I gripped my smartphone this morning. I saw the videos from the Kabul airport in Afghanistan. The ones that seem to be played on just about every news network today. Of people racing along side a U.S. Air Force cargo plane, then trying to seek refuge in the plane’s exterior beneath the wings even as the jet rushes toward its take-off. The one presumed to be bodies falling from the same plane. The one of hundreds of people trying to climb the jetway to board an already full civilian passenger plane. I didn’t need the commentary to tell me this is serious or to explain the terror sweeping through the Afghanistan capitol as the Taliban returns.
I put down the phone and wept rare tears in anger, sadness, and horror.
Just the previous evening, I had unloaded a lengthy, analytical speech to my parents on the phone after a month of simmering emotions about how we address death, suffering, and memory in Civil War studies. One of my key points was: most people do not want to think about or reckon with the physical agony, mental trauma, and sacrificial suffering in the war accounts. Most want the glory story. The charge across the field, not the return to that field to find their bleeding, screaming comrades. Perhaps human nature needs its legends and belief of glory to make some sense and justification for what really happens on the battlefields: death and immense pain. We need to look away. But when we look away from that wretched reality, it becomes easier to believe the feel-better stories that our minds want to accept.
And that’s why I did not stop watching the videos this morning. To look. Not in mockery. Not in cruel, macabre fascination while sitting in safety. But to look to try to feel, to try to understand this historic moment. Pundits can make predictions about the outcomes. Those events will play out in the coming days, months, years, and decades. But in this hour what is the terror that prompts people climb to the exterior of a plane as it prepares for takeoff? What is that feeling that the grim death of plunging back to earth would be preferable in the cry for safety and freedom than remaining behind? In this moment, we cannot look away.
Through the tears, I thought about Matthew Brady and his gallery of images from Antietam. It was photographic evidence of war. It began to change the way the American public—and later the world—handled war. Brady proved that the battlefield could visually be brought to the homefront. Nearly 100 years after the Civil War, the Vietnam Conflict proved that the fighting and dying could be brought into the living room on television. Now, the domestic and global violence can be viewed on devices held in our hands.
In the October 20, 1862, edition of the New York Times, a reporter wrote about entering Brady’s gallery and seeing the images of the dead from Antietam.
“We recognize the battlefield as a reality, but it stands as a remote one…. 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 dooryards and along the streets, he has done something very like it.”
Today, the fear and violence in Afghanistan can seem remote. But here lies the evidence in our very hands of the “terrible reality.” It will affect all of us in different ways. Veterans, civilians, and politicians will all have their varying responses. That is the way it always is. But the images are there in photo and video—perhaps through the phone or tablet in your hand. They are powerful things. They point to the fears and reactions in the live-moment of the events. If you have seen or choose to see them, they are the visual sources of this circumstance. As in 1862, we are confronted with images. I pray they make us think.
“There is one side of the picture that the sun did not catch, one phase that has escaped the photographic skill. It is the background of widows and orphans, torn from the bosom of their natural protectors by the red remorseless hand of Battle, and thrown upon the fatherhood of God. Homes have been made desolate, and the light of life in thousands of hearts has been quenched forever. All of this desolation imagination must paint—broken hearts cannot be photographed.”
I remember a color photograph on the front page of the newspaper when I was a child. It was of a crying mother embracing her crying child in Afghanistan; they had no food and were starving because of the war in their land. Swinging on the swing set in the backyard, I told my brother we had to do something. Inside, we counted up our money—about $10 and told mom we wanted to send it to that starving mother and child in Afghanistan. I clearly remember being afraid and explaining to mom that we wanted to make sure it went to the hungry, not to terrorists. My mom took us to the local Red Cross office, and being a persistent child, I insisted that the receptionist write on the donation form that it was for food for starving people in Afghanistan. Today, I wonder if that mother and her child are still alive.
What if that child grew to be a man and is the body I hold in my hands through my phone?