I spent four years in the Marines as a combat correspondent.
I was a propagandist. Most of the time, the stories I wrote were inconsequential puff pieces. Other times, they were plugs for the current mission, little more than a press release, packed full of "command messages" — the military's version of buzzwords — just with my byline in place of the phrase "official U.S. Marine Corps statement."
While deployed to Afghanistan in 2010, and again in 2011, the words "Afghan-led" wound up in stories I wrote about patrols where few if any Afghan National Army soldiers were present. In the rare cases they were actually there, they weren't leading anybody. Civil Affairs projects where bags of cash were handed over to pay for beautification projects in cities still reeling from recent battles between Marines and the Taliban were billed as dollars well spent. Articles about IED strikes, vehicle rollovers that resulted in deaths, and civilian casualties were rarely published — at least not on a website ending with .gov or .mil.
I rarely had a hand in anything that I'd recognize today as journalism. During that time I took comfort in the belief that anyone who actually read those stories would be able to sift through the bullshit to see the polished turd underneath.
Now, in the months after the release of the Afghanistan Papers, following a prolonged lawsuit by The Washington Post, I know beyond any doubt that the war was going poorly; that our leaders knew it; and that they deliberately misled the public. But I don't feel vindicated. I feel guilty, and somewhat responsible for the lies I helped tell.
Still, when I read Ben Brody's book, Attention Servicemember, a 300-page memoir detailing his time as an Army public affairs soldier deployed to Iraq, it brought a small measure of comfort to know that I wasn't alone. Though our wars were different, the frustration, the guilt, and the confusion about what to do with all those feelings felt familiar.
Brody deployed twice to Iraq with the 3rd Infantry Division, first to East Baghdad in 2005, covering Sadr City to Salman Pak, and again from 2007 to 2008 in the Tigris River Valley south of Baghdad.
After leaving the Army following his second tour, he spent the next several years as a civilian photographer. By 2009 he was in Thailand photographing counterinsurgency operations along the Malaysian border. Then it was on to Egypt, and later to Afghanistan, where he embedded with U.S. troops deployed across Helmand, Kabul, and Kandahar.
In 2016, after more than a decade of being a conflict photographer — for both the government, and the civilian press — he dropped his flak, and left it all behind him. That's when the idea for Attention Servicemember took hold.
"I really needed to make a tangible object — something I could hold in my hands and say it wasn't all a dream, this really happened," Brody told Task & Purpose.
That book, Attention Servicemember, is a cross between a warzone photo album and a journal. The memoir is essentially a series of snapshots of an average soldier's time at war. As such, it is as confusing, chaotic, and incongruous as a deployment, with brief moments of violence followed by stretches of mundanity.
"I felt like it was really important to convey that I wasn't in control of my situation," Brody said. "I just, fucking, was there. I just wanted to show the chaos and absurdity of that experience."
On one page, there's a picture of coalition personnel grabbing an Iraqi teenager; on the next, a bloody notebook on the ground; a few more pages on, it's pizza night at the dining facility; followed by a photo of Iraqis in the gym working out. Sprinkled throughout are brief notes from Brody, often written as if he's laying in his rack, or on post, somewhere in Iraq. There are no captions to accompany the images, just those short vignettes, like from a diary: A reference to a patrol and a rocket attack during an ambush; then some musings about how the images from that day, or others, might be used or misused once they become public.
Attention Servicemember is part of a growing body of work to come out of America's longest period of warfare — presented from an enlisted perspective with a dose of belligerence, some bitterness, and a lot of first-hand experience mixed in. It's not unlike Combat Obscura, the Marine-made Afghan War documentary that the Corps wanted nothing to do with, or the many other works that have come out in recent years from those who formed their opinions of America's recent wars from the ground up rather than the top down.
Given that the Global War on Terror is once again back in the national spotlight, what with the rising tensions between the U.S. and Iran, ballistic missile attacks on American positions in Iraq, and a possible cease-fire with the Taliban, it felt right to chat with Brody about his book, and about the experience of pushing a version of America's wars that we now know never matched up with reality.
