I follow a Facebook page called We Are the Mighty (a page geared toward veterans and military members) and this morning, an article appeared there which gave me reason to pause a little longer than normal. Titled “24 photos that show the honor and loyalty of the Marine Corps” (I would provide the link but it keeps on failing), it brought forward Todd Heisler’s Pulitzer Prize-winning (2006) gallery of photographs, more aptly titled “The Final Salute” (please take time to review and consider the pictures). Like many others, I had already seen the image of 2nd Lt. James Cathey’s wife, Katherine, laying in front of her husband’s casket, her face glowing in the darkness from the light given off from the computer which was helping her recall happier times. As a collection, however, this brought a great deal more to the table… even a decade after being awarded the Pulitzer.
On one hand, I’m annoyed with Heisler’s photography. I find that such moments should be private. Even more important, grief is something for which no one should win a prize. Yet, on the other hand, I see the power in it which is somewhat reflective of the images (“The Dead of Antietam“) laid out before the public by Mathew Brady, in the wake of the Battle of Antietam, in 1862. Of Brady’s gallery, a New York Times article noted:
Mr. Brady has done something to bring home to us the terrible reality and earnestness of war. If he has not brought bodies and laid them in our door-yards and along the streets, he has done something like it.
As I said at the beginning, collections of images such as these make us pause… at least some, perhaps… maybe most (if I’m not being overly optimistic). But, I’m more concerned about what we take away from these images, and how quickly we become numb again.
I’m afraid images such these too quickly become about politics (like pretty much anything else these days), and ignore something greater here. People want to blame one president or another… one party or another, and point at the war dead as a result of their failings, hastiness, or whatever. The war dead become pawns of discussion, and we quickly lose our humanity, trading it for something of lesser value. Banter becomes cheap, wasted time… nothing more than an opportunity for someone to smear another… because too many enjoy tearing apart somebody else… all over the casket of a dead military member; all at the expense of loved ones who have lost a family member. Truly, it’s disgusting.
Then, whether engaging in a tirade after viewing the images, or talking about how much a person can’t stand one political candidate or another… or one party or another… or simply going about our daily lives, we become numb again. As opposed to the two world wars of the twentieth century, we make no personal sacrifices to ensure an end to war… to ensure we are part of that process. Too often, we, as a people, put off the responsibility to “my candidate”, or “my party”. There is no gas rationing (WW2), no “meatless Tuesday” or “wheatless Wednesdays (both from WW1) , no sacrifices in which we engage to help bring about an end to a war. Considering what’s important to us today, perhaps we should do a “no television or media day”. Sadly, we’d probably have a Congressional inquiry in the wake of such things to figure out how that which was saved benefited someone or something that wasn’t part of the “war-winning effort”. Then again, the very thought of making such sacrifices would probably be considered far too inconvenient, or, yet another way for the government interject itself in our personal lives. No. Who’s kidding who? Congress couldn’t agree on making that decision, anyway.
Interestingly, this brings to mind the wake of 9/11, when we were encouraged to live our lives as a demonstration that terrorism didn’t cripple us, and that it wouldn’t deter us in living normal lives. In retrospect, I don’t know that such advice was really that great. It seems another way to be… numb, and detached.
Like semi-trucks or trains that go barreling past a house… when one lives there long enough, they no longer make much of the passing. In some ways, what the media brings us about wars in which we are engaged is like a passing train. We may or may not hear it rumble by, but it’s likely we become used to it, paying it little mind. We might hear it, become shock and/or outraged, but then how often do we just go about our business.
Maybe it’s just our way of coping and prioritizing our reactions… but, when we look at Heisler’s photographs, is that really the right thing to do? It seems, much like Brady’s work, in 1862, Heisler’s photographs may have made many of us stop, but how many, I wonder, took inspiration from them. How many have done more than file them away in the dark recesses of the mind, and took them as a call for some sort of action… the hope to make a difference… to see that such scenes would become more history than daily reality? Have we, as humans, really changed in our reactions, over the last 154 years since Brady first introduced such photography?