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Jun 11, 2007

Asking Questions About America: Fleet Week #1

(click for full size)

About two weeks ago, photographer Nina Berman sent me a series of photos she had shot during Fleet Week, and I've been studying them ever since.

Not familiar with Fleet Week?

Held yearly since 1984, 3,000 Sailors, Marines and Coast Guardsmen disembark in New York City to celebrate the sea services.  In that stretch, there are dozens of military displays and demonstrations, as well as public tours of various naval ships. This year, according to, there were six ships involved, including multipurpose amphibious assault ship Wasp at Manhattan’s Pier 90, and guided-missile cruisers Hue City and San Jacinto, guided-missile frigate Groves, guided-missile destroyers Churchill and Oscar Austin, and Coast Guard Cutter Katherine Walker moored at Staten Island’s Stapleton Pier. This year, more than 76,000 people visited the ships alone.

Given the robust schedule, Nina moved across the city, catching a helicopter demonstration; a Times Square demonstration of "static displays," martial arts and military dogs by the 10th Marine Regiment from Camp Lejeune; and Marine Corps Day in Central Park, incorporating vehicles and weapons used by Marine infantry battalions and sniper teams.

What makes the photography almost endlessly compelling is the way it cover so much territory.  Woven through are themes and issues involving militarism, security, NYC, 9/11, race, class, guns, youth, identity, the uniform, and more.  Just like Nina's "Marine Wedding" image, which circulated so widely last February, raised so many questions about the impact of our involvement in Iraq, I find these images equally determined to investigate the current state and status of post-9/11 America.

What I'd like to do, barring major news interceding, is to post an image or two over three days, asking a different question of each.

In the article I linked to above, a Manhattan resident, Matthew Sheller, is quoted as following:

“I think it's encouraging having the [Sailors and Marines] here in town.... “I think sometimes New York needs a rejuvenation of American spirit.”

Nina wrote me that, from Central Park, to Orchard Beach in the Bronx, to Times Square, she never heard a word of dissent about the military displays --  except one woman in Times Square who said to her friend: "Let's get out of here, this is wigging me out."  My thoughts move in the same direction.  The primary question I have, looking at this shot from Times Square of a Marine Corp exhibition (as well as all of the photos Nina showed to me, in fact), is: Where's any irony?

>>Note:  If you have questions or comments for Nina, she'll be available to answer in the discussion thread<<

Other Fleet Week posts:
Black Boys With Guns: Fleet Week #2
It's Not A Hand Gun, It's Military:
Fleet Week #3

Nina Berman website.
Nina's Purple Hearts: Back from Iraq

(image: Nina Berman/Redux. NYC, New York, May 26, 2007.  Used by permission)


When I lived in New York in the 1980's and early 1990's, experiencing Fleet Week with sailors tromping around the city in their whites, was akin to the surprise of seeing an exotically-dressed native from a foreign country. It was such an extremely rare thing to see anyone with a uniform of the armed services in town. Everyone stared, not with hostility, but, as if these young men were strange creatures.

It reminds me of what John Glenn said when New York gave the astronauts a ticker tape parade: " Hell, we thought New York wasn't even a part of the United States!" So, the aprehension of the "visitor" was probably equal to that of the "invaded."

As a Civil War re-enactor, I try to relate the challenges faced by any soldier.

People often want to heft the "tool of the trade" and I try to give them some proper procedure: "Don't touch the trigger until it's time to shoot." So..., I must point out no one is watching the kid in the red shirt and that weapon is "out of control."

...oh, dear. Nina Berman, why does this picture frighten me so much? Nothing quite like an evangelical vigilante to go after the bad guys, and the guys who aren't good, and they guys who aren't good enough.

