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25 posts categorized "John Lucaites"

Apr 15, 2010

The Children's Crusade

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by BagNews contributor John Lucaites

I don’t know what the average age of the American soldier is, but the typical photograph we have seen in recent times suggests that “he” is in his mid-twenties or later. And what such photographs show us are young men who have completed their training as fighting machines; indeed, many such images show us soldiers who have already seen battle and so, as young as they might be, they appear as veterans and far older than their years. What such photographs fail to show us—and in the process allow us to forget—is how much going to war robs such men of their youth and innocence … and no doubt much more as well.

When I first came across the photograph above I thought I was looking at a group of adolescents “playing” at being soldiers.

Indeed, the shooter in the middle of the image looks rather like “Ralphie,” the young boy from Jean Shepherd’s classic A Christmas Story who pines for a Red Ryder BB Gun only to have a department store Santa tell him, “You’ll shoot your eye out, kid!” And those around him don’t seem much older as they all look awkwardly out of place in their clean camouflage uniforms and wielding what at first glance appear to be toy versions of automatic weapons. But of course they aren’t toy weapons, and these apparently prepubescent adolescents are actually recruits in basic training, “prepar[ing] to clear and secure a room.”

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Mar 26, 2010

The New Oil

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by BNN contributor John Lucaites

Oil, we are often told, is the lifeblood of late modern, industrialized civilization (here, here, and here) and certainly there is plenty of evidence that we behave as if we believe it. But as the photograph of Iceland’s Kolgrima River shot from somewhere in the heavens suggests, the real lifeblood of any civilization on earth is water. I say shot from the “heavens” because it is less realistic than William Ander’s iconic Earthrise, a clearly mechanically produced image that implicitly foregrounds the technology that enabled it.  

Here the image has something of an abstract expressionistic quality to it that nevertheless underscores the naturalistic blending of land and waterways, a surface manifestation of an underlying essence accented by the soft contrast of the muted pastels. One can almost imagine the earth as a living entity, the blue veins throbbing in unison as they work to carry the nutrients necessary to bolster and sustain the ground. It is a beautiful and compelling—almost utopian—God’s eye view. 70% of the earth is covered by water, but 97% of that is found in oceans and seas, with another 2.4% in glaciers and polar ice caps. That leaves very little fresh water for all of its various needs, including most importantly consumption, sanitation, and agricultural production.

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Mar 13, 2010

A Moment's Rest

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by contributor John Lucaites

The caption reads, “Towards the end of a two-day road-clearing mission, a marine got a moment’s rest.”  

It is a reminder of war’s numbing brutality, not just as a matter of lives and limbs lost, but in terms of its impact on the human soul. Bent double, his shoulders slumped, he appears to be exhausted by the sheer weight of his weapon and equipment, if not more so by the stressful weight of his charge to clear a road of bombs on what appears to be a road to nowhere; we might say that he is suspended in a state of rest—somewhere between standing and sitting, or perhaps in a liminal state between life and death — but we surely can’t say that he is resting. His line of sight is directed downward. He can see no more than the craggy ground beneath his feet—if he see’s at all. And where he will go next is not clear as he seems literally to have come to the end of the road.  

Perhaps that’s the point.

War takes its toll in many ways, not least by how it deadens the human spirit by thoroughly disrupting the ordinary routines of everyday life like eating a meal or taking a bath, or as in the picture below, getting a restful night’s sleep.

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Aug 14, 2009

Beneath the Las Vegas Strip

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by contributor John Lucaites

The recession has been bad for just about everyone, but it has been much worse for some than others.

Among those hurt the hardest have been the homeless who have become both the frequent target of hate crimes as well as the aim of criminalization laws in 273 cities nationwide making it making it illegal to eat, sit, or sleep in public places. It is difficulty to fathom the fear that animates such violent reactions against those we might imagine are forlorn and hopeless—what is about such fellow citizens that evokes such animus? what makes them appear to be so undeserving of our charity?— but since it comes from both vigilantes (the rock) and the state (the hard place) we can only assume that it is driven by deeply seeded anxieties.

A photograph featured by the New York Times in a story on efforts to enact hate crime statutes against those who perpetrate violence against the homeless perhaps offers the hint of an answer. The photograph is of a couple who live in an underground flood channel beneath the Las Vegas strip.

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Jul 26, 2009

Remembering Apollo 11: Techno-Porn and Modernity’s Gamble

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by contributor John Lucaites

To many, the Apollo 11 moon landing is “the” moment of national triumph in the post-World War II era—marked by recent 40th anniversary slideshows of “remembrance" at major media websites (e.g., here and here). Ritualistic in their representation, these slideshows feature heroes (both the astronauts themselves, as well as the engineers and technocrats that made it all possible) and images of the earth as if shot from the heavens, a vantage that no ordinary mortal could ever achieve. But more than that, these slideshows are dominated by images that fetishize the technology itself, as with the photo above of the Saturn V rocket that hurled the Apollo 11 astronauts into space.

The photograph is a sublime display of raw and unfettered power. I am typically reluctant to concede the all-too-easy identification of a phallic symbol, but it is pretty hard to avoid here.

The long, thin projectile is literally “blasting” off from the launch pad, powered by nearly 7 million lbs. of fuel (according to the caption). And it is not hard to imagine it as a nationalist (notice the red, white and blue color scheme) and technological orgasm, a physical expression of force further accentuated by the sheer size of the photograph itself -- a 10 X 20 inch reproduction where I found it, exceeding the dimensions of my 22-inch monitor and requiring I scroll up and down to see the entire thing. In its own way the photograph functions like the Playboy foldout that requires the viewer’s active participation in order to take in the “larger than life” object of desire.

