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Oct 05, 2006

That's My Dad

I'd like to welcome Dennis Dunleavy to BAGnewsNotes as a guest blogger.

Dennis is a Professor of Communications at Southern Oregon University with an expertise in visual journalism and digital media.  Prior to joining academia, he had a twenty-year career as a photojournalist and correspondent.

While my style is to take a more political or psychological approach to interpreting a photograph, Dennis' interest has to do with the shifting media role of visual presentation and messaging, along with the social, cultural and moral questions that come into play.  Given these complementary interests, I believe Dennis' involvement will enhance this site as a vital source for the understanding of  pictorial news and visual politics.  As well or better, I believe he shares the same good instinct for what's interesting, and what's happening between the point and the view, as does The BAG.

(click for full size)

by Dennis Dunleavy

They're called Flat Daddies and Mommies -- life-size cardboard cutouts of soldiers serving overseas.

In an effort to ward off the pangs of loneliness, families of military personnel deployed to the Middle East have resorted to hauling around the likenesses of their loved ones. Flat Daddies and Mommies, usually poster-sized headshots mounted on foam board and supplied by National Guard units, have been seen at soccer games, weddings, and even wrapped in blankets on the couch watching television.

In the picture, the son smiles and looks to Flat Daddy the way sons do. It’s a tender, almost whimsical moment. And then reality sets in.

What does this picture mean if mommy gets lonely while Flat Daddy is away?

What does this picture mean if Flat Daddy never comes home?

The novelty of the Flat Daddy began shortly after the start of the Iraq conflict, but the trend has been catching on in recent weeks, especially with all the media attention.

During a war, photographs have always served as treasured reminders of those left on both sides of the front lines, but the latest fixation on families carrying life-size portable papas and mamas in the trunk strikes a tender, much more political nerve.

According to the White House, “Since September 11th, more than 243,000 members of the National Guard have been mobilized for various missions in the War on Terror.”

The real emotional cost of the Iraq and Afghanistan conflicts on U.S. military personnel and their families can never be truthfully told by warm and fuzzy Flat Daddy feature stories found recently in the Boston Globe and The New York Times. The media, in typical fashion, is masking the reality and angst these families now face. In other words, the pictures and words turn tumult into triviality.

What gives this Flat Daddy picture news value is not relevancy in terms of the cost of war, but quirkiness and novelty.

What boils beneath the warm and fuzzy, feel-good, “I miss daddy or mommy” story is more alarming. The war is becoming trivialized.

Beneath the surface of a boy and his Flat Daddy is the reality that daddy exists in a liminal state. Flat Daddy is caught in the vice grip of human memory. Flat Daddy and his real-life double somewhere in the desert exist in an ominous position between ambiguity and indeterminacy -- no news story can ever speak truth to this sort of power.

What appears at first a light-hearted picture of families coping with loss is in fact, a decisive and profound image of sadness and despair.

(hat tip: hbg)

(image: Linda Coan O'Kresik for The New York Times.  published September 30, 2006.


Thanks for the great post, Dennis. These cardboard images might also have an ironic effect in terms of the families involved on a personal level, too. What if the kids come to prefer the cardboard cutouts to their real flesh and blood parents? We don't know if this boy's actual father would ever ride on the swing set with his son. Flat daddies can become fantasy objects for their families--they're always there, never loose their tempers and don't make any demands. What happens when a real parent, perhaps traumatized by the war, comes home and has to compete with their cutout? Their families have learned to function without them. The transition from non-demanding Flat Daddy back to emotionally complicated Real Daddy could be a tough one for military families.


Virtual people in a virtual age. What if flat daddy comes back looking exactly like the picture-no hands, no legs. Who will push his swing? Anyway,they are less than a comma in the big book of history..

Great analysis! One crucial addition (that I have never seen commented upon in the media):
These "Flat Daddies" are always in uniform. (camouflage/combat fatigues)

How many Real Daddies wear their camos around the house....always?

So, not only is real daddy replaced by a two-dimensional simulacrum--but this simulacrum is *exclusively* military.

Instead of seeing their real dad, who might pulls a 9-5 at the office/warehouse, and only dons the combat gear one weekend a month, Flat Daddy is a full-time Warrior... not just a regular guy trying to pay the bills any way he can.

I can understand, of course, why fathers posted in Iraq would want their families to see them as they are NOW--i.e., wholly taken over by their military role.

But we need to recognize that these Flat Daddies are also a *militarization* of the HOME.

(will this make for a less jarring re-integration into the family? Or will it make it worse--trap returning fathers into their uniforms in the minds of their children? I honestly have no idea.)

Here's an idea, let's swap all the real Daddies and Mommies for Flat ones and see how long it takes for the price of oil to change!

Sorry, I forgot to extend a warm welcome to Dennis as guest columnist - first time out suggests some 'added value' (with all due respect Michael!) for all us! Good luck.

Flat Daddy is the perfect expression of a society intent on flattening all awareness and emotion with regard to the horrors of war. Flat Daddy is perpetually happy, non-violent, calm, with no trace of blood to be found on him here at home. Now imagine what an Iraqi Flat Daddy would look like.

