Sunday, November 11th is Veterans Day in the United States. It is a day Americans set aside to honor those who have served in the nation's armed forces, especially combat veterans, the men and women who've put their lives on the line in war. For more than a century, combat photographers have helped us to appreciate the full measure of our troops' battlefield service. Ashley Gilbertson, a 29-year-old Australian photojournalist who has been embedded with American combat troops in Iraq for most of the four and a half years since the American invasion, is part of that noble tradition.
The cover of Gilbertson's recent book, Whiskey Tango Foxtrot: A Photographer's Chronicle of the Iraq War, features a photograph of an American soldier descending a stairway on the side of an Iraqi house nearly destroyed by rocket fire. Gilbertson, who shot that photo for The New York Times, says, for him the image symbolizes both the Iraq War and his own emotional arc since he began his first tour there.
"At the beginning I was very, very pro-war. I wanted to see Saddam Hussein taken out," he says. "And when he was overthrown, I was happy and I celebrated. I am personally invested. I want to see Iraqis happy and free."
Gilbertson felt a first pang of disillusionment soon after the invasion, when the northern city of Mosul was aflame and American troops could do little to stop the looting. "And as the years have gone on, I've become less and less hopeful about the situation, until now, when I believe it's an absolute disaster."
Gilbertson says he is first and foremost a journalist, not an advocate for a political point of view or opinion. "When somebody makes a decision in Washington, my job is to translate what it means on the ground. And I see it."
Thanks to Gilbertson's skill with the camera, we see it too. An offensive is ordered, and we see an insurgent lying dead in a pool of blood. A Marine unit is told to "flush out" a neighborhood in Samara and we see a father beg a Marine to lower his pointed rifle while his son looks on, clutching a limp white cloth.
And when the President ordered a "surge" of 30,000 additional troops to secure Baghdad… "… I saw 30,000 more targets in the streets," he says.
Gilbertson says that anyone in Iraq, or any war zone, sees a lot of death. "It's always very close. It's always omnipresent whenever you are going around."
Even so, he says, there is something very "romantic" about covering a war. "This idea of 'cheating death.' You really are on the edge," he says. "Except that romance is completely destroyed when you actually look at the heart of war."
Gilbertson's photographs also capture, in the brief lulls between battles, the almost childish playfulness of the American soldiers, most of whom, after all, are just 19 or 20 years old.
"They will be talking about Britney Spears, or joking about the presumed sexuality of the sergeant," he recalls, "and all of a sudden there is this switch, they cross the wire, and they become these incredibly professional men with a job to do and in the most dangerous of places."
Gilbertson knows those dangers well. He had a pal named Ian Spakosky, a specialist his fellow soldiers called "Spanky." One day, Gilbertson was accompanying the unit inside a small military vehicle. He was joking with Spanky about how to spell his Polish name.
"And five minutes later he's not laughing anymore," Gilbertson recalls."He's shooting at an RPG [rocket-propelled grenade] team that just took a shot at the vehicle. And another five minutes later, he's lying in the street bleeding to death. When Spanky was killed, that hit home."
The photographer says a personal low point came in 2004, during the U.S.-led offensive in Falluja, where a radical Muslim insurgency was changing the course of the war.
Rumor had it that a sniper lay dead at the top of the minaret, or spire, of a neighborhood mosque. Gilbertson wanted a photograph of the dead sniper, but the Marines in his unit refused to let him climb the minaret unprotected. Instead, two men, Lance Corporals William Miller and Christian Dominguez, climbed the narrow rubble-strewn spiral stairway ahead of him.
"After a few flights of stairs, we started being able to see a little bit of light from this hole in the minaret, and that's when shots rang out," Gilbertson recalls. "I felt some sort of liquid over me and Dominguez starting screaming, 'Get down, get down!'" The men tumbled down the stairs out the base of the minaret. It was then that Gilbertson realized that "it wasn't water, as I had hoped, that got all over me. It was blood and Miller hadn't come down."
Other Marines dragged Miller's body outside. But Gilbertson caught none of it on film. He lay on the ground, nearly paralyzed with grief and shock.
Gilbertson left Falluja the next day, and the day after that, he left Iraq. Back at home in New York, he found he couldn't work effectively.
"For twelve months I tried to write about what happened. Every time I tried to put pen to paper it was 'the minaret,' 'the minaret, 'the minaret,' 'the minaret.' I had no idea how I could live down the responsibility for this man's death."
He says that his anguish was far from unique. "Everyone — every soldier, every Iraqi, every reporter, working in that country — has their own 'Miller.' Everybody's got their own 'minaret.' Everybody's got their own trauma that they are trying to recover from."
Eventually, Gilbertson returned to Iraq, determined to continue chronicling the unfolding war with his photographs.
One of his favorite recent images shows an insurgent who has just been shot and captured, kneeling on the ground, hands bound, with a hood over his head. On the wall behind the insurgent is the giant shadow of a Marine guarding him with a rifle. "It really illustrates the way this war is being fought," he says. "The insurgents are a faceless enemy. You don't know who is shooting at you."
Gilberston says he believes the insurgents look at the Americans the same way. "[They're] not looking for Sergeant Smith or Specialist Joe. It's a guy in a uniform who is representative of the United States of America."
Gilbertson's photographs make it clear that the soldiers and those whom they fight do have faces, and so do the people who love them. And, on Veteran's Day, says Gilbertson, "we need to listen to their stories."