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.

Three grieving women at Sunni Adhamiya cemetery.

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.

Dexter Filkins, “New York Times” and "The Forever War" writer.

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).

Hooded insurgent, Falluja, Iraq.

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.

Marines treat a woman whose car they attacked.

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.

8 Responses to “Ashley Gilbertson’s Two Wars”

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  • Right on John. IMHO the desire for peace is neither simply “old-guard” nor exclusive to a “60’s” mentality. Thanks for doing the piece.

    In 1969 I made a documentary, WALT WHITMAN’S CIVIL WAR, featuring Will Geer as the poet musing on the devastation wreaked upon young men, North and South. Whitman’s words were intercut with Gardner, Brady et al photos, as well as with re-enacted Civil War battle footage from early silent movies.

    My sense is that Whitman would have approved of your blog!

    I’ve reserved Filkins’ book at the LA Library.

    Cheers,

    Frederic

  • Mohammad Khawaja

    “My concern lay with those left in combat’s wake.” That line sums it all up and gave me pause because when it comes down to taking sides in war it is those people that are shamefully called collateral damage. They are classified as such, their devastated lives filed away, and those they leave behind remain forgotten. Each side screams that their civilian population are hapless, innocent victims, while the suffering innocent civilians on the other side are acceptable collateral damage.

    There are agendas in war that few of us know and even fewer could understand. The disregard for innocent human life pervades the misguided policies that claim they will fight violence with more violence of their own. It has only served to bring out more terrorism. Each party claims God as being on their side but the restraint and judiciousness urged by both Christian and Islamic theology to guide the execution of war is thrown aside with impunity.

    Each of those photographs by Gilbertson is an unsettling testimony to the fact that there are no victors in war. Each of us die a little bit and and become blinded to the suffering of others. As I listened to Gilbertson commenting on the images I wondered about the kinds of people who would pick up Whiskey Tango Foxtrot and take in the lessons from his experience. The lives and suffering of people are felt more truthfully through this dramatic insight than the hundreds of other run of the mill academic studies or clinical reports. I ventured to the local bookstores here in Abu Dhabi and sadly not one of them carried either Filkins The Forever War or Gilberton’s Whiskey Tango Foxtrot.

    There is a strange feeling when you read a person’s name out loud that has passed away. I am glad you shared the sections where Gilbertson talks about the invasion of Falluja and Filkins talks about Billy Miller. I couldn’t help think that by saying the words “my fault” Gilbertson was trying to cope with and make some sense for himself in such an overwhelming nightmare. I cannot imagine what he must have been feeling like inside at the time. When both words and deeds fail you there is only one thing to say that can give you a sense of control, “my fault.” There is an incredible kind of despair we fall into when we cannot rescue someone or prevent them from dying because their life or circumstance was beyond our control.

    There is no healing because we have all become collateral damage, unacceptable collateral damage. In my mind there has never been a side to pick because “we” are “they” and “they” are “we”. When someone in New York never sees a loved again because they perished in a collapsed tower at the World Trade Center, we all have suffered an irreplaceable loss. When an innocent family in Afghanistan is bombed by a misguided missile, a part of our humanity perishes in that blast. In Iraq when a child is born with birth defects due to his mother’s exposure to depleted uranium, we all have been deformed. The pain of dehumanizing loss, deformity, and public insecurity will be with us as long as we are not as moved by the suffering of innocent civilians anywhere as we are by the suffering of those close to us.

    Gilbertson has found a way to connect with the souls of those who lives were taken. Another that immediately comes to mind is documentary filmmaker James Longley (Gaza Strip, Iraq in Fragments, Sari’s Mother) who found a path to the living in Iraq and was able to witness their rather incredible lives. His short film Sari’s Mother left me speechless. If not by witnessing with our own eyes or giving testimony through our images and words how else can we hope to connect with the myriad broken lives?

