When the attack began at the Westgate Mall in Nairobi, Kenya, the famed New York Times photographer Tyler Hicks was on scene almost immediately, snapping pictures of everything from dead bodies covered in their own gore to cautious policemen peering into the unknown ahead of them.
Images from war zones have long been a staple of how Americans perceive and understand conflict. From Antietam to Aleppo, the art of the image—moving or still–has been a constant.
War correspondents have the impossible job of bringing conflict to our living rooms, and for the most part the job is a thankless one. They risk life and limb to bring above the fold photographs that are no more than glanced at by most. But their job, at times, can be just as important as those of the men and women who take up arms.
When we see things on TV or click on them in our browsers, regardless of how visceral they are, we become detached through distance and a focus on our own lives. If Tyler Hicks’ photos are too much, we close the lid of our laptops. If we can’t stomach “Restrepo,” the pulse-pounding award-winning documentary by Sebastian Junger and the late Tim Hetherington, we turn off the DVD player.
By contrast, there is no pause when an IED goes off, and no ‘pause’ button for a firefight. People have asked me what is the difference between a War documentary and War itself. And while the answer seems obvious, it isn’t.
In 2010, when my battalion inserted into Marjah, Afghanistan, we had with us a BBC cameraman by the name of Ben Anderson. Anderson would go onto produce a movie called “The Battle for Marjah.” While the film focuses heavily on people who aren’t me, there is a scene in which I appear. The scene is a firefight next to a mosque and it has everything we are taught to expect from a firefight scene: gunfire, explosions, and of course, a gratuitous amount of profanity.
The scene was edited for HBO, so about a year later, I asked Ben to send me the unedited footage, from when he started filming that scene to when the shooting stopped. What I saw on that footage and what I remembered were two very different things. In my mind the fight happened within the span of ten minutes. Everything was compressed. The gunfight as I remembered it was one quick sentence with a pair of hand grenades as its final punctuation. On film, though, the scene drags out. Bursts of AK fire happen miles apart. Moments that I thought of as one act were in actuality ten minutes apart.
Adrenaline is more powerful than we give it credit for, and in this instance I realized how much it had shaped my time in Afghanistan. The war in my head wasn’t the same as the war on the screen, and the horrifying thing was that I had been there.
For those who haven’t been to war, and will never go, the screen is as good as it gets for trying to inhale the cordite after a firefight. While no one I’ve ever met seems to think that watching a documentary is the same as being “over there,” I have had a few conversations where the layman will refer to watching “Restrepo” as if reflecting on their own deployment.
It’s true that films like “Restrepo” portray many aspects of wartime accurately, and bridge many gaps between civilian and warrior. Still, one size does not fit all. Every conflict is different and every participant experiences it differently. Watch documentaries with a grain of salt. Let them be a frame of reference, but if you want to get close to understanding a conflict without actually being there, you need to look beyond the screen.
This column is the first in series that will look at how the warrior and civilian experience are portrayed through various media in the 21st century.
Thomas Gibbons-Neff is a columnist at War on the Rocks. He served as an infantryman with 1st Battalion 6th Marines from 2007-2011 and participated in two deployments to Afghanistan. He is a student at Georgetown University and a deputy editor at The Hoya.