January 2006

Colleen Mondor


Unembedded: Four Independent Photojournalists on the War in Iraq by Ghaith Abdul-Ahad, Kael Alford, Thorne Anderson, and Rita Leisner

I have had my issues with the current Iraq war for some time now -- starting with the fact that we call this conflict a war even though no formal declaration of war against any formally identified enemy has occurred. (There are actual rules to war, believe it or not, that’s why Korea was a “Conflict,” Vietnam was a “Police Action” and Desert Storm was an “Operation” -- a declaration must be voted on in Congress and must be against another country, or no war.) The one thing that has really bothered me though is the kind of coverage the American press has provided since the beginning. At first I was excited and impressed by the idea of embedding journalists with fighting units on the ground, but as more and more pictures of “insurgents” surfaced, and practically none of Iraqi civilians, my doubts escalated to the point of disbelief. Everything crystallized for me when I read Donna Seaman’s interview with author Ward Just in Writers on the Air. Just covered Vietnam for a year and a half for The Washington Post and as he explained the situation was very different there. In response to Seaman’s question about comparisons between the press in Vietnam and Iraq, Just replied:

“I thought a lot about the embedding process. As people may know, in Vietnam there was no restriction. You could go wherever you wanted to go, and the military would take you there. Furthermore, because there were no front lines in the war, there was just a series of fire bases where occasional battles would erupt. That meant you could go to these places and arrive safely… The great value of that was that after six months’ time you really could gain a sense of the whole country. And if you used your eyes and ears, you could really believe that you probably knew more about the country than any resident American official for this one simple reason: No one else but a journalist could look at it all the way around. No one other person could go visit the Vietnamese Army, the American Army, the AID people, the government people, the proud provincial headquarters, or drop in on the CIA. And if you just kept your eyes and ears open and you did not go into it with some vast bias ideological or otherwise, you could come up with a pretty clear picture of what was happening.

"With Iraq, you’re embedded. In Iraq. It would very difficult if not impossible to pursue the matter the way we pursued it in Vietnam.”

And that’s it, isn’t it? Embedded with US troops means that you are only with them, you only see what they see, only understand what they understand. You are covering the war (engagement, conflict, whatever…) strictly from their perspective. And that is where things start to go very, very badly, that is where we become people who know only one version of the events; that is where it becomes very easy for us to be mislead.

That is where we are today.

Unembedded: Four Independent Photojournalists on the War in Iraq was recently published by Chelsea Green and it is an amazing collection from photojournalists who elected not to be embedded. They each have different reasons for remaining independent in Iraq, and Unembedded includes essays about their decisions and what they learned by covering the action in this way. What they have produced are pictures of angry, injured and dead Iraqis, photos that recall the iconic Vietnam images taken by Nick Ut of the little girl running from a U.S. napalm attack or by Eddie Adams of the street execution. The Iraq photos are the missing piece of the war that we have been watching on our televisions every night. These are the pictures of the rest of the cost -- the cost that far exceeds what the U.S. government acknowledges. (Although as photographs of flag draped coffins are not permitted, we have yet to truly appreciate the American cost either.) Quite simply, Unembedded is our witness to the horror of this current war -- a war to which we continuously declare victory.

The book shows images from Iraqi hospitals, where brutal and necessary decisions about who can be saved and who can not leave a young and bloody boy sitting on the hallway floor next to his dying mother; she is too far gone to try and save. There are the people left to die on a street after U.S. helicopters opened fire on a crowd. I don’t know how many of these people are part of the insurgency; I just kept thinking they looked like the same people I see on the streets of my town everyday. There are the female inmates of the Rashad Psychiatric Hospital in Baghdad. Can you imagine how chaotic and confusing their lives must be in the middle of all this? And there are pages and pages of people talking and laughing and sitting together as armored personnel carriers drive by -- people struggling to live a life, to still be people, as shots are fired over their heads and casualties mount. There are guns and bodies and blood stains, but mostly there are pictures of people that all of us will recognize, because if we were there, if this was our country, then we would look very much like them.

The pictures show, how very much we are like them.

Unembedded is like the best of books about war. It should be as revered as We Wish to Inform You That Tomorrow We Will Be Killed With Our Families and The Things They Carried. It is a book that insists on being recognized, that refuses to be ignored. These photographers are saying that you must look at the faces they saw, you must see the people they saw and you must acknowledge them. You must allow their stories to be told. You must believe these pictures.

Unembedded is a book about war, about our war. Whether you support what the U.S. is doing in Iraq or not, whether you are a Democrat or a Republican, Unembedded tells a story that we all need to read. We are Americans, and America is in Iraq. It is only right that we at least take the time to see what life is like for the Iraqi people, it is only fair that we at least take the time to meet them. And we can not do that if we don’t leave the American military behind, we can not find the truth of every part of this war if we don’t go looking for the places where the other half of that truth lives. We will never know what has really happened in Iraq if we don’t let someone take the pictures and show us.

Unembedded is out there, it is ready to show what these four photojournalists learned on the streets of Iraq. I wish I could say that I was surprised by these pictures, that I was shocked and disappointed. But really they have only showed me what I suspected all along: this war, like all the ones before it, is hell. The book is, according to Vietnam War photographer Tim Page, “a powerful, apolitical and impassioned view of the horror and torture of a society in the throes of an apocalypse: hard visuals with the four shooters putting their personal word licks into each essay. It is this rawness that brings home the reality, the diversity, letting us look at the ‘the other side’ now and grasp the story that we have been denied.”

You have no more excuses now, read Unembedded, look at the pictures and make your own decisions about Iraq. Decide one way or the other just what you’re going to do now that you have seen the faces of people just like us. And then get off your chair and do something about it.

Unembedded: Four Independent Photojournalists on the War in Iraq by Ghaith Abdul-Ahad, Kael Alford, Thorne Anderson, and Rita Leisner
Chelsea Green
ISBN: 1931498989
176 pages