Ashley Gilbertson’s Two Wars

“It was never my intention to become a war photographer.”

Photojournalist Ashley Gilbertson seen with two Marines as they push through to take control of the insurgent stronghold of Fallujah. Photograph by Dexter Filkins.

The simple quotation above this photo of Ashely Gilbertson, dressed in blue jeans and supporting  his camera in his left hand, is how the Australian born photojournalist begins the published memoir of his combat experience in Iraq while working for the New York Times. Starting before the March 2003 invasion of American forces, his written and visual record of this time in hell is the subject of the book, Whiskey Tango Foxtrot, the first letters of each word designating military radio code. WTF is a 21st century equivalent to the WWII acronym SNAFU.

Gilbertson’s photo career began in his native Melbourne, photographing fellow teen skateboarders. He soon became engaged in contemporary social issues and in 1998, then barely twenty, he began to document the victims of war.

I wasn’t interested in covering combat—if people wanted to kill each other, so be it, not my problem. My concern lay with those left in combat’s wake. I started covering people affected by war in 1998, when I met a large contingent of Kosovar refugees who had been granted temporary safe haven in Australia. Their situation was heartbreaking, and I made it my goal to tell the stories of innocent civilians whose lives were ruined by war.

Even though the book tracks the very combat for which he had such youthful aversion, his perspective on the war in Iraq rises above the screams of battle to become a doleful lament for the wounded and the dead.  The memoir ends with a jeremiad against the US invasion and occupation:

America invaded Iraq, and it stood aside as the country plunged into chaos. The occupation steadily inflamed the insurgency and turned Iraq into the number one destination for jihadists across the world…. The Americans lost the war, and in losing it, turned Iraq’s people against each other with greater fury than what had been exacted on them for the last four years. They broke Iraq apart.

You may or may not agree with his assessment, especially since it was written before the last surge that was prequel to a hoped for more stable environment for democracy. But the political sands in Iraq are ever shifting, and the stalemate surrounding the still contentious and uncertain recent election results, does not bode well for the major military drawdown promised by President Obama later this year.

But certain facts are indisputable and they are singularly eloquent—Ashley Gilbertson’s Iraq photographs for the New York Times. Gilbertson calls them “evidence.” They are also deposited inside the covers of the haunting book which his calls a “memoir” of all the fallen. Some of these images may be familiar to you from the front-page, above-the-fold photographs in the daily edition of the newspaper. But to see them assembled in a coffee table book, page after page, in a chronology of violence, is deeply unsettling, yet deeply necessary to see. Here are a few of them:

Dead Mahdi Army fighter, Karbala, Iraq.
Bravo Company takes cover, Falluja, Iraq.
A soldier takes a snapshot of dead insurgent.

When the American invasion was launched in March of 2003, Gilbertson was covering the movement of American military advisors in the north, in semi-autonomous Kurdistan, as well as the Kurd's preparation for the looming war against the genocidal Saddam Hussein regime. The invasion had been expected to begin from there, but was changed to an initiative from the south when the Turkish government demurred in permitting American forces access and transit through their country. By the time Gilbertson got to Baghdad the initial bombing phase was over and the city was in chaos, looting being a major contributor to the total breakdown in order, even as the American troops looked on. Here is the first of a six-part video interview with Gilbertson, conducted by Alan Thomas, editor of the University of Chicago Press, publisher of his book. Step by step, he leads Gilbertson through the progress of the war with the photographer commenting on the key images, as they appear onscreen.

Whiskey Tango Foxtrot records in close chronology the subsequent unfolding events: the rapid collapse of all social and utility services, the religious factionalism and “ethnic cleansing,” the rise of the insurgency, and finally the slow grind in city after city, province after province, to take back the country and restore social order prior to the 2006 elections. The litany of photos, interspersed with Gilbertson’s own deeply personal written record and reflections, offers a dramatic perspective of this complex, even miasmic human trauma, a vision that no purely text based book can equal. Gilbertson’s “take” is simply unique in the annals of war reportage as his written record is as unflinching as his images. Even though the worst of these events are now hopefully behind the US military and the Iraqi people, the lessons of this book should sear our skulls from any future thought about engaging in such ventures.