The following interview has been lightly edited for style and clarity.
James Clark: What was the inspiration for the book?
Ben Brody: I think I had been wanting to make a book out of my career, basically, for some time but it took awhile for me to really sort of understand what that book was going to be. What I wanted to say, how I was going to say it, whether I could say something different and something that would add to the many books that already exist. It wasn't until I sort of stopped being a war photographer that I figured out how I wanted to do it. When I came home, I was sort of struggling with the normalcy of being a citizen in America. I still felt that pull to go back to the war. So I thought, examining that would be the way forward with the book.
JC: Why did you design it the way you did? It has this nonlinear kind of narrative, there's not a lot of context for the photos we're seeing. It seems like a very deliberate choice. Can you walk me through that?
BB: I think the reason I wanted to make a book is because the format of a book gives you a lot of opportunities to play with how your pictures are perceived and how the stories land. Like I said before, I wanted the book to be accessible, even to people who had never been in the military, had never been in wars. But I also wanted it to feel legit to people who have. So I felt like the best approach for that design was to think about it like a military field manual. You know. Super straightforward, super direct. Unsentimental. So that's what we did in terms of the material.
The reason there are no captions... I write about some of the pictures but it's more up to you to process what the pictures are about because I wanted to convey how disorienting war is and the effect that it has on you as a person. Where me relaying the specifics or the "truths" about what's happening in the pictures is not as relevant as you just looking at them and absorbing the visual information.
JC: Sometimes that's how a deployment is, right? Over the course of a couple of days you're seeing this wide range of different things.
BB:Yeah. Particularly in Iraq. In Afghanistan when you get into a big battle it's usually something you planned out. It's something like you climbed over this huge mountain to go to this place where you knew you were going to fight. In Iraq it was like, you're just walking down the street on Tuesday and all of a sudden it kicks off. Then the next day you're opening a hospital. Then the next day it kicks off again. It's completely bizarre and random.
JC: Let's talk about the cover. Why that?
BB:Do you know what the cover is?
JC: I've never gotten one, but it looks like a re-enlistment package.
BB:Yeah. It's this postcard I received when I got out of the military. I was fully out, I was growing a beard, I was no longer Sergeant Brody, and I just got this postcard in the mail from human resources command that said exactly what it says on the cover: "Attention servicemember, time to re-enlist. Failure to respond could result in discharge."
So it's just this completely absurd threat that they were making. I felt like it said so much about the bureaucratic language and just how completely impersonal it is. Servicemember? How could you get more generic than that? Right?
JC: So you mention in Attention Servicemember that you took a photo of a soldier that's been used and reused again and again. It's the one of the guy who's in a field, it's at dawn, there's a helicopter in the background. It's set up to be an instant iconic photo.
Based on what you wrote it seems like it's taken on a life of its own, totally devoid of any context. How do you feel about that? (Note: In Attention Servicemember, Brody writes how the below image has appeared on everything from advertisements for vape pens to batteries, and used as cover art for books in favor of the war, and against.)
BB:It's just disorienting, is what it is. Of course all my military pictures are in the public domain and people can do whatever they want with them, but it's just so strange to have this picture that I have these really visceral memories of making, being completely stripped of its context and used in this commercial fashion.
JC: Yeah. Now, this question... Do you think you were a propagandist and how do you feel about that?
BB:Yeah. Certainly just by definition I was a propagandist. I was making work for state media. That's what propaganda is. I don't feel like I ever lied outright in terms of inventing facts or anything like that during my time in public affairs, but it was all about shaping the story. Like I said in the book, a good example is we would photograph hospital openings. Or cut the ribbon on this hospital building we just spent a lot of money on.
