Pulitzer Prize nominated Michael Kamber: “I never set out to cover wars.”
My father left in 1969, when I was six and he was forty-five. He got a VW microbus, a nineteen-year-old blonde, and started making up for time lost on the three kids and the drunkard wife back in Maine. He was chasing hard after the tail end of the ’60s. I always supposed it must have been a tough time for a man to be tied down—watching all that chaos out there, while having to stay home and diaper the kids and pay the bills.
He left a few things behind: some tools, a handful of war medals, and a fantastically detailed lithograph he’d bought at a yard sale. It was dated 1918 and called Over the Top. It showed a company of steely-eyed doughboys storming a trench, their bayonets fixed and the flag waving above them. The Germans looked scared and slightly evil in their pointy helmets. One American was falling, looking skyward as his comrades killed the Huns around him.
I used to stare at the print for hours, studying it as if it were a religious talisman, searching the images—the smoke from the cannons, the charging soldiers, the blood dripping from men’s bodies—for some clue I’d missed. These men had the answer to a question I wanted to ask. I just wasn’t sure what the question was. I wanted to know why men go to distant places to slaughter one another, and how that becomes something noble. But there was a deeper question beyond that.
Some of the medals my father left behind were from the First World War. They had belonged to his father, my grandfather, Bob Kamber. The most beautiful of his medals was a rainbow-colored campaign ribbon with brass bars inscribed with the names of the battles he’d fought in: St. Mihiel, Meuse-Argonne, Aisne Marne, Belleau Wood. I used to run my fingers over the names like a blind man reading Braille.
My father also fought, in the Second World War, with the 5th Marines. He celebrated his twentieth birthday in the volcanic ash of Iwo Jima. I had his medals, too, and a tattered fatigue jacket with a front pocket bearing the Marine Corps logo—the globe nestled on a rope and an anchor.
My grandfather hung out at the VFW and was a proud member of the Disabled American Veterans. But he never talked about the combat, and neither did my father. If I asked, they gave vague responses.
My father never really fit in anywhere. He fought his way through life, never held a job for long, ran through four marriages (one before my mother and two after), surrounded himself with guns, occasionally threatened other men—“I’m an ex-Marine, you know.” It was only later, after I’d been to war, that I began to wonder, Did he live with things he’d seen that never went away?
My daughter was born when I was nineteen. I was building transmissions in a small shop in Asbury Park, New Jersey, during the day and working in a restaurant at night. There was a waitress there with blonde hair and a tight uniform. I got her pregnant one night in the backseat of my ’67 Mustang. A few months after my daughter was born, I was in the supermarket buying Pampers and formula when I ran into my boys. They were buying beer for a night on the town.
I was ashamed I wasn’t out chasing women and getting drunk. I felt I’d failed a vision of manhood that I’d inherited, both as my father’s son and simply as an American male. I’d lost my independence to roam, to seduce women, and, most important, to inflict or endure violence.
I contemplated going to Mexico, like I’d seen guys in the movies do, just running someplace where no one knew me and I could get a clean start. But I’d never been farther west than Ohio, so I stuck it out in New Jersey and slept on my girlfriend’s mom’s couch, until the mother, seeing I wasn’t going to marry her daughter, threw me out.
I did raise my daughter, after a fashion. She stayed with me on weekends and for a month or two in the summer, and got my phone calls from the road. I put her through college and grad school. I learned from my grandfather that you work hard and you take a certain amount of responsibility.
In all fairness to my father, he tried to keep in touch when I was young. It didn’t help that my mother had a warrant out for him. In my teens I lived with him for a time, but he was a violent, bitter man, and we fought constantly. The day after graduating from high school, I was gone.
I never set out to cover wars. I saved some money at the transmission shop and went to art school in New York to be a fine art photographer. My daughter and her mom stayed behind in New Jersey; my daughter’s mom still waitresses in the same restaurant where I met her twenty-five years ago. I dropped out of school when the money ran out, and I started trying to make it as a photojournalist—a job where I could combine my love for photography with my fascination with history. I worked construction during the week, then shot on the streets of New York at night and on weekends, peddling pictures to the wire services for twenty-five dollars apiece.
