“In war, truth is the first casualty.”
Gary Knight, April 7, 2003
This photograph was taken moments after this position in the unfinished Baghdad suburb of Dyala came under artillery barrage. I had watched the shells ‘walk’ in and was lying in a depression in the ground on the other side of the wall on the right as the shells crashed in. It was like an earthquake – so loud and so terrifying waiting for them to hit. I have been shelled in many places over the years and it’s the most terrifying thing. I always imagine I can outwit a man who can see me and is trying to kill me with something as small as a bullet, but with artillery, it’s all a question of luck. I saw the turret of the APC fly into the air.
When the barrage stopped and the violence was broken momentarily by silence, young men started to shout and scream. One Marine lay dead in the dirt and several others were badly wounded. There were many different reactions by the men to the death of their friend which are revealed in this simple photograph. One officer took control, indicating to others to move the body. The Marine on the right bowed his head – he was unable to look. On the left, another stood pigeon-toed, gazing off into the distance while others cleaned up and attended to the wounded. A Marine moved across with his head down as if he didn’t want to be seen. Violence in war is like this – men don’t respond the way one expects and a wide range of personal and complex emotional responses emerge. In that fragment of time, most had withdrawn into their own intimate space, even though they were part of a whole – a whole that was diminished by the loss of one. The Marines were comfortable that I took this picture, which surprised me at the time. Later, they told me that they were gratified that their experience of this war was being photographed. They said it validated their experience, both for themselves and for those who weren’t there to share it with them – outsiders – people who don’t know war. The photograph meant it could never be denied. A few weeks ago, I was told that the dead Marine had been killed by friendly fire – U.S. artillery that dropped short. This is what we were told originally, only to have it retracted the following day. The Marine was killed by shrapnel that flew out the back of the APC after the shell went through the open turret. If it had landed a foot away on either side, it would have killed or wounded everyone in the photograph. His terrible misfortune was our good luck. That’s what it comes down to in the end.