Unfortunately, a significant majority continue to believe the myths so pervasive in our society: we fight to "defend freedom," the causes for which we fight are always just (or appear so when a war begins), others hate us for our freedom and prosperity, the military is "protecting us," and unstated but deeply held nonetheless "God is on our side." The latter utterly ironic in this nominally "Christian" nation, when violence is rationalized so readily and conducted so routinely - and is of course totally contrary to the example of Christ himself. There is an urgent need to resist militarism in all its insidious guises. Our culture (government, corporations, media, and of course the armed forces themselves) promotes the military as a noble profession, when in fact the real purpose is unavoidably linked to killing as one prominent example, the documentary “The Ground Truth,” recently demonstrated so compellingly. This is not to demonize those who have been lured by the seductive appeal of the military’s marketing / recruiting campaign directed at our young people. However, if we are ever to begin to crack the largely uncritical acceptance of the military culture that enables corrupt politicians to cynically build support for their wars, we need to resist their efforts to gain the tacit endorsement of responsible organizations, including our churches.

So is it just me that finds the military just handing off weapons to civilians (including a kid) on the street really weird. I assume of course this was officially sanctioned.

Perhaps it is my father's WWII marine mindset that was drilled into me as a child: the importance of your weapon ("you're useless without it"), that it wasn't a toy ("this is my rifle and this is my gun.."), and you sure as hell didn't let any body f*ck with it who didn't know anything about it.

As to having sailors here in Boston, it happens on occasion and I wish it would happen more. I'm always struck by their youth and feel great pride in them. I also fear for them in remembering the new warfare of anti-ship missiles and combustible aluminum armor.

We have Fleet Week in San Francisco too -- you can hear lots of complaints. Mostly about overflights by the Blue Angels. I find that image thoroughly creepy -- and if I came by with my camera, I'd take a lot of pictures too, mostly to remind the civilian participants that they are choosing to make a show of themselves in support of militarism.

All those smiles!
Interesting, I thought the guns did not have that kind of power.

After pondering this image for a while, I was struck that the guns are held by the women and children. The trained soldiers are standing by, doing PR.

My first interpretation was that no one is actually protecting the women and children. Militarism has permeated the culture without actually making us safer. The second impression, based on the non-verbals, is the civilians imagine that these--the big guns, the soldiers in their camouflage--are props in a jolly show.

As a U.S. Coast Guard veteran and parent (my spouse is a Navy veteran as well), I am shocked and disgusted at the sight of a child my son's age handling a weapon. Guns are NOT for children. I am not prudish or naive about weapons use, having served armed on regular and LE (Law Enforcement) details -- but I am saddened and angered that our armed services not only pump out/pimp out the idea of weapons and the military as *sexy* (especially to inner city and small town kids). The world suffers enough from the use/abuse of "child soldiers" in other parts, so why, why, why promote this among our own youth? Military recruiting is awful enough on high school campuses... but this is just reprehensible.

And a report came out just today that of all categories, military men who have been trained in the use of guns have double the rate of suicide of all other men. I'm sure that will ease the worries of all mothers watching their young boys playing soldier.

ero guro nansensu

ok, i've looked at all three fleeting weakly installments and this is the one that turns me on.


the 'handgun' thing... those images look like amateur snapshots of a party in the park, either in Oakland or East L.A., etc. And then the 'black boys' thing, child blaxploitation? again, the photography itself is such a disappointment: the exposure, composition, framing, etc.

otoh, this image reeks eros.

'Fleet Week' is all about SEX, honey. You've got what, ~3000 horny guys comin' into town after 'lebenty-seven months at sea, all flush with pent-up pay and bags of testosterone ~ and what they got on their minds is what's grinning at ya front and center in this image.

considering the total dis-connect that all of the other targets of all her other shots seem to have with our snapshooter, it looks to this frogman like little miss Hot Pant's cruisin' miss Nina's big Canon EOS-1D Mark II, Big Time ;-)

I'm a USN veteran, now a professional, who works in NYC. Fleet Week c. 1990 was never like this. Visitors could board our ship and take a tour. They could buy a t-shirt.

This recruiting has nothing to do with the "fleet" or the Navy. It is Marine and Army recruiters trying to meet their impossible quotas.

It is a disgrace.

Is that a gun she's holding or is she just glad to see me?

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