From an opinion editorial run in Al-Jazeerah by John Chuckman: "I discovered on the Internet that people in Iraq know this program, perhaps learning about it from the drawling chit-chat between laughter and machine-gun bursts at American check points. Iraqis apparently have started their own version, necessarily rather low-tech in view of the lack of electricity and running water in so many places. After allowing the sun to bake them for a reasonable time, the bodies of Iraqi men crushed by American tanks or flattened by 500-pound bombs are gently peeled from the pavement. They are lovingly brought to what remains of the family home and propped against a wall in the basement bomb shelter, an important family-gathering place in George Bush's Iraq."

(oops, one more thought):

Imagine, for second, that these Flat Daddies were pictured in their normal clothing. (whether suit & tie or carharts & flannel)

How would it make the ENTIRE discourse about the war different?
(I think it would shift the discourse from heroic, "soldiering on" rhetoric, to one of disruption or even potential loss...)

And would the mass media (let's face it, not the sharpest crayons in the box) be even able to handle the cognitive dissonance of a report about a soldier, which included an essential visua that depicted him as a civilian??! How would they try to negotiate that text/image contradiction?

Flat Daddy's lack of legs in this photo is disturbing. To call a person at war 'flat' is so, I don't know – dead-like? There have to be Flat Mommies too. Flat references regerding women are something I try to avoid. It's a shame the Flat Daddies can't do the fighting, think of how many they could ship to a location on one plane.

Do they send a blow-up doll to the spouse?

This photo, + the entire concept, makes me queasy.

Hey, can we order a Flat President and Cabinet?

Welcome, Dennis!

Hey Daddy why don't you go and fight so I can get a cutout like Johnny ?

"What if flat daddy comes back looking exactly like the picture-no hands, no legs."

He'll have to be put in a bowl to beg,
Johnny I hardly knew yer.

"Hey, can we order a Flat President and Cabinet?"

Try IKEA for the cabinet. The president you have is flat enough already.

This is incredibly surreal. I had that disjointed feeling while reading it - that feeling that it was a put-on or some April Fool. I think I first felt this feeling of un-reality during the 2000 post election scrum.

It's like a parable - or a sophisticated satire maybe -something you'd expect to find in some political science fiction of Vonnegut or Orwell. The Iraq war has just jumped the shark. It was a farce to start with, and has seemed to devolve into a sick joke.

The image is disturbing as hell since, as others said, it implies daddy might not have hands or legs.

The nulmber of severely injured runs into the multiple tens of thousands right? Given sophisticated kevlar jackets and armored humvees, along with much better medivac and medical facilities, it's no wonder 'only' 2900 have died.

simulacrum, humonculus, avatar, ...doppelganger

Some cultures prohibit the the depiction of human form.

Meanwhile, our culture revels in it... and perhaps gets lost in the scintillating brilliance of pictures both still and motion. We get ...distracted.

Even the president--who says, "I know the images on your television screens are horrible"--can't escape it.

How about we send the cardboard cutouts to Iraq, and bring the people home?

Jesus' General had a post about this about a month ago. I like his revision of the idea with the Commander in Chief.

Welcome, Dennis. Nice, enraging post.

To take JT from BC's spot on comment from a different angle. . .
"Hey Johnny your daddy's in the war too, why don't you have a Flat Daddy like me?"

This is really, really disgusting.

incredibly surreal; disturbing as hell...

perverse! hideously obscene. image fills me with such turmoil, anger and shame that i can not contain my disgust. insulting; not just sickening: sick.

Expendable? not even: Disposable! Daddy without His Dignity!

child abuse.

a poster for the Cut & Run of American empathy.

a Rumsfeld rubber-stamp on a Letter of Condolence.

an Automated Death Cashier Machine saying, "Thank You."

=> a wincing metaphor for Your Unknown Soldier.

This whole "flat daddy" idea makes me a little nauseous. It's just so... wrong... on so many levels. I would seriously question the sanity and stability of anyone carrying one of these things around. It has that "sickness of the mind" feel to it.

I know kids have imaginary friends and pretend that inanimate objects are actually thinking and intelligent beings (heck, we all do that from time to time). But replacing your father or mother with a cardboard cut-out and treating it as though it were the same is disgusting. They're already intelligent to begin with.

I agree, wonderful analysis. I am truly scared for the emotional health of children born in times like these, and the idea that this child may only remember his father as a cardboard cutout if he never returns home fills me with despair. What reality are we running from, that people feel desperate enough to endow a piece of cardboard with a soul?

A whole generation of people, and probably even more, will suffer the longer this war lasts.

I agree with all of the above, it is disturbing to say the least. Are parents nothing more that a ever smiling cutout for their children?

Did anyone say Nineteen-Eighty-Four?

This story is heartbreaking to me, as I lost my father only two years ago, when I was 28. It tore my world apart. I remember clinging to the only picture of my father I had, wrapping myself in one of his flannel shirts and feeling soooo lost.