In 1987, when I was twenty-four, a friend was going to Haiti to cover the first election after the fall of “Baby Doc” Duvalier and invited me along. A community newspaper in New York gave me credentials and a promise to give my work a look when I returned. I went with my friend and accidentally made it to war, but it didn’t look like the picture on the wall in Maine. There were no battle lines, no armies in uniforms. On a steaming November morning, I found myself in a room full of women and girls who’d been hacked to death with machetes by Duvalier’s thugs.
Later that morning, those thugs, the Tonton Macoutes, caught me out in the street, photographing a fresh corpse like it was some sort of anthropological experiment. I knew what that deeper question was now: A few minutes ago, this man was alive, breathing, going home to his family, working on his dreams for tomorrow. Now he lay dead on the pavement. I wanted to know why. I thought my camera might reveal an answer, but I had lingered too long. The killers trained their guns on me, talked for a moment, and then drove away. Other journalists were killed that day. I was spared. For days afterward I shook so badly I couldn’t pick up a glass of water; sleep eluded me for months.
I’ve covered a dozen wars since then. I manage it better now, but that feeling of absolute, heart-pounding terror never goes away. In Iraq, near An Nāsirīyah or Mosul, we would drive down a dirt road where, a day or two before, a Humvee had blown up; we would see bodies being carried out in small pieces. You knew the insurgents had been out at night setting new IEDs—improvised explosive devices—and so you’d sweat and clench and swear you’ll never do this again. If you can just make it through this time, you promise, you’ll never come back. Then you turn around and do it again the next day or the next week, and you can’t explain why.
Some men think its bravery. John Burns, the Baghdad bureau chief for the New York Times, once told me that much of what is termed bravery is simply men being too obstinate, or too dumb, to understand their own mortality. I don’t know what it is for me, but I sometimes feel as if I’m standing on a beach and there are waves smothering me—waves of advertisements for shit I don’t need, of profiles of people who’ve never done anything except be famous, of politicians mouthing platitudes, of hundreds of TV channels showing nothing. And sometimes I can take one picture that lets me grab onto something real in this world.
Not long ago in Iraq, I walked into the countryside in the dawn light with a platoon of U.S. soldiers. Most were in their early twenties; a few were only eighteen or nineteen years old. They had joined the army for many reasons, some out of patriotism, some—the ones from military families—because that’s just what you did at eighteen, some because they wanted to prove themselves and loved the action and camaraderie. They were a cocky, cheerful bunch. They told fag jokes and stories about getting pissed together, about bar fights and getting so drunk they ate one another’s puke.
On patrol that morning, the commander paused for a long moment to get map coordinates and do radio checks. Then we set off along a sandy trail that wended through a handful of bombed-out houses. The air was still, and in the palm groves beyond the trail there was an early-morning beauty that I’d never seen before in Iraq, a place I would rate as the most unlovely of the fifty or so countries I’ve worked in. Still, I felt uneasy on the trail. The sand was good cover for an IED or a command-detonated mine, and the palm groves offered excellent cover for snipers.
I stepped inside an abandoned building to photograph the patrol through a shattered window. Birds chirped in the distance as I studied the rubble for trip wires. And then whoomph! The air filled with smoke. Shrapnel rained down around me. A soldier screamed. I checked my legs and the rest of my body for wounds. Had I tripped an IED? Was I dead and didn’t know it? There was no blood. A feeling of nausea settled over me. I’d heard the sound of an explosion often enough before. It comes at the moment of a man’s death. I knew I had to go out there and start shooting.
I ran through the smoke, listening for gunfire—a sign of an ongoing attack—but there was none. A call went out alerting us that we might be in a minefield. No one moved except me and the medic.
