The Digital Journalist
War Without End

by Peter Howe

When I was 12 I moved with my parents to the quiet, leafy suburbs of London, away from the bustle of the noisy highway that ran in front our previous home. We soon found out that the peace and calm of our new surroundings was not to be total, however. Several times a month the still night was shattered by the sound of a man screaming, something that terrified this child until my father found out that one of our new neighbors had been interned in a Japanese prisoner-of-war camp during the Second World War, an experience that continued to haunt his dreams. This was in 1954, and the war had been over for nine years, but for him, and many like him, the war would never end.

This is the conflict that Lori Grinker so brilliantly captures in her imposing new book AFTERWAR: Veterans From a World in Conflict, the tortured world of the veteran fighting both internal demons and external disabilities many years after the battles in which they were maimed have passed into our collective memory. One of the veterans that she photographed, Henry Green, a member of the British forces that fought in Korea, is quoted as saying, “We never thought that 40 years on we would be in the state we’re in. I don’t think it ever ends.” Something that Grinker discovered on her epic journey through this damaged landscape is that it doesn’t matter whether you fought in a “good” war, whether you won or lost, whether you believed in your cause or not, the trauma that is combat leaves nobody unscarred.

Maria Luisa Lafita, who served in the Spanish Civil War, in bed in Havana, Cuba with her attendant Emilia by her side, 1999

Lori Grinker/Contact Press Images
The book is the result of a photographic and reporting project of monumental proportions, which spans 30 countries (24 of which are in the book) over a period of 15 years. It started in February of 1989 when Grinker accompanied a group of American veterans returning to Vietnam for the first time after the war, but its genesis was three years earlier in Israel on a trip that the photographer took to the West Bank and Gaza to do a story on Arab-Israeli cooperation. The photographic possibilities turned out to be limited, so she tried, successfully, to work in a rehabilitation and recreational center for veterans and their families called Beit Halochem, which means the warrior’s home. She photographed and interviewed its inhabitants, and became fascinated with what war does to those it uses, and this was to be the first contact with former warriors around the globe.

She photographed and interviewed combatants of most of the major wars of the 20th century from the First World War on, as well as a couple at the beginning of the 21st. Of the over 150 world conflicts fought in the 20th century, 24 are represented in Afterwar. The conflicts are presented in reverse order, the most recent being first, with a brief description of the war on the opening page of every chapter, and a timeline at the foot of each page showing when the conflict occurred and its duration. This device makes the reader aware that not only does war not end for the individuals involved, it also has no ending as a human activity, that on any given date somewhere on this planet people will be killing people for one cause or another. As well as telling the stories of the fighters, Afterwar also documents the continuum of conflict of the troubled century we have just left behind. This was important to Grinker as she explained in a recent interview with The Digital Journalist. She described why she wanted to interview veterans whose experience of combat was behind them. “It was important that they [the veterans] had some sense of perspective and that the reader gets a sense of history. It was like a time travel through the 20th century, bringing together a collective story of war with the different parts being all these different conflicts.”

One of the things that will surprise many American readers, who are only just getting used to the idea of women in the line of fire, is the number of female veterans that the book includes. The fighting force in Ethiopia on the Eritrean side was 40 percent female, many of them pregnant. “One of them thought I was very brave to be traveling around by myself,” Grinker said. “They would be seven months pregnant on the front, then leave, have their babies, put them into a crèche and go back and fight, but they didn’t see this as courageous.” She explained that these women felt they didn’t have a choice to fight because of the injustice that they saw around them, and that because they won the war they really improved the rights for women in their country.

Horacio Javier Benitez, who served in the Malvinas War (Falklands War) in 1982, visits the Monument to Malvinas near Buenos Aires, Argentina, a memorial for soldiers buried in the Falkland Islands, 2000.

Lori Grinker/Contact Press Images
For the most part, however, the benefits that wars bring are scarce indeed. A commonly expressed belief of the veterans of different nationalities and different wars is that despite the suffering, the death and dismemberment, war changes very little. Elvigio Pellitero, a soldier on the Nationalist side of the Spanish Civil War sums up his feelings about war: “Wars have no fundamental purpose. What did we know of this war? It was like a lie, this war, little lies. We were ignorant. We thought we would probably die, that’s all. We fought; we won. If we had lost it would have been just the same.” Ginker says of this man, “Not that he had regrets, I don’t think he had a lot of strong feelings; he was just looking at it in a very pragmatic way. Even in El Salvador the women who fought said life is the same as it was before. They have less fear but nothing really changed.” She also quotes a Catholic man that she met in Northern Ireland who acknowledged that the changes that have occurred in that region probably would have happened without all the killing.