New York Times journalist Dexter Filkins has written a book that documents many of the same battle experiences as Gilbertson. His book has been justifiably compared to Michael Herr’s peerless from-the-trenches report on the Vietnam War, Dispatches.  Filkins’, The Forever War, is an expanded accounting of his daily reports to the Times, many of which became the newspaper’s lead story. It is inevitable that Gilbertson and Filkins would meet. Though they had crossed paths before, it was their mutual assignment to the inferno that was the Battle for Fallujah in November of 2004 that is the dark heart of both books. I have recently read them side-by-side, and find them equally to be the most immediate record of war’s insanity, as well as a lucid explication of the sometimes indifference and banal routine that is always attendant in such human conflicts.

There is a photograph of Filkins taken by Gilbertson that defines, it seems to me, the shock locked into even a moment of repose, a state that must have been the daily mindset of these two men, both of them all too aware that they were vulnerable, soft targets—neither of them carrying weapons.

Gilbertson writes about the naked sense of exposure he felt as he ran across wide streets following the men of Bravo Company into an erupting firefight.

Filkins and Gilbertson were both embedded with Bravo Company of the First Battalion, Eighth Marine Regiment, commanded by Captain Read Omohundro. Operation Phantom Fury, the invasion of Falluja, began at 2 am on November 8, 2004. Gilbertson reflects on how impossible it was for him to photograph in the dead of this first night, as all hell was breaking loose. The confusion was so pervasive that at one point another Marine company launched white phosphorous artillery rounds at them, mistaking them for insurgents. Over the course of the ten day battle, both men are in close support of each other and are every bit as close to death as the Marines whose movements they are documenting. Both men report the deaths of Bravo Company Marines whose heartbeats they share in the close quarters of house-to-house, street-to-street, combat. In this “fog of war,” death meets the young men around every corner. The deaths of several of them, Sgt. Lonny Wells and Lance Corporal William Miller, are especially disturbing to the two journalists; it is these two young soldiers who went to the greatest lengths to assist and even protect them. Gilbertson shows photos of these soldiers with captions, which reveal that “moments later,” or “an hour later,” this soldier was dead. In addition to Wells and Miller here are others they name from Bravo Company who perish in these few days:

Corporal Nathan R. Anderson

Lance Corporal Demarkus D. Brown

Corporal Gentian Marku

Corporal Kirk J. Bosselman

An indication of the camaraderie between the fighting men and the journalists is the fact that Filkins dedicates his book to “Billy” Miller whose death he reports in heartbreaking detail on page 208 of The Forever War. Bravo Company has entered a mosque minaret where an insurgent sniper hides. Gilbertson instinctively heads up the stairway to get a photo, but Miller and several others stop him and Filkins; the soldiers insist on going first. A gunshot from above rings out; the marines tumble back down the stairs. They can’t see the shooter, but yell out, “Miller.” There is no answer. Filkins describes the scene’s aftermath:

Ashley was sitting on the stoop beside the entrance to the minaret, mumbling to himself. His back was turned to the tower, and his helmet was on crooked so he looked especially vulnerable. His shoulders were heaving. My fault, he was saying, my fault. There was blood and bits of white flesh on his face and on his flak jacket and on his camera lens. My fault.

Complete chaos ensues as Marines assault the minaret steps, heedless of their own safety. Fikins reflects, “ I wondered how many people were going to die to save Miller, who was shot for a picture.” Miller dies shortly after. This incident, as well as more details of the Battle for Falluja, is recounted by Gilbertson in parts three and four of the University of Chicago Press interview. In the video you can see the toll that has been taken on him:

The close in reporting of Filkins, coupled with the text and photos of Gilbertson, sounds a mighty chord of protest to anyone with ears. “This is insanity,” it intones. If you have any remaining ambivalence about this war, please read these two books:

Amazon.com—Whiskey Tango Foxtrot: A Photographer's Chronicle of the Iraq War link

Amazon.com—The Forever War link

Gilbertson says at the beginning of the book that it is the victims of war he suffered for, not the combatants, who he says, chose to be there. (a complex, debatable perspective, but a passionate one). It is evident by the end of his chronicle that he can also see the American soldiers as victims—yes, armed to the teeth, but scared and in shock at the violence they have so easily become part of.  Gilbertson includes photographs of subdued and dead insurgents (in part six of the interview he explains why this one photo below is emblematic).

