Shooting War: Photography and the American Experience of Combat

Shooting War: Photography and the American Experience of Combat

Shooting War: Photography and the American Experience of Combat

Shooting War: Photography and the American Experience of Combat


The best war photography, Susan Moeller demonstrates, bares the essence of war- what Americans are fighting for and against- by distilling the chaos of combat into indelible visual icons, like the flag-raising on Iwo Jima or the naked, napalmed young Vietnamese girl. When Teddy Roosevelt led his troops up the San Juan hills, most Americans still believed in war as a glorious adventure, and photographers dutifully memorialized that romantic conceit. Seventy years later, horrific images from Vietnam helped convince millions that war was little more than organized murder.

Moeller, who herself has been a photojournalist, provides fascinating insights into the men and women who took the pictures: why they chose to go to war; their reactions to military censorship; what it felt like to seek the perfect image under extremely dangerous circumstances. She argues that the images of war are defined by the moral position of the photographer, the official censorship of the media, the propaganda needs of the government, and technological advances in photographic equipment and armed forces weaponry. Shooting War is full of first-hand accounts by the finest photographers who risked their lives in pursuit of the elusive "truths" of war.


Behind the camera there must be a man's eye, and a soul.

—Carl Mydans

WAR IS ABOUT COMBAT. The moviegoer and daily newspaper reader may be forgiven for thinking combat is all that war is about. It is not, of course. Sometimes the fighting is irrelevant; what happens behind the scenes in the diplomatic "peace" talks in the world's capitals may be much more to the point. And even in the arena of the war itself, the men on the front lines are always greatly outnumbered by their "support troops." But combat, no matter how peripheral, how Pyrrhic, how purposeless, is the heart of war. It is what young boys glamorize, old men remember, poets celebrate, governments rally around, women cry about, and soldiers die in. It is also what photographers take pictures of.

Since the advent of photography, war, for the home front, has been more than romantic dreams and glorious slogans. Battle has become something in which everyone participates—if only in absentia. The camera has brought the exotic and dangerous near; it satisfies a lust for seeing the action, with the bonus that the viewer at home is never in any danger. Like the voyeurs of the past century who drove their carriages out to a hillside to watch the battle below, the armchair audience gazes at, but does not participate in, war. Whereas the infantry actually lives through the mud, blood, and guts, for civilians combat is a vicarious experience composed of certain moments observed secondhand in the pages of the press.

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