Through the haze I saw an eight-foot-wide crater, and behind it, a soldier’s upper torso. He’d been cut in half above the waist. His legs were gone and his eyes were open, staring at the sky. His blood pooled slowly in the sand. Behind him the medic was already at work on another bloody soldier. I raised my camera and started to shoot.
“No fucking pictures!” the captain screamed. Soldiers have gotten violent with me when their comrades have been killed. I took a few frames then put the camera down and started helping to bandage the most badly wounded soldier. He had taken a lot of shrapnel, and his face looked like hamburger. We checked his torso for wounds, but there were none. He was pleading, “Doc, you got to give me something. I can’t take this pain. I can’t take it.” His friend was lying dead against his legs, but he didn’t know it. He couldn’t see through the blood in his eyes, and he felt nothing but the stabbing pain.
The scene was eerily quiet, save for a radioman calling for a medevac. A minute later, the soldier’s sobbing began to mix with the birdcalls in the stifling, still air.
I slowly walked over to the captain and told him that I was going to do my job and that he could take my cameras later if he wanted. He nodded to me, maybe knowing that no one was going to move through a minefield to stop me anyway. I walked among the wounded men, shooting as I went and trying to lend a hand where I could. Platoon members carefully put the wounded onto litters and carried them to a landing zone for the helos. Then four young men lifted the dead soldier’s torso gently into a body bag. One bent down and began to rip the gear off his comrade’s flak vest. Then he thought better of it, reached up, and quietly zipped the bag closed.
Another platoon, working a few hundred meters to the south of us, had a soldier sniped through the brain a few minutes later. They evac’d him with his helmet still on, to keep his head from falling apart. He died an hour or so later.
No one saw the enemy in either attack. The war in Iraq is bad that way. Mostly, you ride around as IED bait instead of engaging the enemy. But I bet the boys in the trenches thought World War I was a shitty war, too. I wonder what the lithograph from this war will look like. It’s hard to make a heroic picture of guys slogging through the fields, fearing, expecting, waiting for an ambush.
I had a plan when I was in Iraq. I was going to come back to the States and live on a tree-lined street with this smart, sexy woman I loved. She had an apartment full of sunlight. Our friends and family would be there with us, eating and laughing.
But when I returned to Brooklyn, something had changed, in me and in the city. In my formerly industrial neighborhood, black nannies now pushed fat white babies in $400 strollers; my neighbor’s new car had separate air-conditioning zones for each occupant; a friend obsessed over his iPod remote control. No one was the least concerned with the Iraq war. My neighbors’ programs did not include getting their legs or testicles blown off by someone wiring 155-millimeter shells together and pressing a garage door opener. They didn’t worry about having to shit into a colostomy bag, or about being spoon-fed because they had gotten their arms blown off. And why should they?
So I got back to the world and I felt a certain arrogance washing over me, and a certain anger. I couldn’t think about much except getting out again. My woman wanted me to go into therapy, but I didn’t feel the need to pay an expert to facilitate this intersection—the intersection between the violence I saw every day in Iraq and people going blithely about their lives at home. And I wasn’t going to cop to this war junkie stuff.
I’d found a useful role in this world, a way to give evidence that has value. I had nothing to apologize for, nothing I needed to be diagnosed for. Some things in this world just are, and that’s all right. They don’t need to be satisfactorily resolved.
I put my things in storage and took the first assignment that got me far from New York.
I leave for the Congo next week, then for Iraq again in a couple of months—it will be the fifth calendar year in which I’ve worked there. I have no home really, just the road, a room in Baghdad, a few friends’ places in Dakar where I sometimes crash.
I’m forty-five now, the same age my father was when he split, and maybe I’m not that different from him. I know my limitations better. Unlike him, I got out before I got in. But his fascination with violence, his need to stay in motion, and his desire to be irresponsible have all filtered down into me. And I’m OK with that.
“Shooting The Truth” by Michael Kamber is an essay from The Good Men Project book. You can buy the book here.
All photos used with permission by Michael Kamber www.kamberphoto.com