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Iraq War: Love and Personal Loss [Photo Essay]

Andrew Lichtenstein's new book, <i>Never Coming Home</i>, shows the faces behind the Iraq War casualty statistics.
 
 
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Andrew Lichtenstein's new book, Never Coming Home , shows the faces behind the daily casualty statistics in the Iraq war. Each week, these men and women killed in Iraq are buried and mourned, privately and publicly, in deeply personal scenes of love, loss and remembrance.

AlterNet is pleased to host the above slideshow of images from Never Coming Home , followed by an interview with the photographer, Andrew Lichtenstein, conducted by AlterNet's Nina Berman.

Nina Berman: From the outset of the war, images of flag-draped coffins were conspicuously absent in the national press. In part, this was because of a Department of Defense ban on all media coverage of bodies leaving Germany and arriving at Dover Air Force Base. Only when Russ Kick of the Memory Hole.Org won his Freedom of Information request on April 14, 2004, did we get a look at the loads of flag-draped caskets lying in Air Force hangars, ready to be dispatched.

Those initial images worked well as evidence of the dead. But they were anonymous and cold. Your work takes us into the lives of those who must confront the reality of the war every day. You traveled all across the country attending, by your own admission, 50 to 60 funerals from November 2003 through the end of 2006. Why did you do this?

Andrew Lichtenstein: It was really anger. I started during a time of "victory," when the war was popular, its motivations largely unquestioned in the media. But I see war as the absolutely last choice, when every other option has been exhausted. From the beginning, I felt the Bush administration had been lying, had not made a case for war other than their own desire to wage it. So whether the number of dead was 200 or 4,000, both meaningless numbers really, I felt that not a single soldier should die in a war started by the Bush administration. Each funeral was an individual, usually a very young man, someone with the world ahead of them, a whole life still to be lived.

Berman: How did you find out about the funerals, and what was the reaction of the families when you would appear?

Lichtenstein: I simply signed up on the Department of Defense website for death notices, which were emailed to me directly once the family had been notified. Anybody can sign up. But even if I hadn't, dozens of newspapers take the same lists, compiled by the American military, and publish them on a daily basis.

As for the reaction of the families, I did not usually approach anyone the day of the funeral. I figured that grieving relatives had more important things to deal with than a photography project. Sometimes I was the only photographer there, sometimes there were a dozen news organizations. But each family reacted differently. There were times when I was welcome, where I met the families and sent them photographs. There were other times when I did not feel comfortable, and erring on the safe side, never took the camera out of the bag [and] left without a single picture.

Berman: A funeral of a deceased military person is both an intensely personal and intensely public event. The rituals of the State -- the symbolism and choreography -- are imposed on a private family, which can either embrace them or reject them. While the military rituals tend to depersonalize in order to enforce the notion of death for a greater purpose, your pictures show deeply personal experiences.

Can you talk a bit about how the relationship between the civilian and military plays out both within your images and in the construction of the book?

Lichtenstein: The military funeral is a very short and scripted event. But it is just the outlying structure, and every funeral somehow managed to be different. I think it is similar to weddings -- the rituals remain the same, but how each family interprets them leaves a lot of room for variety.

The war in Iraq has, from the very beginning, been seen as a civilian war. That is a war that was started, pushed for, by civilian leadership, often over the objections of more practical military officers. Unlike the Dr. Strangelove Cold War portrait of a military eager for conflict, there is now a sense that those who have known war are sometimes the most hesitant to pursue it again.

So while the military has been very conscious of following orders, carrying out its mission, and not openly criticizing the war while in uniform, there was often a stoicism at the funerals, a subtle sense that this is what soldiers do, die for their country. But rarely was there the heightened emotional, political propaganda to justify the sacrifice as an essential, nation-saving act. Maybe this is one of the reasons I felt more comfortable working on this story. Maybe it was all in my head, but I felt some political kinship with the military, beyond the obvious of being an American.

Also, in many ways, America is still fighting the Vietnam War, that is we are still fighting the cultural and class divisions that erupted during the Vietnam War. I think there remains a sense of class guilt. Those who opposed the war, and escaped it through college deferments and other opportunities offered to the middle class, regret blaming the soldiers themselves, the working and unemployed boys who actually went to the jungle to fight. This time around, the opposition to the war, while playing itself out along familiar class fault lines, is careful to distinguish between the American soldier as an individual and the Bush, Cheney, Rumsfeld ideologues. Again, this made the story "easier" for me to do. I was not a spy in the enemy camp, but simply another American who honored the sacrifice of soldiers who should not have been sent to die.

Berman: For me, the saddest images in Never Coming Home , are not the ones at the cemeteries, but the ones in people's homes.

When all is done and the coffin is buried, what is it that people are left with? An early image in the book is of Beverly Fabri, mother to Nick Spry, killed at 19. She hovers over his bed covered with clothes and keepsakes on top of a wrinkled American Flag quilt. You write that she is unable to clean up his room.

Then there is the image of Melissa Hornedo, widow to Manny Hornedo, dead at 27. She sits frozen in time on a plastic white couch, listening to his favorite music on his iPod. And in another picture, her son Marcus sits on a bed, his head crushed in his hands.

What do you hope people will see and feel when they see these images?

Lichtenstein: The most powerful, saddest images, at least for me, were taken while at the families' homes, weeks, months after their loved one had been buried. Of course that is just a question of intimacy. A funeral is a public event; a mother grieving by herself afterwards in her home, very private.

In the case of the Hornedo family, they live in Brooklyn, walking distance from my own home. Marcus sitting on the bed, growing up without a father ... I guess I feel there is not much that separates that family from my own. My son is the same age.

And yes, that makes me angry. Angry that we would ask that of his family. Angry that we can so easily go on living our lives, drinking our cappuccinos, reading the newspaper. Angry at our arrogance, our complacency. How easy it is for us not to really be concerned with what is happening in our name.

So what could I hope people will see and feel? These are only pictures, a drop in the bucket, a personal attempt to do something with my own anger. But they are hopefully enough to reach someone, somewhere, and have them share in that family's pain, to spread it around enough to wake us up.

Andrew Lichtenstein is a freelance photographer and journalist who works on long-term stories of social concern. His photographs have been published and exhibited across the world. He lives in Brooklyn, N.Y., with his wife and two children.

You can purchase a copy of the book Never Coming Home from Barnes and Noble or directly from the distributor, DAP.

To listen to the stories of some families who have lost someone in Iraq, please visit: http://mediastorm.org/0006.htm.

Nina Berman is a photographer and the author of Purple Hearts: Back From Iraq .