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Creating The Visual Canon Of America’s Longest War
How a media distribution site and Public Affairs Officers shape public understanding of whether there is a war on.
Edited by Althea May Atherton
The War on Afghanistan has a canonical last image. The photograph, “Last American Soldier leaves Afghanistan,” was taken on August 31st in Kabul, and uploaded at 7:48 pm Eastern Time August 30th, 2021. Its caption opens: “Major General Chris Donahue, commander of the U.S. Army 82nd Airborne Division, XVIII Airborne Corps, boards a C-17 cargo plane at the Hamid Karzai International Airport in Kabul, Afghanistan.”
The photograph is uncredited1, coming instead labeled as a Courtesy Photo from U.S. Central Command Public Affairs. I expect it is already on many front pages as you read this. Its dimensions, 1536 pixels by 1536 pixels, make it a good header for an above-the-fold column, but not the central story. It is too square, and too low resolution, to be a good splash image on digital landing pages.
“Maj. Gen. Donahue is the final American service member to depart Afghanistan; his departure closes the U.S. mission to evacuate American citizens, Afghan Special Immigrant Visa applicants, and vulnerable Afghans,” concludes the caption.
When you see this image in print or online, know that it is the image the military hand-picked to capture the end of the US ground war in Afghanistan. The ground war lasted 19 years, 10 months, and 24 days, but the last US soldier is out. This is how we are to see it: in the familiar green-and-white composition of a night vision lens, looking at a two-star general in combat gear boarding a plane without anyone else around.
This is a story about that image, and what made it ubiquitous. It is a story about how the military creates and shares images to shape public understanding of war.
I am a horribly-traveled journalist, especially given my beat. I can count on one hand the trips I’ve taken outside of the United States, and added together, it’s never amounted to more than a month of my life spent abroad. It is, in part, why I’ve built a beat of war coverage focused on the materiel2 of war, much of which is made, bought, and sold within the confines of the United States. Companies selling to the US prepare their brochures in English. International organizations that document the aftermath of US weapons abroad, in the hopes of spurring congressional action, are similarly obliged to make themselves accessible to English-speaking press.
Among the many limitations that come with not having traveled or reported outside the confines of the United States is that I’m beholden to others for photography of war. Writing largely (though not exclusively) for the digital side of publication also means my photo selection is shaped by what can be found on a tiny expense budget, or ideally for free, and with clear usage rights for media.
In practice, that means a lot of my stories use pictures produced by the US Government and specifically by the Department of Defense. Back in April, I shared Paul Musgrave’s excellent “The Military-Photographic Complex, complete with our conversation about how image rights shape public perception of stories.
It is easy to get a pulse on what story the military hopes to tell by looking at what images and videos it produces. Most of these images can be found through Defense Visual Information Distribution Service, or DVIDS, a website repository of images received by a central hub of DVIDS Link satellite transmitters in Atlanta, Georgia.
The DVIDShub website was stood up in 2004 (the Wayback Machine first archived it on June 23rd, 2004), and it was used primarily to distribute media from the US Military’s Public Affairs units to the rest of the world via links out in Baghdad, Kuwait, Qatar, and Afghanistan.
By 2006, DVIDS described its mission as “a state-of-the-art, 24/7 operation that provides a timely, accurate and reliable connection between the media around the world and the military serving in Iraq, Afghanistan, Kuwait, Qatar and Bahrain.” In February 2018, the name changed from “Digital Video and Imagery Distribution System” to “Defense Visual Information Distribution Service.”
Most of these images are public domain (not all are, though; contractor-produced images are an exception to the rules governing media produced by federal government employees). By having these images on hand and available for anyone, the military can provide its cleanest storytelling and its gentlest framing of news.
It is no wonder that DVIDS has its origin in 2004, as the media narrative switched from portraying heroic triumph to uncovering unsettling new crimes and exposing entirely preventable tragedies. On April 22nd, 2004, Arizona Cardinals safety turned Army Ranger Pat Tillman was shot and killed by his own unit, who mistook him for the enemy. On April 28, CBS aired pictures of US soldiers torturing and humiliating captives at Abu Ghraib prison in Iraq.
Providing images (and video, and live interview opportunities with officers and enlisted in uniform) allowed the military to seed its own stories. Not just of heroism but also of benign routine. A selection of DVIDS photos from 2004 in Iraq include “Soldiers walk with children in the streets” or “An Up-armored Humvee, Part of a Nighttime Patrol” or “Iraqi Army medics open shop for "coughs and sniffles”.” Not only was the military telling stories like this, it was making it easy for other media to tell those same kinds of gentler, feel-good stories about a war that would go on to kill 184,000 - 207,000 civilians.
That’s not to say DVIDS had no images of Abu Ghraib. By my search, there were 20 images with that tag uploaded by 2004. They included photos of a K-9 unit, soldiers on patrol in the city and neighborhood after which the prison is named, and even courtroom sketches of the trial. The actual pictures of the torture, the ones immediately called to mind by the phrase “Abu Ghraib,” are nowhere to be seen.
Shaping stories like this is, by and large, the stated mission of Public Affairs Officers. Their job is to be an intermediary between the world’s most powerful military and the press, and on the whole it’s better to have the military talking to press than not. That said, I want to emphasize that this work isn’t neutral; there’s an impact from flooding coverage of the war with micro-stories about soldiers delivering notebooks to schools or marines playing soccer with locals.
That war contains moments of levity and compassion and dull routine just means war is part of the human experience. If we let those moments overwhelm how we talk about war, we miss that the school supplies are delivered by 19 year olds with guns, under threat from other 19 year olds with guns. Or that the casual soccer game takes place in the context of massive upheaval and violence.
It also means that, when the cameras go away, it is easy to lose sight of war.
