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Oct 01, 2007

Steps Without A Casket

(click for full size)

Besides the fact I have never seen such an exercise, this image is telling for several reasons.

The casket that is not there reminds me of the way this war's symbols and rituals of death have been relegated, in large part, to the imagination.  What I'm also noticing lately, after a great deal of attention on wounded veterans, is how photojournalists seem to be giving more focus to funerals, grieving families, and the homes, rooms and articles of soldiers who have passed.

The author of this picture is Andrew Lichtenstein, a New York-based documentary photographer and former Open Society Institute Justice Fellow.  He writes:

The picture is from the funeral of Bunny Long, a Cambodian American marine who was killed in Anbar province on March 10, 2006, and buried outside of Modesto, California on March 22nd, 2006.

The actual carrying of the casket in a military funeral is a very formal ritual. So much so, that many honor guards who have been assigned the task choose to practice at the graveside before the funeral party has arrived. But the "dry run" is not formal at all-that is, it is not a built in part of the military funeral ceremony, just a rehearsal.

I was able to make the photograph because I had been to plenty of funeral before this one, and saw on several occasions military honor guards practicing their steps without a casket. So it was a picture that I was aware of, in that I had seen it, but not found the right light, moment, or mood.

At the Long funeral, which was held at a veterans cemetery in Hughson, it was really raining. I am not someone who minds the rain, in fact I kind of like it. But this was a relentless, cold, downpour. I like the picture because it is something that I admire about the marines, or soldiers in general, or for that matter anyone with heart. Here they were dressed in their finest uniforms, and it did not stop them for one second from leaving the shelter of the funeral tent and walking in the rain, stepping in the puddles with their dress shoes. It seemed to sum up not only the sorrow of the occasion, but also the spirit.

I encourage you to view the slide show drawn from Andrew's series "Never Coming Home."  It is edited and produced by BAGnewsNotes contributer Nina Berman, and is the first in a series hosted by the award winning progressive site, Alternet.

In the next couple of weeks, Nina and Alternet will offer additional photo essays by a number of world-class photographers including TIME photographer Christopher Morris presenting pictures from "My America," inside the Bush bubble; Robert Capa Award winner Paolo Pellegrin from "Double Blind,” the war in Lebanon; and National Geographic photographer Lynn Johnson, who documents hate crimes across the U.S.  Each will be accompanied by an interview with the photographer or co-author of the work.  (Full disclosure: The BAG is a sponsor of the series.)

Given the parallels, I'd like to also mention a piece by North Carolina photographer Jeremy Lange.  It's not surprising to me that his photo essay, The Longest Road Home, is so complimentary to Andrew's.  In both cases, as I mention above, the de facto moratorium by the government over recognizing the funerals and memorial rites of Iraqi vets seems to have only spawned a greater desire to see for ourselves.

Never Coming Home photo essay here.  To purchase in paperback.

(image: ©Andrew Lichtenstein.  Modesto, CA.  March 22, 2006.  Used by permission)


The photo, along with the slide show were truly moving. Following your analysis, I have often wondered what families feel when they are given that folded flag and see that practiced ritual at the burial site. The slideshow contained an excellent shot along this line of thought.

The photo in question had a man sitting on a couch with his family almost cradling the triangle of fabric. This is all he has left. We are again struck most by what is missing.

The symbols and rituals of military death are so practiced and controlled that it's easy to forget the people behind it are just that, people. They might not get it right the first time. Those attending are also people, and sometimes no amount of ritual will prepare you for this loss.

Truly an amazing series.

This is a stunning photograph and, as you say, rather symptomatic of the whole mess in the Gulf. It recalls for me John Taylor's argument about how the "body vanished" in the first Gulf War in his book Body Horror.

Beautiful photograph, everything just right. The BAG blog at its finest. No other words.

WhiteHat-WhiteGlove Loch-Steppe

Having witnessed only one military funeral for a WW II veteran, I was deeply moved by this picture. Americans have so few experiences with moments of quiet and sincere dignity, that this one particularly stands out. Respect for the dead is something which modern people don't often seem to have. In the South, it is still the custom to pull off the road and stop, while a funeral procession passes. What the official policy about military funerals for our soldiers killed in Iraq is, is simply and purely, an official policy of dis-respect for the dead. The military has a fine tradition which carries on, in spite of the Bush Administration's manipulation of the facts. Nearly 4000 of our men and women have been killed there because of lies, perpetrated by our leaders. More pictures of this reality, please.

Look at these strangely similar altered photographs from the "War Redacted" seriesby Minnesota artist Camille Gage:

"What I'm also noticing lately, after a great deal of attention on wounded veterans, is how photojournalists seem to have turned more attention to funerals, grieving families, and the homes, rooms and articles of soldiers who have passed."

I got tears in my eyes at the first image in the slide show. It's a deeply moving, very powerful series. The photo here, of the marines with the missing dead, haunts.

