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November 2, 2004

Purple Hearts Shows Aftermath of War


by Michael Austin

A review of Purple Hearts by Nina Berman
Trolley, Ltd. (Great Britain)
Hardback, 96 pages, with 41 color photographs

When you get to the end of Purple Hearts, you won't know what to think. But you will be thinking.

In this short and spare book, photojournalist Berman has collected pictures of 19 American servicemen and one servicewoman who are now discharged after being severely wounded in Iraq since the March 2003 U.S. invasion. Each soldier gets four pages: one full-page portrait; one full page containing some of the soldier's own words; a small portrait captioned by a summary explanation of their injury and the date and location the pictures were taken; and a page with one concise, large-type pull-quote from their words (which the photographer presumably decided was the most vital statement in their interview) in a field of black.

The layout is striking in its simplicity and unflinching candidness, and the pulled quotes announcing each new casualty are generally the kind of statements that are bound to provoke a visceral reaction in the reader. A picture of a blind amputee's new prosthetic leg is flanked by the quote, "It was the best experience of my life." Another amputee stands on crutches with an inscrutable face, opposite the quote, "If they want to go see Allah, we'll send them." The captions on the small pictures describing the victims' injuries, and where and how they sustained them, are kept short and to the point, without any florid description, which piques the reader's interest in examining the interview and portrait to follow for the full story on who this person is, how their injury has affected them, and how they feel about their situation now.

That buildup of curiosity and interest is seldom fully satisfied by either the words or the pictures that follow. The "interviews" are not interviews in the traditional question-answer format, but instead a short collection of seemingly incomplete and unrelated sound bites from what one must assume was a much longer, more interesting, and more nuanced conversation. A lot of what does appear in the written portions reads as very flat and unexpressive. Most of these sections cover no more than a third of the blank page dedicated to them, and it is frankly frustrating to think that the author either didn't delve deeper into her subjects' hearts and minds with her questions, or didn't choose to let her readers in on the details.

All this griping is not to say, however, that the interviews are without merit. There is much that sticks with the reader. It is startling to read how many of the soldiers say something to the effect that they have no regrets about their service. To the contrary, some even say that it was the best time of their lives. But many also admit that military life, particularly combat, was nothing they expected. It is downright painful to read many of the soldiers' accounts of growing up watching war on TV and in movies, and perceiving from these media translations of war that it is fun, exciting, and glorious. A fair proportion of the veterans say that the military seemed like the best shot they had at getting out of a bad neighborhood, at finding a future … but now they're right back where they began, at a larger disadvantage than ever. Perhaps the worst of all is reading a few of the soldier's statements that they just liked the military because there was always an order, always something to do, and they felt good just doing something. For the most part, the soldiers take a very traditional "heroic" stand. They are proud of what they've done and who they are, and they have very few questions about what their government sacrificed their physical and mental well-being for. Frankly, overall, they sound much less upset than you would expect about their life-changing new handicap.

By the end of this book, you might be so frustrated and full of questions that you want to throw it. What's wrong with American education, that kids think they can't do anything else besides join the military, or find order and "something to do" without someone telling them what to do? What's wrong with American homes and neighborhoods, that kids feel like running away to fight and risk their lives in another country is preferable to sticking around or trying to improve their situation here? How can the media be so irresponsible as to portray war as "fun," and how can parents, society, and the American government allow future soldiers to believe what they see? How can these veterans not ask more questions about what they were doing there and what it was worth? I was also left wondering if the brave, stoic, and confident stance in these interviews could possibly be solid and constant, or if for some reason these young men and women just felt like that's the way they had to present themselves publicly in order to preserve their honor and that of their country. More forebodingly, I had to wonder if they would be singing the same tune 10 or 20 years from now.

But being left with all these questions is not necessarily a bad thing. Americans could certainly stand to ask a few more questions about our country, our government, and our society, as opposed to plugging their ears, believing everything on TV, and wrapping themselves in the flag and their SUVs in bumper stickers reading "God Bless America." The very complacency reflected in most of the soldiers' interviews works to incite the reader to ask all the questions these veterans don't, and that alone is enough to give credence and value to this book. One would hope this was Berman's very purpose in keeping the interviews so short and sweet.

The portraits are generally excellent in composition, clarity, and color, as could be expected from a photographer with close to 15 years experience who teaches at the International Center of Photography in New York and can boast credits with National Geographic and a slew of other major magazines worldwide. Unfortunately, these photos seldom do more than scratch the surface of the people they portray. Most of the victims in the pictures are quite young, 18-25, and their very courage and the innate pathos in their tragedy say enough to make the photographs worthwhile. But while we almost always see a clear picture of the subjects, their faces, and their injuries, in varied surroundings, we seldom see any emotion or personality. Most of the subjects wear hard, blank, guarded expressions and sit or stand in poses as strong and heroic as possible. It is possible that this is all part of the training they received so recently, and the way they wanted to be represented, or perhaps the "dryness" of the pictures can be chalked up to Berman's style as a journalist, and her efforts to avoid sensationalism and dramatization, which is laudable. But as with the interviews, the reader is left without a clear picture of who these people are, and what differentiates one from another. This takes away from one of the book's major strengths, which is giving an individual name, face, and personality to a few of those cold and meaningless statistics.

Ironically, the picture that makes the boldest statement in the book is the bright, un-captioned photo that covers the inner binding and first and last pages of the book; a stark juxtaposition of the American flag behind the green fatigues of a traditional army uniform. Though perhaps slightly misplaced in this book of Iraq casualties (one would assume most Army soldiers in Iraq wear the lighter brown desert fatigues), the image makes an excellent opener and closer. When seen upon opening the book, it is almost familiar enough to be overlooked. Yet the juxtaposition resonates throughout the following pages, in the words, faces, and lives changed that follow. As one soldier in the book says, "Our military involved in conflict … that's what makes us America." By the time the same picture appears at the end, it carries a whole lot more baggage, as we now see in it not only the familiar bright and glorious image of America and its armed forces, but also the full truth about what this marriage implies – the pictures of young Americans missing parts of their bodies forever, psychologically damaged beyond hope. And those are just the survivors. Just 20 out of 8,039 Americans injured in Iraq to date.

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Michael Austin is the Outreach Coordinator for Antiwar.com.

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