Theater of War: The Pretend Villages of Iraq and Afghanistan
In recent years, I have been making photographs within fictitious Iraqi and Afghan villages on the training grounds of U.S. Army bases, places largely unknown to most Americans. The villages are situated in the deep forests of North Carolina and Louisiana, and in a great expanse of desert near Death Valley in California. Each base features clusters of villages spread out over thousands of acres, in a pretend country known by a different name at each base: Talatha, Braggistan, or “Iraq.”
The villages serve as a strange and poignant way station for people heading off to war and for those who have fled it. U.S. soldiers interact with pretend villagers who are often recent immigrants from Iraq and Afghanistan, who have now found work in America playing a version of the lives they left behind. The remainder of the village population is drawn from the local communities near the Army bases, including spouses of active duty soldiers as well as military veterans of America’s wars in Vietnam and Korea, some of whom are amputees and who play the part of wounded villagers in their new identities.
The villages are places of fantastic imagination. The actors continue playing their roles as police officers, gardeners, and café owners during the long stretches of day between training exercises. Some villagers plant crops that they harvest months later for food for their lunches and dinners. Others pass their leisure time painting murals on the interior walls to beautify their surroundings, or making arts and crafts to trade with other villagers.
Sometimes I visit the villages with access provided by the military’s public affairs office; other times I am a role player myself, playing the character of a war photographer for the “International News Network.” Here, backstage in the war on terrorism, I see insurgents planting a bomb in a Red Crescent ambulance; American soldiers negotiating with a reluctant mayor; a suicide bomber detonating herself outside of a mosque; and villagers erupting in an anti-American riot. The designers and inhabitants of these worlds take great pride in the scope and fidelity of their wars-in-miniature. By day’s end, hundreds of soldiers and civilians lay dead—the electronic sensors on their special halters indicating whether friendly fire, an improvised explosive device, or a sniper’s bullet has killed them.
In 2006 and 2010, I traveled by plane, ferry, and bus to the naval station and joint detention facility at Guantánamo Bay, Cuba.
On this small spit of land, on approximately 45 square miles held in perpetual lease by the U.S. military, actors from the world stage converge: American interrogators attempt to wrest information from Muslim “unlawful enemy combatants"; Jamaican and Filipino guest workers are imported by contractors to serve food, cut hair at the barbershop, and wash the laundry; and on the base’s residential streets that resemble an American suburb, a handful of Cuban families who fled Castro’s takeover of the island live out their days in exile. Against this backdrop, there are also strikingly mundane activities that take place: children go to school, guards pick up coffee at McDonald’s and Starbucks, and backyard barbeques are planned.
Restrictions by the military made making photographs of people at GTMO impractical, so I chose instead to photograph the environments that people create and inhabit rather than the people themselves, the stage sets rather than the players.
Hearts and Minds
Beginning in 2007, I have been making a series of portraits at the "Virtual Army Experience," a traveling road show and recruiting event the U.S. Army takes cross-country to NASCAR races and air shows. Participants wait in line to enter a large tent, where they play video games produced by the army and meet decorated soldiers who have returned from service at the fronts in Iraq and Afghanistan.
These portraits remind us of the computer and television screens through which most of us have lived the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, and the filters of distance and media that create for us our own virtual homeland experience. The army reveals itself to be a keen reader of American adolescent emotions and passions, and employs this understanding through a brilliantly designed and bloodless simulation of the thrill of the fight. The portraits also offer us a glimpse into a future that some leaders and strategists have begun calling “the long war,” and suggest to us the young people who will enlist in the coming years in the real army.