Sleeping Soldier

Almost every detail in the above photo evokes the homely side of FOB life as I lived it and now remember it.  Sleeping with your uniform on.  The blue linen—apparently standard issue across Afghanistan.  The camouflage poncho liner.  The unfinished plywood.  The array of equipment and personal possessions.  The empty water bottle.  The green tiles with white flecking.   The low light.

The picture was taken by Tim Hetherington, the British photographer killed in Libya last week. It is part of a series called Sleeping Soldiers, easily available on Hetherington’s website.   Hetherington was Sebastian Junger’s partner in the creation of War and Restrepo, the book and movie, respectively, that describe a year in the life of men stationed on Combat Outpost Restrepo in Afghanistan.  Restrepo was not so far as the crow flies from where I was in Khowst, though Camp Clark, where I spent most of my year, was far cushier.  But for the Rough Rider ETTs who took turns manning Spera Combat Outpost, close by the Pakistan border, the stories are very much one and the same.

So, I was well aware of Junger’s and Hetherington’s works, and truth to tell felt an affinity as much with the author-artists as with the soldiers who are their subjects.  We were all well past youth, with the benefit of good educations and much life experience—much more so than that of the soldiers Junger and Hetherington described and with whom I served.  This difference, I feel, allows a certain perceptual tension to creep into War and Restrepo, and perhaps too into my own effort to make sense of the war and my involvement in it.  Which is also to say that Junger’s and Hetherington’s account of the psychical and emotional cost of a year spent in close proximity to so much violence, fear, and death might say as much about them as it does their subjects.

For example, it is not clear that Junger and Hetherington don’t suggest the soldiers on Restrepo weren’t  in fact the luckiest American men alive–as if they had won some lottery that allowed them, for a year, to be just as tough and just as badass as they could imagine themselves to be.  That the physical and emotional damage, no matter how great, was worth it.  That the sum total of the experience was to make those who were not there with them to “hold their manhoods cheap,” as Shakespeare has Henry V say in the famous St. Crispin’s Day speech, because they did not get the same chance as the Restrepo warriors to reduce their life to its elemental activities–sleep, eat, patrol, shoot—and its elemental emotions—fear, courage, camaraderie, loyalty.

The tension is reflected in the book jacket photographs of War.  The cover photo—a close-up of a wary, brooding face of a soldier—addresses the individualistic and psychological aspect of the war experience.  But the back photo—of a group of young soldiers engaged in a communal wrestling match—is pure glee and celebration.  Shirts off, impressive muscles and inked-up skin on full display, the soldiers appear to be enjoying where they are and each other’s company immensely.  Nothing, the picture seems to say, could be better than this insane, potentially deadly aberration or parody or escape from civilization.  It is war unashamedly presented as the time of the soldiers’ lives, and Junger and Hetherington appear not so much wondrous as jealous.

Much of Hetherington’s work has this jangled nerve quality as it channels the mixed-up swirl of pride and guilt characteristic of down-range, outside-the-wire infantrymen.  Sometimes too much so, and in troubling ways, which is why I like Hetherington’s Sleeping Soldiers series as an antidote to his hyped-up action shots.  Scenes of sleeping soldiers might be the only way Hetherington—and his subjects—can escape the self-conscious, performed and observed quality of the fantastical life they are living.

Interesting interview with Hetherington here:

UPDATE:  Leave it to an observer as sharp as author Siobhan Fallon to identify what is most striking, most telling, and most poignant about Tim Heatherington’s photo above:  the bare feet of the sleeping soldier.


3 Responses to “Sleeping Soldier”

  1. Chris Brown Says:

    Hey Pete,

    Any thoughts on the news of Osama bin Laden’s Big Sleep?


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