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Jul 09, 2009

The Third Crusade

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by contributer John Lucaites

The “Summer Surge” has begun in Afghanistan, though more with a whimper than a bang if we measure it in terms of media attention. The death toll creeps higher each day, but one has to search hard to find any mention of it. The stories that do appear on a war that is now eight years old (and counting) tend not to be headline fare in most U.S. news outlets, and those stories that do appear exude something of an everyday, taken-for-granted quality about the whole matter.

While news stories seem lacking, there have nevertheless been a small number of slide shows cropping up at various news outlets (here and here, for example) over the past several weeks.

What marks these slide shows is their almost singular banality as they repeat over and again the same, tired, visual clichés for representing war that we have become accustomed to in recent times: tight close-ups of marines—in many cases young boys trying to appear like hardened veterans—expressing intense and stern determination; images of U.S. troops preparing to do battle or returning from battle or approaching and searching what appear to be empty villages or fighting the boredom of war or playing games with local children; photographs that feature the advanced technology of U.S. warfare, including weaponry, night vision capabilities, and so on.

Rarely and only occasionally do we see some actual fighting—and perhaps for good reasons—but on the whole what we are shown are stock pictures we have seen before and but for the fact that they emphasize a desert locale, there is nothing particularly distinctive about them. In short, there would appear to be no news here.

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May 21, 2009

Learning For Life

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by contributor John Lucaites

The scene above could be an image of a drug bust somewhere in Mexico or Colombia, or it could be a rescue scene from an episode of 24 or The Unit. But it's neither. Instead, it is a photograph of a group of Explorers in California “portraying Border Patrol agents rushing into a room filled with fake poison gas” and “aiming their weapons at a man before realizing he was a wounded hostage.”

Explorers is a coed affiliate of the Boy Scouts run under a program called “Learning for Life.” According to its website, the primary goal of the program is “career exploration … designed to help young people make intelligent decisions regarding their future.”

According to The Times feature, 35,000 Explorers participate in the career program in “law enforcement,” which, among other things, trains 14-21 year olds in how to “confront terrorism, illegal immigration and escalating border violence.” In short, it is something of a paramilitary version of Jr. ROTC which populates many high schools and reduces citizenship and patriotism to the model of military life.

Military and paramilitary organizations are vital and necessary arms of government, to be sure. That said, one has to wonder if such militaristic “Learning for Life” programs offer the most effective model for animating critical thinking and a productive civic life amongst our most impressionable citizens.

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Mar 23, 2009

Traces of Everyday Life on Desolation Row

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by contributor Robert Hariman

These photographs were placed on a Facebook page to provide continued documentation of the closing of the Rocky Mountain News. The photos were taken on March 19, several weeks after the paper went out of business. This picture could be from more than one corporate office today.

You are looking at the hardware of the white collar workplace: computer, phone, other electronic paraphernalia, ergonomic chair, files, wastebasket, paper littering every surface. . . . . Welcome to my world. On the good days, a place like this is humming with energy, activity, and deadlines, and, of course, arguments, delays, and frustrations, but also coffee breaks, conversations, and jokes. Places like this becoming living communities where people spend a lot of their time, give a lot of their talents, and find an important source of meaning, identity, and self-respect.

In the days of The Organization Man, the office was thought to be the source of Bob Dylan’s Desolation Row. When you look at the shabby, barren, modernist decor, the label seems to apply again. But times had changed and now work looks pretty good, and the desolation comes not from the work but from business shutting down. When only the hardware is left, there’s nothing there.

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Mar 14, 2009

Your Turn: Barbie Celebrates Her Big Five-Oh

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by contributor John Lucaites

Eddie Adams’ infamous Pulitzer Prize winning photograph of the execution of a Viet Cong prisoner in the middle of a Saigon street is among a small handful of photographs regularly referred to when one considers the Vietnam War.

As with so many other iconic photographs, it retains its symbolic value through mass circulation and reproduction as it is appropriated, performed, and parodied according to particular cultural and political interests. I was recently reminded of the ubiquity of such usages by a collection of examples at the site, frgdr.com. A quick Google search turned up still others, including the one above by an artist named minipliman.

I leave it to you to interpret this image as it marks that key cultural event this year, the mass media celebration of Barbie’s fiftieth birthday.

Adapted from a post at No Caption Need. Other NCN posts regarding the Eddie Adams photo can be found here, here, and here.

(image 1 Eddie Adams/AP. image 2: © 2009 by minipliman at deviantphoto.eu)

Mar 04, 2009

Saving The Women Of Afghanistan


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by Contributor John Lucaites

President Obama’s declaration that we will remove all combat troops from Iraq by the end of 2010 is something of a moment for celebration (if leaving a country that we occupied and brought to its knees under false pretenses can be seen as a moment of joy). The pleasure of that announcement, however, has to be mitigated a good deal by the fact that he has also committed an additional 17,000 troops to the war in Afghanistan (on top of the 32,000 already there).

Al Qaeda is ensconced in the caves and hills of the Afghanistan mountains and the Taliban does arguably pose a national security threat to the U.S., though whether it is a winnable war or not—or what a victory here would actually look like—are certainly open question (just ask the leaders of the former Soviet Union … if you can find any of them). But what is troubling is the way in which we seem to have convinced ourselves that the reason we having been fighting this war, at least in part, has been to save the women of Afghanistan.

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