Book Review: War is Beautiful by David Shields
It is not often that one comes across a photo book cover that is meant to be read. In fact, among the many photo books that have passed through my hands I do not recall a single cover that provided a brief introduction. And, heaps of praise from well-known people. The intro by David Shields starts with: “Yes, of course, from Homer to Matthew Brady to Robert Capa, war photographers have aestheticized war, but nothing prepared me for the hundreds of full-color pictures that appeared on the front page of The New York Times from the invasion of Afghanistan in 2001 and Iraq in 2003 until now.”
Well, to rank Homer among war photographers I do find a bit far-fetched but, obviously, what David Shields deplores is the aestheticisation of war and the subtitle of his War Is Beautiful sums his view up succinctly: “The New York Times Pictorial Guide to the Glamour of Armed Conflict”.
Shields reviewed New York Times front pages from the invasion of Afghanistan in 2001 until the present. What he found was that “the governing ethos was unmistakably one that glamorized war and the sacrifices made in the service of war.”
I must admit that I do not find this in the least astonishing for newspapers are primarily meant to entertain and not to educate us. And, above all, they should be profitable. In other words, nobody would want to be confronted with pictures of war atrocities over breakfast. Such newspapers simply wouldn’t sell, I imagine newspaper owners to argue behind closed doors.
That major news organisations such as The New York Times “and the U.S. government use each other to instantiate their own authority” doesn’t come as a surprise either: newspaper owners are pillars of society and not primarily given to challenging inquiry.
Nevertheless, the kind of photos we get to see in War Is Beautiful is truly astonishing. They leave you with the feeling that soldiers are not trained killers but fighters who care. It is not only a sanitized war that we get to see but a “pictorial guide” to … I’m not even sure to what.
Take the above shot, for instance. Is this some kind of weekend-sports? From the caption – that, unfortunately and rather typically for photo books, is not found on the page (where it belongs) but in the back pages – I learn that soldiers practice driving all-terrain vehicles in the Kuwaiti desert. By the way, David Shields provides – and I do find this most useful – the original caption by the photographer or photo agency and the caption that the editorial staff eventually used.
In his afterword, Dave Hickey characterises the combat pictures in this book as “no longer ‘lifelike,’ but rather ‘picturelike’“ and that is indeed aptly put. “This whole book, in fact, could have been photographed in California and Nevada.” In other words, these combat photographs suggest “that anywhere an American hangs his hat is home.”
War, as we all know, means to kill and to get killed. This is not part of “all the news that’s fit to print” for to show this would imply that things are not going well and not under control. Instead, we get to see images that are meant to reassure us that, as Wallace Shawn put it, “benevolent people are looking out for us, the situation is not as bad as we tend to think, and while problems do exist, they can be solved by wise rulers.”
War Is Beautiful
by David Shields
The New York Times Pictorial Guide to the Glamour of Armed Conflict
powerHouse Books, Brooklyn, New York 2015
For more information and to purchase the book: www.powerhousebooks.com/
Also published on Medium.