He also has photographs of civilians who were simply on the wrong street at the wrong time, or who just happened to be asleep in a house next to one that had been the source of an RPG launched at the Americans.

The last part of Whiskey Tango Foxtrot begins with this declaration by Gilbertson:

Yes, I had post-traumatic stress syndrome. After Miller died I had to leave Iraq. My picture editor at the paper, Beth Flynn, gave me permission and so did [Captain] Omohundro.

In 2004, Gilbertson won the Robert Capa Gold Medal award for his reporting on the Battle for Fallujah and in March, 2009 ,he became aligned with the photo agency VII, in its Network division. Fellow photojournalist James Nachtwey was a founding member of the organization:

Blog entry—“Bearing Witness” link

But it is only after leaving Iraq, that his second war began. The March 21, 2010 issue of the New York Times Sunday Magazine features a photo essay by Ashley Gilbertson titled: “The Shrine Down The Hall.” In seven double page black and white photographs, Gilbertson shows the bedrooms of dead American men and women soldiers from the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq. His colleague Dexter Filkins supplies the text, which begins:

Just kids. You step into the barracks thinking big, burly, and deep-voiced. And what you get are faces and half-hearted mustaches and voices still cracking, boys hurried into uniforms and handed heavy guns.

For several years Gilbertson used the Washington Post's "Faces of the Fallen" site as his source to contact surviving relatives. He established close ties with many grieving families who needed, as did he, to heal.( In an email after this essay posted, Gilbertson wrote to me, "I'd say there is no healing; it's a question of learning to live with what has happened."). Yes, so much for the easy platitudes of those of us, like me, who are far removed from the experience of such grief.

After having seen so much death and destruction in Iraq, and no way to culturally connect with the families of Iraqis who also had lost innocent, loved ones, he began to photograph the pristinely preserved rooms of the dead soldiers, most of whom were still young enough to be living at home, and whose personal identities were circumscribed by the posters, books, trophies and memorabilia of their bedrooms—preserved as a shrine by the grieving parents. Here is a photo of the bedroom of Cpl. Brandon M. Craig, Army, killed on July 19, 2007 in Husayniyah, Iraq, by a roadside bomb:

In addition to the seven images in the Times essay, the website has a slideshow of another dozen bedrooms of fallen soldiers:

The New York Times—interactive photo essay link

Other links at the bottom of the web page direct you to Gilbertson’s notes, Filkins’ commentaries, and to a more recent video interview of Gilbertson made by VII.  This video has high quality photos of Gilbertson’s Iraq, but soon transitions into his deeply felt plea, eyes fixed directly on the viewer. He implores you to understand the story behind these black and white documents of empty rooms. If you watch only one of the videos, let it be this one.

Gilbertson advises me that there is another site which may be easier to follow:

Here is a photo of 1st Lt. Brian N. Bradshaw’s bedroom. He was Army, killed on June 25, 2009 in Kheyl, Afghanistan by a roadside bomb, age 24.

Gilbertson says these photos are memorials to the lives rather than the deaths of these young men and women:

It’s powerful to look at where these kids lived, to see who they were as living, breathing human beings…. Their bedrooms were the one place in the house where they could express themselves with all the things they loved.

Yes, this photo essay is deeply moving in its stark black and white immediacy, variations on a theme of lives barely begun before being cut short. But one can’t help but reflect also on the lives of Iraqi innocents also cut short by these same American youths, sometimes heedless of the terrible power of the killing machines they sling over their shoulders, and of the death from the air that they call in with their handheld phones---phones which the insurgents also use to remotely detonate the IEDs that create these quiet, shrine-like bedrooms.

Whether they are images of still carefully tended American bedrooms or of  Iraqi homes turned to rubble, what Gilbertson says is equally true: "This is what war looks like from the ground up."  In this war there is no winner.

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