On August 18th of this year, I noticed that DVIDS had launched a new special landing page for photographs and Department-produced stories about the US leaving Afghanistan, tagged “Afghanistan Withdrawal.” These event themed landing pages happen for all sorts of reasons and are a quick way to drive media to the on-hand images. In the past, I’d seen landing pages for “Troops deploy to the border” in 2018, and ones for disaster response are common. At the moment, there’s a landing page for Haiti Earthquake Responses, and I imagine we’ll see one soon for the wake of Hurricane Ida.
This particular landing page, set up two days after the all-but-formal fall of Kabul to the Taliban, was the first time I’d seen a specific landing page for the US withdrawal, despite going to the site weekly.
Had the military been deliberately pushing media to cover its withdrawal? I asked, and using DVIDS images as a proxy, I found my answer. Prior to August 2021, there were only 84 pictures from Afghanistan shared on the site. In August alone, at the time of this writing, there are 294 images, the vast majority uploaded in the last week.
I made a chart of this discovery:
There’s a range of factors that go into how images end up produced and shared on DVIDS (or any other public-facing media distribution platform used by the government; Musgrave is partial to the Flickr accounts). Not all units have photographers, not all missions require documentation. Public Affairs is a specific way the military can choose to document and publicize its activity, but it is not the only one.
Here’s another chart I created, with the caveat that pre-2004 numbers are more prone to error, and that latter dates had more and easier ability to upload images.
Judged purely by the quantity of images the military was generating and sharing, the US War in Afghanistan peaked in 2012, had a gentle withdrawal by 2014, and -- except for a modest spike in 2017 and 2018 -- was almost entirely out of public perception by 2020. At the very least, Afghanistan was no longer the story the military was trying to tell the American public.
(I included South Korea and New Mexico in the chart to get baselines for a fairly stable deployment abroad outside of a shooting war, and for one of routine fluctuations in a state with a few military bases.)
When I saw on August 18th that DVIDS was now touting its “Afghanistan Withdrawal” page, it came after a rapid month of Taliban advances, and it came after photos captured by journalists and civilians showed massive, dense crowds outside Hamid Karzai International Airport in Kabul. In contrast, the images shared by the military showed open spaces, clear runways, and calm order.
That landing page, now rebranded as “Afghanistan Evacuation”, showed on August 29th a total of 951 images. These images spanned 9 countries like the US, Qatar, and Germany, and also included 96 images at “Undisclosed Location,” my single favorite location tag on the site.
These “Afghanistan Evacuation” pictures mirror that same outward look of calm present in the “Afghanistan Withdrawal” images, of calm established by military order. The reality of this war -- its rapid end and live aftermath -- is missing. There’s nothing here about the drones used for a “self-defense unmanned over-the-horizon airstrike,” the euphemism given by the Pentagon for an attack on a suspected suicide bomber. That attack reportedly killed ten civilians, including six children.
“We are aware of reports of civilian casualties following our strike on a vehicle in Kabul today,” said Bill Urban, spokesman for U.S. Central Command, in a press release sent out hours after the attack. “We are still assessing the results of this strike, which we know disrupted an imminent ISIS-K threat to the airport. We know that there were substantial and powerful subsequent explosions resulting from the destruction of the vehicle, indicating a large amount of explosive material inside that may have caused additional casualties. It is unclear what may have happened, and we are investigating further.”
There’s something particularly unsettling about blowing up a car in a city, an act that killed civilians, and then claiming that because the car exploded so much, the military was right to blow up the car. It reduces the deep complexities of violence in war to a rudimentary trolley problem. It ignores how almost two decades of this war have seen airstrike after airstrike on people determined to be targets, presuming the dead to be enemy combatants first and then determining affiliation and identity through investigations afterwards, if at all.
“It matters what the military immediately presents as fact and what it presents as possibility,” writes Spencer Ackerman, describing the press conference in which the Pentagon’s press secretary explained the disparity between initial and follow-up reports of the drone strike. “Nancy Youssef, a friend of mine and an excellent reporter with the Wall Street Journal, pointed to how quickly CENTCOM’s first statement expressed certainty that the U.S. had killed no innocents.”
The war has fluctuated towards and away from minimal transparency on such strikes. While the US does have an accounting and investigation process for determining the identity of those killed after the fact, it is slow, it skews towards assuming targets valid, and it works best when the US is on the ground to do the follow-up investigation in person. We are likely to see none of that in the aftermath of Kabul.
“We would be deeply saddened by any potential loss of innocent life,” concludes Urban, and I’m inclined to believe that’s true.
When I search DVIDS for “condolences,” I find an image from 2008:
“A local Iraqi and her daughter listen to coalition forces as they extend their heartfelt sympathy for their loss,” reads the official caption for this image, “and the hope that the condolence pay will help them see that coalition forces are truly sorry for their loss during Operation Iraqi Freedom on Combat Outpost Cashe, Iraq, on Dec. 7, 2008.”
Almost 13 years later, I cannot possibly speak to whether the money paid3 meaningfully changed the family’s life. What I can say is that there’s no amount of carefully-framed photography that can smooth over how all war is violence that leads to tragedy.
Not even in the soft glow of night-vision green, which filters out the nervous asylum-seeking crowds at the edge of perception.
Thank you all for reading this. I’ve picked a weird beat for my career, but having an engaged and thoughtful audience makes writing these newsletters especially worth it.
If you’re in the mood for more free newsletters, I guest-authored two issues of Critical State this month, and have only grown more impressed by what my Fellow Travelers Blog fellow Traveler Sam Ratner does every week there.
After the photograph’s initial release, the caption was updated to name the photographer, Alex Burnett. In addition, DVIDS has a selection of outtakes from the photo-shoot.
It’s French for “material,” which means it became English for “War Material” following the Napoleonic wars.