are in the museums are most likely to be the ones who already have the resources to speak.
When I initially wrote on the cover of the Riley book that the reader could “respond to another archive in need of careful attention,” I didn’t realize that I would so completely accept my own invitation.
The first book with Riley has led to a larger library, an archive of voices that I call the Veterans Book Project. Following the model that Riley and I developed, I produce books around the country collaboratively in workshops not just with veterans, but family members, Iraqis and others with intimate first-hand experiences of the current American wars, and also of earlier conflicts.
These books are published on lulu.com. There, the digital files can be downloaded for free and anyone can purchase softbound copies of the books for the cost of printing. With 27 books already published, my plan is to produce 50 volumes. Each book belongs to the author to use as he or she wishes. The whole library will be exhibited as a traveling reading room. These books have the potential to recalibrate readers’ understanding of war.
My own family struggled a lot with where they stood about the war. They became really polarized. Once you decide if you’re pro-war or anti-war, your mind starts picking role models for the next actions.
My mom picked anti-war. She started going to the anti-war meetings. They were very worthwhile, but she didn’t feel like she was contributing or doing anything to stop the war that was still going on.
Eventually, my mom and I made a book together as part of the Veterans Book Project. The process of doing the workshop really gave her a chance to spell out what the war did to our family. In our case, we just gave a really honest, detailed outline of how each family member was thinking. We walked the reader through our family’s changing and maturing thought process. I think that’s a pretty potent form of protest—to look back and share your thoughts about the war over time. Anybody who reads it is going to see the pain that it causes.
Doing workshops around the country, I meet bookmakers whose experiences remind me of how little we hear in the news and how repetitive war movies are. I’ve made books with soldiers living with traumatic brain injuries, spouses of deployed soldiers, trauma unit nurses. Their books are complicated and revolutionary.
One soldier reflects on his wide spectrum of politics and values that live inside him as he approaches his fifth deployment. Another veteran describes an Iraqi child: “Then I see him. A discarded Iraqi army helmet. The shattered remains of an AK-47. Just like the adults. He has come to play war.” One bookmaker’s brother was killed in Afghanistan while disarming an IED. Through his reflections and memories he tries to make sense of a war that was at first so distant and abstract and then, suddenly, so immediate and personal. A young Iraqi woman, who lost both her legs when an unexploded U.S. missile landed on them as she slept in bed, speaks through immeasurable injustice with fierce determination. We learn that she will do anything in her power to be a productive member of society again. We are reminded there are thousands more Iraqi amputees like her, but with much less opportunity for rehabilitation. A homeless veteran is making a photo essay that illuminates the lives and stories of other veterans who are homeless.
Equally as diverse as the content, each bookmaker deploys their books in unique and personal ways. One veteran uses his book in a performance art piece; several authors have had their books reviewed by local news papers. Two women have made business cards about their books, passing them out to start a conversation with people in every day interactions—with their children’s teachers, or the security officer at the VA. A gulf war vet uses her book as anti-recruitment material and loans it to parents protesting Reserve Officers Training Corps presence in high schools, while another plans to sell copies to raise funds for his local Veterans of Foreign Wars. Many bookmakers give public presentations on their books.
I write this from a workshop in Colorado Springs. Surrounded by six military bases, bookmakers and I are deep inside their archives. Working here with them reiterates to me that they are the experts on the emotional tolls of war, and they know exactly who their audiences are. One woman, recently medically discharged after a deployment in Iraq, writes her book for her kids; she wants to tell them that she understands she has dragged them through these wars with her (via a traumatic brain injury and severe heat stroke). She knows she is not the same person she used to be.
People’s lives have been completely re-routed by war. One after another. These stories are messy, political, apolitical, poetic, obscene, uplifting and unbearable. We cannot count ourselves informed about war, or hope to move on from it, without engaging with and understanding these living experts.
I believe, maybe for the first time, the experiences of individual soldiers might be able to serve as data for the textbooks of the future.
I want people to treat the VBP books that come from these workshops as qualitative data, a developing history. We have been unable in the past to see war as it is. Instead, we relied on limited information, distant recollections based on illusive memories or stories filtered through governmental control of information and political agendas.
Over time, thousands of these stories are reduced to myths and fairytales, through which we teach our children about war. I hope we can use today’s technology to leverage soldiers’ and survivors’ stories into history books and eventually, against the fairytales of generations to come.
Riley and his story. Me and my outrage. You and us. Is published by Onestar Press/Falth & Hassler. For more information about the book visit www.rileyandhisstory.com
Published in Photoworks Issue 16, 2011
Commissioned by Photoworks