I knew, and everyone there knew, there weren't any doctors left in the area. No one was going to work in this hospital. It was going to be looted immediately and taken over by squatters. But of course the story and the press release would be one of building capacity and setting conditions for increased security and all these sort of double speak buzzwords. That got really frustrating, to have this one experience, this really broad experience being what every unit in the Third Infantry Division was doing, but writing about it in this very disingenuous way.
JC: That's one of the parts I connected with in a big way.
JC: My first deployment was in 2009 and '10 during the troop surge in Afghanistan, with 1st Battalion, 6th Marines in Marjah.
And that one, the stories I was writing was that it was an "Afghan National Army-led operation," yadda yadda, "building rapport," and that the whole "government in a box" idea was working great. The reality was vastly different. That was all bullshit and not true.
Yeah, I mean it's like, on the one hand I don't think we fooled anyone.
Like, did we fool anyone?
JC: That's just it. Sometimes it feels like, I don't want to say that we were lying, but maybe we were being disingenuous. But we were doing it in a way that was so easy to see through.
BB:Yeah, I think so. But at the same time I also felt like the civilian reporters were reporting on Iraq in an almost omniscient voice, like they have the truth.
My experience in Iraq and Afghanistan was that there was no truth. You can maybe report on what happened to you that day, but in terms of being able to really have a good understanding of this incredibly complex, chaotic, and absurd war, it was definitely beyond the grasp of anyone, or any one news story.
JC: In terms of photos that you took while you were deployed, were there some that under no circumstances would a public affairs officer ever approve of their release?
BB:Sure. Yeah. I don't think the Army is going to get real mad about any of the pictures that I released. I don't think they make anyone look bad. It's just that they don't conform to the very specific narrative that they wanted to push 15 years ago. So I think the pictures of soldiers, Iraqi soldiers and American soldiers roughing up civilians for no reason, those definitely would not be released. The sort of violence with which random teenagers were detained and incarcerated, that would definitely not show up.
But I think there are so many, just certain weird photographs that, you know, a soldier is dressing up in costumes and performing on the stage, that they would never be released just because PAO would think they were irrelevant. I think there's actually something really shocking and interesting and poetic about those pictures that do say a lot about the total absurdity and humor that defines the soldier's life in Iraq.
It was a big thing that I felt was missing from a lot of the books that I read and pictures, especially pictures I saw of the war. They didn't convey the humor, which is really at the heart of the military experience for me.
JC: Yeah. Absolutely. Do you think it's maybe because if you show photos of soldiers acting belligerent or foolish or silly or just dicking around, that it might undermine the more serious or heroic narrative or image they're trying to portray?
BB:Yeah. I think a civilian reporter is going to be wary of depicting their subjects in a way that makes them seem unserious. But for me I wasn't exactly an outsider. I was just photographing my own life. I wanted the book to be as hilarious as my life often was when I was in the military.
JC: Can you tell me a bit more about why you think it's important to have that in there? To let people know that a deployment isn't like a non-stop action flick, for the average guy.
BB:I wrote about that too. People have this idea that you never get any sleep while you're on deployment and it's like, sometimes that's true, but other times you have to watch out for bedsores.
There's nothing going on. I want every picture in the book to make you flip to the next page. I want every picture to be interesting. I'm not trying to make anyone bored with this book, but the monotony is interesting in itself, I think. I tried to make interesting pictures of the monotony.
JC: What do you hope to accomplish with Attention Servicemember? What do you want people to come away with once they put it down?
BB:I think I want people to have sort of a deeper understanding, a more nuanced understanding, of what happened in these wars. What the consequences of making propaganda are. How we arrived in this post-truth moment that we find ourselves in, politically. I really think there's a lot of answers to be found for that question in looking at the wars.
JC: There seems to be a renewed interest in questioning whether or not it's okay to be told one thing when we all suspect, or know, that another thing is happening.
BB:Yeah, what are the consequences of that? Not just politically — do we make bad political decisions because we don't have the facts? But what are the consequences for our culture? What are the consequences for who we are and how we experience the world? I thought a photo book was a good medium to try and ask those questions in an interesting way. That's why I made it.