If wars change little in the countries where they are fought, the changes they make in the people who fight them are profound, so deep in fact that they isolate those that have experienced combat from those who haven’t. “It’s a very private society,” the photographer believes. “Many people wouldn’t tell me stories because they said ‘we’ve never told our own families; why would we tell you?’”

Two patients in the Ty Gwyn Center for Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder in Wales expand on this idea. Steve Annabell, a veteran of the Falklands War says, “They program you to have no emotion – like if somebody sitting next to you gets killed you just have to carry on doing your job and shut off. When you leave the service, when you come back from a situation like that, there’s no button they can press to turn your emotions back on. So you walk around like a zombie.” His fellow patient, Graham Cunningham, who served with the British Army in Northern Ireland, feels that “the people on civvy street just don’t understand. The only people we can speak to is one of us. Only someone who’s been there can know.” He goes on to say, “I tried suicide and the rope broke.”

Otis, a former child soldier who served in the Liberian Civil War, reenacts drills at the Don Bosco Center for Boys in Monrovia, Liberia, 1996

Lori Grinker/Contact Press Images
When the medals have been given out and the parades are over most cultures do not treat their veterans very well. Societies always seem to find the money to train them and send them into battle when needed, but remarkably little is provided for the returning warriors to make a smooth transition back into mainstream life. It wasn’t until the Vietnam veteran activists caused a change to happen that we started taking Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder seriously, and even now it is often given lip service by the military authorities. Grinker recalls, “There is a story about British soldiers in Iraq. Their Ministry of Defense issued a leaflet to the members of each unit warning them of the symptoms of PTSD – depression, suicidal tendencies – but they didn’t tell the families, and so when some of them came home and this one guy killed himself his wife said, ‘why are you just telling the people in his unit? Why aren’t you telling us all this?’ It is often when soldiers return home that these problems begin to manifest themselves. This woman didn’t realize the changes her husband was going through until it was too late.”

Because war is always the result of failure – failure of diplomacy, failure of understanding, failure of communication – veterans are a reminder of our failings, and thus we tend to brush them under society’s mat. Except of course for the ones that are presentable enough to be hailed as heroes and used as an inducement to the next generation of young men and women to heed the call of glory.

The power and the strength of this book is that it shatters the myth of the glory of war in ways that conventional war photography often cannot. Even the searing images of David Douglas Duncan or Don McCullin retain trace elements of heroism and adrenaline. The damaged men and women that populate the pages of Afterwar may be deserving of our sympathy and admiration, may have a nobility that has survived and even been strengthened by their wrenching experiences, but few would want to fill their shoes or emulate their suffering.

It is important to Grinker that the work is seen by as many of the next generation of potential recruits as possible. Not only is the project in the form of the book, but there was a successful exhibit at the United Nations building in New York, as well. Grinker has hopes of it becoming a touring exhibition. She expresses her frustration when she says, “What I don’t understand about the United States and this administration especially, is why they’re so uptight about any references to sex and nudity, but we have so much violence on television and that’s okay. I can’t get my head around that. Why is that okay? It’s as if they want to give young people a taste of violence, without any ‘real danger.’ It’s just a movie or a game. It’s fiction. In some ways I think it’s a way to militarize young people. It’s so hypocritical, and I don’t know how we can change it other than by showing what war really does. The reality of war is very different.”

In his moving introduction to Afterwar the war correspondent Chris Hedges says, “Those you have most in common with when the war is over are those you fought.” Those of us who have never shouldered a rifle, nor squeezed its trigger and seen a human being crumple before our eyes as the result, may never fully understand the damage, both physical and psychological, that combat causes. But those of us who read this book and are touched by the stories and pictures that it contains may move a little closer to such a comprehension, and may realize that the veterans who were our proxies in the dark acts of war bear a burden that we will also only imperfectly understand.

(AFTERWAR: Veterans From a World in Conflict, Photographs and Interviews by Lori Grinker. Published by de.MO, Edited with Robert Pledge, Text with Jacques Menasche)

© Peter Howe
Executive Editor