Thursday, July 17, 2008

Historically Speaking

The Romanovs are back in the news on this 90th anniversary of the murder of Tsar Nicholas II and his family by the Bolsheviks. Amateur investigators found the remains of the two missing children who will be interred with the other family members in Moscow. No more Anastasia wanna-be’s, I guess. Nicholas II is clearly history’s best example of sheer bad luck combined with incredible obtuseness. I’ve always regretted his execution simply because it shows the Bolsheviks to be very ruthless and murderous. Certainly as ruthless as any pre-Revolution institution in Russia, including the Tsar’s secret police and the very all-encompassing Russian state headed by an absolute monarch.

Perhaps the most amazing aspect of the Romanov’s rehabilitation is that Nicholas II is among the least of that line. Russia attained much wealth, prestige and power under the Romanov’s. Actually, the Romanov’s attained much wealth, prestige and power as absolute rulers of the Russian state, ordained by God to protect Holy Mother Russia. A few Romanovs attempted to liberalize Russian society in some small ways but Russia remained a society of vast wealth and great poverty, an industrial society trying to emerge from Feudal traditions. And Nicholas just happened to be sitting on the throne when it all blew up.

By all accounts Nicholas was a kind and gracious man, a doting father and loving husband. As Tsar he was not only head of his family but also father of all Russia. As Tsar, he also exercised Absolute and Divine Authority. As Nicholas, he was a weak and uncertain man, surrounded by a court of dubious capability and intent. He wanted to be a reformer, to bring Russia into the modern world but he was unable to challenge the vast inequalities in Russian society and institutions. Nicholas was particularly obtuse about his absolute authority and would neither look past it nor listen to any ideas that challenged it in even the smallest ways. He wanted to be the beneficent and wise leader her was ordained to be but he and his family perished in the deluge that resulted from Nicholas’ catastrophically inept leadership during World War I.

But Russians are looking to their history for lessons of greatness and the Romanov’s can certainly lay claim to their share of Russian power and prestige. They also get a share of the brutality and exploitation that created that greatness but that’s another story. Restoring Nicholas and his family to a place of honor after their brutal deaths offers a chance to regain some of that lost glory. I think it’s not so much Nicholas himself as the idea of Romanov glory; having Nicholas body around offers a handy focus. These days Nicholas II is running in first place in a television poll of significant Russian leaders, having pulled ahead of Josef Stalin who led early in the polling. Old Joe is clearly a significant figure, probably more so than Nicholas whose only claim to fame is losing the monarchy and accepting his fate nobly. Joe built the Russian Communist state. It had many of the trappings of the Tsarist order, including concentrated wealth, but Stalin’s Russia and its successor regimes counted for far more in the world than did Nicholas II’s Russia.

If Nicholas’ fate offers any lessons, it is that even the least competent leaders can be judged by far lower standards than during their time in office, especially if it helps the current rulers maintain their position. Maybe that’s why George W. is so confident about history’s judgment

Wednesday, July 16, 2008

General Talk

John McCain on Barack Obama:
"I note that he is speaking today about his plans for Iraq and Afghanistan before he has even left, before he has talked to General Petraeus, before he has seen the progress in Iraq and before he has set foot in Afghanistan for the first time," McCain said, adding that "fact-finding missions usually work best the other way around: First you assess the facts on the ground, then you present a new strategy."

That's fine, John, if you're plotting military strategy. It's always good to talk to generals about plans and operations. Barack Obama (I hope) plans to end the war in Iraq, if not the occupation. He doesn't need a general to tell him that. He just needs to listen to the American people.

Obama can talk to the generals about operations and the military consequences of policy choices but in the end disengagement is a political, not military, decision. Generals are supposed to serve the national policy established by civilian political leaders, not vice-versa. By training and experience they tend toward violence, never a good first policy option and best used judiciously.

Barack Obama will travel to Iraq. I hope he learns more than John McCain did during his famous stroll through a Baghdad market.

Labels: , ,

Monday, July 14, 2008

War, Sacrifice and Photography

An op-ed piece in the WP intersected all of my hot wires: war, sacrifice and photography. The photographer who took an iconic photo of an American soldier rushing an injured Iraqi child to care wrote to speculate on his contribution to that soldier’s death five years later. Iconic images often have difficult histories. Ira Hayes never recovered from being among the flag raisers at Iwo Jima. The “Marlboro Man Marine” from the Battle of Falluja has suffered the lingering effects of PTSD, just like Joseph Dwyer, the soldier carrying the child. Dwyer died from an overdose of drugs on 29 June after never fully returning from Iraq.

Warren Zinn took the photo as an embedded reporter for Army Times. From his side of the lens, it was part of the day’s events. Zinn says that the circumstances suggested something important but mostly he was a man with a camera at that place and time. The significance of the event reveals itself later, when the public reacts to the drama and heroism depicted. And typically, a soldier who is singled out is uneasy about the adulation when he was just doing his job, no different from anyone else that day.

How much Zinn’s photo contributed to Dwyer’s post war difficulties is pure speculation. About all I can say is that the photo was part of an overall experience of disappointment and disillusion experienced by soldiers in an indefinite, uncertain mission. When the photo was taken, America could still feel good about the Iraq invasion; we were the good guys bringing freedom, democracy and medical care to a benighted nation. Five years on, American forces are foreign occupier seeking control, influence and economic advantage in a volatile region of the world at the cost of many hundred of thousands dead, massive disruption of population and public service. Not much hope in that.

War and sacrifice. The two go together, hand in glove. Unless the soldier can look back on his or her sacrifice with pride and accomplishment, the experience will curdle the psyche. More so in some than others, but no one returns unaffected. In the end, I don’t think that Zinn’s photo killed Dwyer. The war killed Dwyer. Without the war, the photo would not have existed. Absent the photo, Dwyer was still in Iraq, accumulating an experience he would be unable to live with afterwards. He did seem to understand the randomness and truth of the photo, that it was a just one of many acts of sacrifice by American forces; aside from some embarrassment at being singled out, Dwyer lived with the image. It was everything else killed him.

But a photographer will always wonder when it comes to individuals. Several award-winning photographers have expressed regret at the consequences to the individuals shown in their work. As a photographer, I have long considered how I affect the subjects I photograph. That’s why you see almost no people in my images. In my world, people are represented by their activities, structures and machines. If you see people in my photographs, they are part of a mass, not individuals. If my camera affects them in any way, it makes no difference because they are not the focus.

But I have the luxury to choose my images. A photojournalist does not. A photojournalist’s purpose is to record images of an event. The photographer or editor can decide which images make a story. And in the context of events, some images will stand out. Zinn’s photo of Dwyer is nearly identical to the Oklahoma City firefighter rescuing an infant that captivated the nation after the 1995 bombing there. These images give us some sign of hope amid the chaos and rubble and we grab on to them. But a single image is only part, and often a very small part, of any story. That is the great lie of photography, that a photograph has meaning or even evidentiary value.

A photograph is merely a moment in time. A well-crafted photo essay or systematic photo documentation is only as current as the images presented. Photography is a skill, much like writing or speaking. Most human beings can speak and learn to write but using those skills well requires a certain level of proficiency that comes with practice, experience and understanding. In photography, that proficiency can help the photographer decide what to record and how to present the results. Our heritage and culture are richer from the vast photographic record developed in the almost two centuries since images were created on light sensitive emulsions. In the end, though, that record is only one of many sources for understanding; we must still look at those images, interpret them, compare them and analyze them. We should always ask what the photographer ignored.

The power and emotion of a single photograph is undeniable. Its truth and meaning is always suspect.

Labels: ,