  • Thanks for posting this, John. This material is both unsettling and deeply moving. One of the many takeaways is the power of the photographic image to serve as (as Ashley calls it) “evidence.” For me, the collection of Gilbertson’s images speak volumes more than any column, essay or written statement. To cite an old cliche, it seems like these pictures aren’t worth a thousand words – they’re worth much more than that. To me these are not politically charged images, they’re personally charged. I think it’s also worthwhile to note the means of capture: at ground level, with a wide lens, a foot away from the subject.

    Thanks again, a really thought-provoking post.

  • Thanks for posting this John. Gilbertson’s images were definitely emotionally engaging. I especially enjoyed the photographs of the isolated bedrooms that the soldiers left behind to go to battle. It just reminds us how fragile life can be, and makes me feel for the families that they left behind.

    I’m an only child, and this is the first time in my life where I’ve been away from home for an extended period time because of school, and my parents always call to remind me how isolated and the empty the house feels, and how much they miss me. I can only imagine how these families must feel knowing that their kids or partners will never be coming home. It’s tough enough to see someone you love leave for an extended period, but to face the sad reality of knowing that you’ll never see them again must be heartbreaking. And while most of us already understand this concept, I believe Gilbertson’s images of the “empty bedrooms” allow us to reflect on those emotions a little more. Thanks again John.

  • Dear John,

    Gilbertson’s pictures touched me deeply. The bedroom series seems especially apt to convey the humanity and individuality of the deceased in a way that counteracts the big risk of them remaining a mere statistic for anyone but those who have known them during their lives.

    Interestingly these pictures which relate to the war only contextually and have been taken on the other side of the planet have the strongest emotional affect on me.

    Gilbertson’s accounts and war photography is highly compelling to me for another reason. Both constitute an invaluable link between what we consider to be news and what will be history at some point. The account is very personal, the events and pictures necessarily ecclectic. Nevertheless Gilberton’s book could very well become an essential if not emblematic part of how the conflict will be seen by future generations.

  • This essay is deeply moving for me, having been a U.S. Marine Corps photographer during the Vietnam era. I have great respect for the civilian photographers who volunteer to be war correspondents and photo journalists, especially the few women photo journalists who go to war. I would like to bring your attention to Farah Nosh, an Iraqi Canadian woman whom I have worked with a number of times as the stills photographer on entertainment films but who has gone to Iraq as an imbedded photographer with U.S. forces several times during this long war. A link to her work is: http://www.farahnosh.com/

    Her work is soulful and mesmerizing.

  • John,

    Thank you for this post. I find it most striking that Gilbertson describes his task as the challenge to document or capture something neurological and emotional. His pursuit is intriguing in that his intent takes him to places/times outside of the immediacy of the war. In so doing, the sensationalism and violence of war (that defines war photography) is replaced with the absence that remains in the psychological fall out of these events. Gilbertson’s series of empty bedrooms is powerful in the stillness of the images and in them we can see Gilbertson’s own sense of humanity to reach beyond the battlefield and his patient determination to care when so many others have stopped paying attention. His mission to shift focus from the physical and the visceral results in a profound and unique collection of war images. His message is resounding, as he himself has learned, that the war is long from over even when the political battles have been lost and won.

  • Your article is an interesting story about brave storytellers that choose to put their lives in danger in service of an apparent need to go beyond what is normally expected of common journalists. They did it in order to tell an often-glossed over truth about this war, and in doing so – war in general.

    When reading your article and seeing the photos, it occurred to me that one of the greatest combat photographers – Robert Capa once said about photojournalism “If your picture isn’t good enough, you’re not close enough.” When I started photography, I wasn’t quite sure what he meant by that. Seeing these images really brought home an impact the war has had on us and on others affected by it. From their close relationship with the troops in battle, the closeness the photos bring us to the Iraqis that have suffered from our war, and closeness the photos bring us to the victims family’s private bedroom spaces, it is fitting that Robertson won The Robert Capa Gold Medal Award in 2004. Capa was trying to say something about, not only the photographer’s physical closeness to the subject, but also getting close enough to capture subjects in the context of their emotional circumstances. Its about being there and expressing an emotional truth that is often too hard for most photographers, or too politically inconvenient for those that distribute these images. Thanks for sharing this with us and promoting the work of such brave people.

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