But what is going on? I regard this as moving but impotent photography. Heart-rending, yes, powerful, but I start from a position of horror at what Buscho has done to US and to Iraq. Someone who supports the war and thinks these young soldiers have died in the "transcendent challenge of our time and of our children's time..." (to quote John McCain) will also look at these pictures and feel the sorrow of young lives lost.

Somehow, Iraq is so FUBAR that pictures can't catalyze political response. We are horrified, we can wallow in our sadness at the cost in human lives, but where is the anger that our leadership has failed us? Where is the cries for change? Bushco isn't going to change direction or bring US soldiers home, and, in fact, proposes that the only way to move forward is to bomb Iran. As a nation, we are stuck, paralyzed.

My frustration has nothing to do with the photographer--Lichtenstein is very, very skillful, and he has produced something evocative. In his very interesting interview with Nina Berman, he comments that he started this series because he was angry, and he also observes that "... in many ways, America is still fighting the Vietnam War, that is we are still fighting the cultural and class divisions that erupted during the Vietnam War." So if that is true, one wonders what images would bridge those divisions. Where is the vision of a future that moves can move us forward?

Btw, I don't like the euphemism "passed" for "died." These are young soldiers who died or been killed because George Bush invaded Iraq. Let's not soften the pain. George Bush caused their unnecessary deaths and should be tried as a war criminal.

The textures in the image, such as the asphalt, the raindrop circles, the wetness.. make it seem real, and vivid. You can imagine how they feel in the picture. The missing casket is present in their minds and in ours.

The Bag got it right that we are left to process this war in our imaginations. How many dead were found on the streets of Baghdad today? Can you picture them? What do 2 million refugees look like? Do you think we all process that information the same way? Do you have a 'mental stock photo' for key phrases, like "roadside bomb", "sunni insurgent", "oil pipeline sabbotage", "called in air strikes", etc? Each time we hear these, we get an image in our minds, but it's not real. Each time, real blood is flowing. The scene has specific texture. Specific individuals are being HURT.

I'm with PTate in that I'm filled with ANGER and I see images from that perspective. I open the Bag everyday with the thought - "Today, we'll see the proof of the evil of our age, and in seeing it, it will be exposed and this will force us to change our course". Every day I have that thought. Some days I actually see the proof, too, but never do we see the change.

Seeing this image reminded me of a song by David Rovics, a singer-songwriter and passionate advocate for justice, a man whose talent and commitment I admire a lot. BTW, Cindy Sheehan does as well. (

David has a song titled "Four Blank Slates," focused on a Fourth of July celebration at which ordinary folks gather to commemorate fellow citizens who died in battle. Thing is, the memorial has four blank slates. The implication/anticipation, obviously, is that we will have more wars, more deaths, more sacrifice for...what? Halliburton? Blackwater? Exxon/Mobil?

In this image we have practice for funerals yet to come, the prelude to carving names on the slates. Same principle, though.

Why can't we anticipate, work for, practice for peace? Why can't ordinary Americans be focused on peace and freedom rather than on wars of aggression and unwelcome occupation? Why should that not be the theme of our Independence Day celebrations?

HBO recently re-broadcast Spike Lee's documentary on Katrina/NOLA and I watched it all again. There was one sequence of the funeral processions where the men were all dressed in black and the procession was that twisted step-back step that some of them do. The fact that they had lost their instruments (and probably most of their clothes) didn't stop them marching in the dirge. This photo recalls that......the rain, dark clothes and the lack of a coffin lends to the air of sadness. Then, your eye notices the one red stripe on the pant-leg of the forward marine. The punctuation mark to the solemnity.

I wonder if the administration does not know that when you ban something, it just makes it ever more attractive, alluring, just out of reach. Like banning candy from a 4-y/0 child only makes them sneak around looking for candy. The very thing this administration wants us to ignore, is the very thing that fascinates us. We hunger for photographic proof of the cost in human lives of this occupation. We must see with our own eyes the result of the evil that is done in our name. Would that that would catapult us into action.

Thanks you Thank you Michael for covering the deaths of our brave soldiers.
I feel so honored to be able to see these photographs.

When you do this you multiply the honor of those fallen heroes as well as those still serving in our military in Iraq and Afghanistan.

Please keep it up and if possible can you also go further to show the fallen troops' ceremony as they first return to American soil.
This has been far too under-covered.

Until we can witness and honor our deaths we will never understand our life or those who died to keep our lives free.
Again thank you so much for this.

The longer I gazed the more I keep thinking *if only we could find such reverence for the living* and after much searching found an articulate voice which expressed many of my thoughts.

The Human Tolerance Walls Can Speak Of
Pierre Tristam/Candide’s Notebooks, January 31, 2007

"Let the silent but revered equality they have gained in our eyes speak for equal tolerance and reverence for the living. Maybe then could their death gain a measure of usefulness.

..! simply stunning. haunting. maddening!

a, perhaps the cultural icon for the Bush era of unknown known soldiers

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