American culture has an insatiable appetite for war. We like talking about it, arguing about it, protesting it, and revealing its ‘true nature’. In our history we romanticize war and go to great lengths defending it, taking a stance on every possible side for how and who and why we should be fighting. Above all, we love consuming photos, films, novels, and video games with war as the theme, regardless of the perspective offered. Now, in a hot moment of fake news, misinformation, and out-of-context ‘gotcha’ journalism, Ben Brody’s Attention Servicemember has entered the scene with perfect timing.
With 15 years as a war photographer behind him and over 50,000 images to choose from, Brody has created 300 pages of writing, photographs, and pre-released propaganda to offer an alternative perspective of the wars he witnessed as a combat photographer. Brody enlisted with the army as a photographer in 2002 during a time of disillusion with life at home, and left for Afghanistan in hopes of witnessing his generation’s version of the Vietnam War. The work in Attention Servicemember is compiled of two tours as an official army photographer and one as an independent journalist
The theme of censorship and military propaganda runs central to Attention Servicemember. As an Army Photographer, Brody was free to take pictures of anything but not free to choose which are released to the public. Explaining the editorial process he writes, “The Doctrine was to photograph the war in a way that justified its existence and exaggerated its accomplishments. The visual doctrine wasn’t codified, but it was enforced. You learned what pictures the Public Affairs Officer would release and what he wouldn’t.”
With Attention Servicemember, the author is finally free to step outside the directives of the military and select his own images for the audience, this time to tell his story and present the war in a way he wants readers to experience it. Providing an alternative perspective echoes writer George Orwell’s stance that “All art is propaganda, but on the other hand, not all propaganda is art”.
In a sharp pivot away from photojournalism and towards a work of photography as a body of art, Brody presents a page-turning experience that begins with black and white images of his hometown in Massachusetts, and on to full color spreads of military life. With text written in a literary tone inspired by Kurt Vonnegut’s Slaughterhouse Five, Brody guides the viewer through war, humor, sex, violence, and the absurd.
Front and center of the narrative running through Attention Servicemember is the author himself. As a kind of antihero, Brody refrains from taking any easily digestible stance on the wars. Instead he offers an intensely personal journey through multiple tours, one that is free from literal timelines and direct interpretation. Without the official censorship he experienced with the military, Brody is able to repurpose images he never had any rights over. “All the pictures I took in Iraq are in the public domain, as works produced by government employees are not entitled to copyright protection,” he writes. To illustrate this point, the book contains one of Brody’s self proclaimed “best propaganda shots”: an image of a fellow soldier in full combat gear with helicopters and palm trees aglow in the background. Brody screenshots a reverse google search of the image to show how the photo was taken out of context and used to promote everything from vape pens to combat gear to the war itself.
In a televised interview on WGBH News, news anchor Jim Braude suggests that Attention Servicemember was created for non-service members to understand a regular soldier’s experience. “I was basically like any other soldier in the third infantry division except I had a camera,” Brody responds. “I made it because there was something I really wanted to convey about what these wars were and to convey it in a way that would be understandable by somebody who hasn’t had that sort of singular, exotic experience of fighting in a war”.
Throughout the book, the author’s need to convey an alternative perspective of the war is expressed continuously. Towards the beginning of the story, he details his experience presenting a slideshow to a group of apathetic Rotarians, writing “I knew the Rotarians just wanted to be kind to some kid who had a difficult job but I wanted them to feel the murderous heat and arbitrary death and relentless absurdity that came with my job. No one stopped eating during my talk and when I was done they clapped a little.”
Again towards the end of the narrative, Brody recalls his return to the field as an independent journalist and demonstrates how his photos were not only misrepresented by officials and the media, but how he was simultaneously misunderstood by the servicemen he was representing in the photos. In a dreamlike scene deep in the Afghan grape fields, he’s approached by an unfriendly officer who confronts the photographer with a philosophy that runs through the book. Brody writes, “his problem wasn’t with reporters—his problem was with the way the American public consumed war reporting. He said they process imagery of soldiers performing complex tasks for complex reasons as though soldiers were one-dimensional characters in a superhero movie, as porn stars, as an empty and uncritical glorification of violence, as a confirmation of pig-headed beliefs about American cultural superiority. He said he didn’t want to be complicit in that charade.”
In the end, Brody walks us through the lies, the darkness, the light, the disorientation, the trauma, and the non-conclusion of a distant conflict that defined a generation of soldiers and families at war. Trapped in a deep irony to vindicate his work from someone else’s propaganda, Ben Brody repurposes it to create his own.
Editor’s note: Attention Servicemember was first published to much acclaim in 2019 and quickly sold out. A second edition is now available with some minor updates to include photographs of this summer’s social unrest in America.