Peter Applebome: Soldiers’ Portraits Make the Costs of War More Visible

This week’s NY Times Metro Section has a piece Soldiers’ Portraits Make the Costs of War More Visible by the columnist Peter Applebome.

It is about Timothy Greenfield-Sanders, a photographer who lives in Putnam Valley, NY, and begins as follows:

On a windless fall day that feels like summer, the boats still as statues outside Timothy Greenfield-Sanders’s window on Lake Oscawana, Iraq seems a million miles away. But then, unless it’s your kid or your spouse, unless you’re directly involved with training soldiers to go to war or patching up the ones who come home with broken pieces, where isn’t that true?

And that seems precisely the point of the black portfolio case with its 13 16-by-20-inch photos sitting on Mr. Greenfield-Sanders’s living-room table in this Putnam County town just over the line from Westchester.

There’s Dawn Halfaker, a West Point graduate, holding the prosthesis for her missing right arm like a part of herself that’s become temporarily disconnected.

There’s Mike Jernigan, one eye socket empty, the other with a plastic eye studded with diamonds from the wedding ring his wife returned to him when they divorced after his return from Iraq. There’s John Jones, all business in his Marine uniform above the waist, two robotic legs naked below.

The subjects in the photos were featured in the HBO film “Alive Day Memories,” the widely praised documentary that tells the stories of 10 grievously wounded Iraq veterans.

Mr. Greenfield-Sanders, a well-known portrait photographer, was brought in to do portraits of the soldiers in the film, six from the Army, four from the Marines, who range in age from 21 to 41 and whose injuries include devastating brain damage, triple amputation and blindness. (Three others who were photographed did not end up in the hourlong documentary.)

And it would appear that after 30 years of capturing people’s personalities in his antique eight-by-ten camera, he’s still trying to come to grips with the process of producing images that have helped give a visual identity to a war that, it seems, is everywhere, but somehow invisible.

The column includes some of Mr. Greenfield-Sanders’s photgraphs, haunting reminders of the terrible price we have paid for our misadventure in Iraq.

Peter’s article ends as follows:

The film, which features the actor James Gandolfini, who was also its executive producer, is resolutely apolitical, its focus on the stories of the soldiers, not on the war they fought. The soldiers themselves, more often than not, don’t express regrets, say they would do it again. But Mr. Greenfield-Sanders, who says he opposed the war before it began, said that at the very least, the show and the portraits play an important role in bringing the invisible into the light, showing the faces, the scars, the missing limbs, the diamond and plastic eye, making the costs — or some of them — seem less than a million miles away

“I think we need to see this,” he said. “We don’t see the dead coming back in coffins. We’re sheltered from the injured. We just don’t see it. It’s all been brilliantly hidden from view. So this documentary is very important in letting us see these people, let us know who they are, and make us ask if this war is worth it.”

I saw it. You should, too.


1. Peter is both a neighbor and a friend; his house is just a few hundred feet from mine. I often pass him in the morning on my way to the gym and say hello as he walks his dog, Walter. He usually has a cell-phone to his ear, working I am sure on his next story.

He is a wonderful writer and a skilled reporter. He was the Atlanta Bureau Chief for the NY Times, and you find an example of his writing in his obituary for Coretta Scott King, widow of Martin Luther King, Coretta Scott King, a Civil Rights Icon, Dies at 78.

I read the obituaries in the Times regularly, not out of a morbid interest, but to see the stories of how people lived their lives. Many are also examples of good writing.

The Times is not alone in having good writing in the Obituary section. Shortly after I moved to New York I had dinner with my roommate’s family in New Jersey. When I mentioned my fondness for A. J. Liebling (after whom this blog is named) one of the guest, Harold Rosenberg, spoke out. I learned he was a well-known sportswriter of that era who had worked at the New York Herald Tribute. He mentioned that the obituary of A. J. Liebling in the Trib was written by Tom Wolfe, then a young reporter who went on to become the well-known novelist. Though the Trib had died a few years earlier, he kindly went through the archives and later sent me a copy of Wolfe’s obituary, which I kept for many years but seem to have lost along the way.

Peter is also a fellow former Boy Scout leader and the author of the book Scout’s Honor: A Father’s Unlikely Foray into the Woods. Peter and I view with equal distase the Boy Scouts’ homophobia, as does my son Michael, who became Eagle Scout before he turned fifteen. (By the way, several of his fellow rabbi’s-in-training at the Hebrew Union College are also Eagle Scouts.)

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