During his second tour of Iraq, Ben Brody spends five days photographing and reporting the 101st Airborne’s fight in “the blasted hellscape” west of Iskandariyah.
“Two soldiers got chopped up with shrapnel right in front of me,” and “civilians and combatant alike died in thunderous airstrikes.”
When he turns in his work, his division chief of staff kills “the whole story because he said it was ‘too negative’, meaning that my account didn’t confirm to his tightly scripted version of what victory was supposed to look like.”
Probably the chief would object to Brody’s book, also, for its lack of conformity. Which is one reason the more than 2-pound volume is memorable, destined to be collectible, often profound, and worth repeated looks.
The images seem spare at first, but their compositions are intriguing and their content frank. Words are spare, also, which is a plus and a minus. The written narrative begins after 48 pages of pictures and appears only on 32 of the 304 pages.
Attention Servicemember is an Army veteran’s visual memoir and metaphor of his military service in Iraq and his journalistic work in Afghanistan. First published last year by Red Hook Editions, the title is again available, in a revised edition. The concept is creative, and the volume is smartly designed and well manufactured, giving credence to composer and lyricist Stephen Sondheim’s expression (from Sunday in the Park with George) that “having just the vision’s no solution, everything depends on execution.”
The intent and idea begin with the cardboard-like cover, which “is the closest I could get to what MRE packaging looks like,” the author told this reviewer. Three lines of type warn that now is the time to reenlist:
CONTACT US IMMEDIATELY. FAILURE TO RESPOND COULD RESULT IN DISCHARGE. There’s a toll-free 877 number on the back but the line is busy.
The cover presentation immediately establishes a wry tone and introduces what becomes a highly satisfactory tactile experience in a digital age. You can almost smell printer’s ink.
Opened pages lie flat, thanks to the stitching of the spine. Black-and-white images are on glossy paper. Color images on matte-finish stock. Computer-screen images show how one of Brody’s DOD photographs — in the public domain — “advertises batteries and vape pens” and is “on the cover of a problematic book about the troop surge.”
Other glossy pages show Brody’s byline on tightly cropped pages from the comparatively design-deficient Army magazines The Marne Express and The Dog Face Daily.
But the 129 full-color war-zone photographs are the draw in this compilation by a guy who enlisted in 2002 after failing a photojournalism class: “Joining the Army as a combat photographer was the only way I could get to Iraq.”
Besides, serving in uniform might also satisfy “my naïve instincts about the steps a boy must take to become a self-determined adult.”
Determination is not a problem for Brody, intrinsically and aesthetically. In one of four written segments he mentions a sergeant who is standoffish during Brody’s embed as a civilian at a Kandahar outpost. Finally, the soldier confides that he does not dislike reporters. Rather, he dislikes “the way the American public consumes war reporting.”
He says news stories end up portraying troops as “one-dimensional characters in a superhero movie, as porn stars, as … a glorification of violence, as a confirmation of pigheaded beliefs about American cultural superiority.”
The NCO has evaded Brody in an effort to avoid a perceived complicity in a news-media “charade.” His astute observation articulates Brody’s consideration: “How I might visually communicate the war in a way that confronted the false narratives people construct for themselves when they look at images.”
In that endeavor, Attention Servicemember nearly succeeds.
Because the color images bleed off the page, there’s no margin in the layout, no place to put captions. Which means, ironically, that many readers — without words as guides — will “construct for themselves” their own narratives about what the pictures say or mean. Conversely, frustrated readers will give up trying to figure out what they’re looking at, and that’s a shame.
This reviewer recommends the next edition includes explanations — somewhere, even as a list way in the back — of what is not obvious in each image. The adage suggests a picture is worth a thousand words, but only a few are necessary. A caption can be concise.
Verbal descriptions might allow wider insight into Brody’s work, which is compelling and intellectually confrontative. His pictures prompt closer looks. Most can and do stand alone as art in this photo book — which is also an art book.
Allow yourself to study the subtlety of the Brody bunch — including a soldier’s tossing out Beanie Babies in Sadr City, five uniformed couples dancing together, soldiers patrolling in a sunflower field in Afghanistan, and the unidentified Brody himself appearing in the mirror on a tile wall.
With those examples and others, Attention Servicemember stays refreshingly and engagingly off script.
Attention Servicemember by Ben Brody, Mass Books (massbooks.co), 304 pages, $40