It breaks my heart to think that this child, and so many others will not get to have years with their Papas and Daddies (or Mommies and Mamas) because of this war. They will never get to have the relationship with their parents that so many of us take for granted.

This story is why I abhor violence, fear, hatred and conflict and have dedicated my life to trying to bring more peace and love into the world. I don't want others to feel the anguish, sorrow, loss, pain and utter despair I did when they are told that all they have left of thier fathers is a photo or a shirt.

For those who are into that sort of thing, please, please, please, pray the rosary (or whatever it is you guys pray) for peace.

Once again, thanks for a great story.

This little kid, playing believing is he an icon for the american people who still support this war?

Many of you have made great points. Images like this make me wonder if we've all fallen down the rabbit hole.

But, I guess these "fun" cut-outs make the whole thing seem more light and less scary. Nobody's think they were disturbing if they were stand-ins for daddies on long business trips. These poor families are kidding themselves in to think it's just a game. If in the same position I'd probably do the same.

I hope no kid ends up getting stuck with the cut-out when no real dad comes home... but, I doubt we'll be that luck.

Virtual parents and spouses for a virtual war, a war based upon cardboard lies and cheap deception.

In our little town up in the hills we will have a memorial service on Sunday for a Flat Daddy who became a Dead Daddy.

We'll dedicate a granite bench that looks down at the river, just below the Falls where the Real Daddy used to fish.

Mike left behind a wife and two little girls. His father says "I am so angry at George Bush. They threw away Michael's life without thinking, without even knowing who he was."

Can somebody make me a flat president? A substitute until we have a real one in this country?

Man, oh man. I find photographs to be powerful tools (which is why I totally dig this site) -- but this one literally took my breath away.

It's like looking at a freaking ghost. From the image alone, I thought it was representing the ghost of a father, dead from war, overlooking his son on a swing set. The cutout seems just enough higher in value than the rest of the photo that (and perhaps the camo jacket has something to do with it, too), but it's less like you're looking *at* flat daddy and more like you're looking *through* him.

What a striking and powerful shot. Thank you all for sharing.

Thanks for a very post, Dennis! I appreciate the insight that these images trivialize the sacrifices being made by these men and women.

As I imagine the emotional void these images are meant to fill, I also think of all the photos we have analyzed on these threads of GWB pretending...walking in front of or with soldiers, firefighters, little black kids, screened crowds of admirers. We're all just props to Bushco. So it seems fitting that even our soldiers have become cardboard figures.

On a practical note, I wonder what happens when a flat daddy becomes soiled, sticky, tattered and bent from one too many swingset outings with ice cream? Does flesh&blood mommy put it out with the garbage? Burn it like a flag? And do they get a second, third, fourth image then?

I don't know about anyone else but disposing of a life size image of my husband would just creep me out.

Wow! I saw the post last night and didn't have time to comment, and so many things have popped into my head since then, but I'll try to be brief.

Since this was the first I've heard of "Flat Daddies" and "Flat Mommies" (was someone at the National Guard involved in a Flat Stanley project?, I googled them to read more about it. The first article I read said:

"He’s quietly in the background on family outings to the grocery store, to restaurants, camping, even on Mary’s most recent visit to her gynecologist...

"The Holbrooks’ Flat Daddy has been to birthday parties, ballgames, school, the hairdresser, the babysitter’s with Logan, and to the funeral of Mary Holbrook’s mother.

"When the family first got him, they propped him up in a chair at dinner.

"'We put plates in front of him the first few days,' Holbrook said. 'But he didn’t eat much.'"

I wonder how the read daddy reacts to this.

I'm trying to be sensitive to the needs of these families, and I can see where a photo might be comforting, but taking "him" to a gynecologist appointment and putting food in front of "him" seems very strange... it's as if he's become an idol. It reminds me of seeing trays and trays of fruits and other food set it all in front of statues of "gods" to rot - as if statues could eat or "gods" needed food.

In the photo, it wasn't immediately clear that the "Flat Daddy" was on the swing; it sort of looked like he was stuck in the grass, which makes him look sort of like a tombstone. He also made me think of something that Northern Virginians would use to pretend they had fellow commuters in the car so they could use the carpool lanes. Or those lifesize cutouts of Presidents they used to have around D.C. so tourists could take their picture with the "President". (I had a great picture of me choking Ronald Reagan.)

These cutouts could be a good idea for an anti-war protest. Sometimes they have rows and rows of shoes or combat boots to represent the service members who have died, but what if they had these cutouts? Or family pictures with the deceased cut out of the picture and a black hole left where he or she should be...

If the country is going to take fathers, and especially mothers, and more especially, BOTH parents, away from their families, it should be for a fight that's absolute necessary. In Iraq, they're cannon fodder; they go into a neighborhood and snipers (increasingly sophisticated) fire at them or IEDs explode. But - to state the obvious - if they weren't there, the snipers and IEDs wouldn't be targeting them.

(And welcome, Dennis.)

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