Shots from the front line

19th September 2003 at 01:00
A fascinating, if selective, collection of war photographs hits the target, says Sean Lang

THE EYE OF WAR. By Phillip Knightley, with an introduction by John Keegan. Weidenfeld and Nicolson pound;30.

Military commanders in the First World War were so concerned about photographic material falling into enemy hands that soldiers were forbidden to carry cameras in the trenches, on pain of death. Whether anyone was actually shot for taking a picture this book does not say, though some brave souls did manage to smuggle out action shots, but the result was that most of the images we have of the trenches come from official photographers, whose work was closely supervised and censored.

They were not allowed to show dead bodies, and few shots of the desolation of the battleground were permitted, which is why so many images show soldiers posing, and the few exceptions are reproduced so frequently.

Picture Post refused to show Bert Hardy's shots of South Korean political prisoners awaiting execution in the 1950s, and in 1991 no one in the United States would publishKenneth Jarecke's harrowing picture of an Iraqi soldier incinerated as he fought to get out of his blazing vehicle.

Phillip Knightley, whose other books include The First Casualty: the war correspondent as hero and myth-maker (Prion Books), has assembled photographs from a variety of conflicts, from the Crimea to the fall of Saddam Hussein, mostly of soldiers, but with some haunting images of civilians too. The picture of screaming Vietnamese children fleeing a napalm attack on their homes has become an icon, as has the picture of the Russian soldier flying the red flag from the ruined Reichstag building in 1945. Not only did the shot have to be restaged for the camera, but the flag had to be improvised out of a red tablecloth because the Red Army had run out of the real thing.

War photography has always lent itself to manipulation. The 19th-century British photographer Roger Fenton was sent out to the Crimea specifically to take reassuring behind-the-front pictures of warmly dressed soldiers relaxing or playing bowls with Russian cannon balls to counteract the highly critical reports of British military inefficiency being filed by the Times correspondent William Howard Russell. Images from the American Civil War were more harrowing - photographer Matthew Brady had no scruples about showing dead bodies - but in their way they were no less contrived. Brady was prepared to "compose" dead soldier scenes, altering the corpse's position or adding a strategically placed rifle to get the balance right.

By the end of the 19th century, American press barons were so avid for good war pictures that they virtually created conflicts to get them. "You furnish pictures," wired William Randolph Hearst to the artist Frederic Remington, who had gone to Cuba and found everything peaceful. "I will furnish war." American colonial adventures in Cuba or the Philippines made good copy, but other conflicts, such as the Boxer Rebellion in China, were overshadowed by major wars, and hardly photographed at all.

Before 1914, photographers tended to show war as the stuff of excitement and adventure. There are many shots of men ranged up ready to go into action, or sitting looking pleased with themselves afterwards. Only occasionally does a less cosy image bring you up short, such as the picture of six Cuban prisoners awaiting execution at American hands, kneeling with their hands tied behind their backs in front of an already bullet-holed wall.

It's the Boer War photographs that most obviously break through the adventurous image, with a picture of a trench full of dead highlanders at Spionkop, or wounded men in a filthy shed that served as a dressing station, staring out as if in incomprehension of how they came to be in such a ghastly place. You see the same look in the eyes of the GIs at a "first-aid centre" in a Vietnamese quagmire in 1966.

Faces feature a lot. A serious young Russian in Afghanistan stares directly into the camera, as does the grim face of a crewman on a First World War U-boat. Others are caught unawares: a government soldier in Cambodia glances towards the camera as he rescues a Buddha from a ruined temple - aware, perhaps, that it looks like looting; a British soldier at the Somme staggers along a trench with a wounded man on his back.

The faces, reinforced by the essential similarity of military clothing and equipment, underline the common experience of war. The German women smiling excitedly as their men go off to war in 1914, are clearly part of the same story as the young Israeli women bidding goodbye to their soldiers at Yom Kippur in 1973. Similarly, a French officer playing a home-made cello in the First World War is echoed by a string quartet playing in the ruins of the National Library in Sarajevo 80 years later.

As an evocation of the experience of war, the book is impressive, and the visual impact is complemented by the well-chosen written extracts that accompany the pictures, either giving eye-witness testimony related to the photographs or offering new insights: "In the Intifada the Palestinians have discovered the power of their weakness and the Israelis the weakness of their strength." The book is organised more or less chronologically until 1945, but thereafter the conflicts are grouped rather arbitrarily as "independence wars" (Vietnam, Bangladesh, yes, but the Falklands War was a colonial conflict), and "wars of faith", which somehow includes Algeria, Yugoslavia, the Intifada, Chechnya, and "Israel's independence war", which were more about independence than about religion.

Like the self-selection carried out by news editors, the book prefers some conflicts over others. US wars are heavily covered, Russian and African conflicts under-represented. The September 11 attack on New York is here, but otherwise the experience of terrorist war is not covered; there are no images of Northern Ireland, for example, heavily photographed though it was. But the book is a worthy tribute to the courage and tenacity of war photographers, whose casualty rates, as John Keegan points out in the introduction, regularly exceed those of the infantrymen they follow.

Sean Lang is editor of Modern History Review

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