What can be learned from this exhibition
Most of us have never experienced and hopefully will never experience war. These photographs are our only visual access to what is being experienced by those who are fighting in or affected by conflict. If we’re going to be sending troops into a situation, it’s important to understand what we’re sending them into. It’s not all glory. It’s really difficult decisions and difficult, terrifying situations. Many veterans talk about war as just not what they thought they were going to experience, and they didn’t understand it.
We don’t understand it, and the only way we’re going to understand it is if we are exposed to the totality of this thing that is armed conflict. So, it’s important for those photographs to be gathered and the stories to be told.
There is a photograph in the exhibition of an Iraqi soldier who is burned to a crisp in his truck. He’s sitting totally charred in his truck, and someone said to me, “We didn’t do that. Americans didn’t do that.”
And I said, “Yes ma’am, actually, we did. We bombed the first truck. And we bombed the last truck. And then we strafed everything in between, and that’s what you do in war.”
What one military historian told me is, "In war, you kill the other side until they surrender. That’s the simplest explanation."
Images like that burned Iraqi are part of the experience. There is another image of a dead soldier who has been beheaded by a machine gun. It’s an exhibition that’s very difficult. The images are not just the images of dead and wounded, but some people are more even disturbed by a picture of children playing execution.
One of their little playmates is up against the wall like this, and the others are all kneeled, aiming their toy guns at him. It’s not what you’d like to see children playing. There is something different than children playing Cowboys and Indians — and actually playing execution where you’re shooting an unarmed person. But executions are part of war; there is a whole section in the exhibition. Many, many people die in wartime in executions.
We are trying to introduce as wide a realm of the experience of war as we could, through the best photographs that we can find.
When you read the written word, and even if the writer describes a person in some detail, we all come up with a different image of what they look like. The photograph is what they look like. Now, photographs are affected by words. They’re affected by the captions. They direct, misdirect or redirect our understanding of the photograph.
But the photograph has a power because we can recognize a moment, a situation, a human emotion in them that speaks to us in ways that words don’t.