Today, the Veterans History Project (VHP) releases a new research guide focusing on photograph collections contributed by veterans who served in the Global War on Terror following the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001. One of the Library’s many LibGuides, our new research guide was designed to provide users with a glimpse into a handful of the nearly 5,000 collections in our archive relating to veterans who served in recent conflicts.
We chose to focus our LibGuide on these photograph collections for a variety of reasons. Digital photography became accessible and ubiquitous in the early 2000s, just as U.S. military forces were deployed to Iraq, Afghanistan, and other locations around the world as part of the Global War on Terror. Instead of lugging around heavy cameras and worrying about how to develop their film, servicemembers used pocket digital cameras to capture the sights and scenes of their deployment—and shared these images with their friends and families back home via email and social media. Now preserved as part of the Veterans History Project, these photographs are an important part of veterans’ first-person narratives, speaking volumes about their service experiences.
To give you a taste of this new research guide, the authors—Nathan Cross, Justina Moloney, and myself—wanted to go behind the scenes a bit and give you a sense of our curatorial process. Below, we’ve chosen a few of the images that are part of the LibGuide and explained how they personally resonated for us. We hope that you are similarly captivated, and that these images inspire you to check out the new LibGuide and our other collections from Iraq and Afghan War veterans.
From Nathan Cross, VHP Archivist:
Afghanistan is often described as “the graveyard of empires”– to the point that this sobriquet has become an eye-roll-inducing cliché, trotted out any time someone wants to succinctly explain Afghanistan’s history of failed foreign interventions. It is superficial and a thoroughly unsatisfactory historical explanation of anything, as it glosses over the vast differences between the various “empires” who have invaded or intervened in Afghanistan and their different objectives, approaches, and outcomes. Alexander the Great invaded the region that is now Afghanistan in 330 B.C. as part of his war of conquest against Persia. The British fought three unsuccessful wars in Afghanistan between 1838 and 1919, all based on their perception of Afghanistan as key terrain in a strategic rivalry with Russia. From 1979 to 1989, the Soviet Union waged a brutal but likewise unsuccessful campaign in Afghanistan based on their perceived need for a communist buffer state along their southern border. Other empires– Persian, Kushan, Arab, Mongol, Sikh–have similarly come and gone, though all under very different historical circumstances.
The “graveyard of empires” metaphor is not just popular among American audiences, however–it is also a title that many Afghans cherish. When I deployed to Helmand Province in 2011 as a Marine, the locals were keen to point out a small hill near our patrol base, which they said was the site of a fort built by Alexander the Great’s troops. My team later relocated to Forward Operating Base (FOB) Shawqat, a British-operated base in Nad Ali District that was built in 2009 on the site of a mud brick fort that the British had constructed in the 19th century during one of the Anglo-Afghan Wars. You could still see plenty of ruins of the old fort’s towering walls, which must have been 30 feet high at least. The legend on base was that the local community leaders had allocated the site for the British to build their new FOB based on the logic of “that’s where you stayed the last time you were here, so you can stay there again.” Our interpreters also told us that some of the locals did not draw a sharp distinction between us and the Soviet troops that were there in the 1980s, and would sometimes refer to us as “the Russians.”
So while the graveyard analogy might fail as a historical explanation, it is also clear that it is firmly embedded into the folklore of warfare in Afghanistan. One of my favorite folkloric sayings about the study of history (dubiously attributed to Mark Twain) is that “history doesn’t repeat itself, but it often rhymes.” I see this phenomenon of rhyming historical events in the history of foreign interventions in Afghanistan.
Dean Baratta’s photograph of an abandoned Soviet T-62 tank, rusting in a boneyard of abandoned vehicles somewhere near Bagram Air Base, provides an almost perfect illustration of the “graveyard of empires” trope. Afghanistan is a beautiful country, as Baratta’s photograph collection illustrates, and the detritus of war appears shockingly and sadly out of place there. War, violence, and political instability are unfortunately facts of life for Afghans, and this reality has become all the more stark in recent months, due to the collapse of the Afghan government and rise to power of another Taliban regime. This decaying T-62 is one of the few remnants of the intervention of one of the most powerful military forces in history, one that was sent to Afghanistan based on flawed understandings of Afghan society and overconfidence in the appeal of the Soviet brand of modernism.
Now, 32 years after the Soviets left, United States and other NATO veterans are being forced to confront the aftermath of our own intervention in Afghanistan. I take solace in appreciating that the Marines and other servicemembers I knew who went there did their jobs skillfully, with honor and decency. There are lessons to be learned from our intervention in Afghanistan, and my hope is that as a country we can inquire after these lessons with urgency and sobriety. A key part in this learning process should be listening to those who were there, whose experiences have much to tell us about the day-to-day realities of America’s longest war.
From Megan Harris, VHP Reference Specialist:
This photo of Cristina Frisby is well-known among the VHP staff, and it’s one of my favorite photographs in our archive. Seeing Frisby’s wide grin, coupled with her enthusiastic thumbs up, it’s hard not to smile. The sheer delight on her face stands in contrast to the more somber tone of many of the collections in our archive, and for this reason, we often turn to this photo when we need to inject a little humor or light-heartedness into the topic at hand. But for all of the joy it contains, it also reflects the complexity of Frisby’s personal story, as well as the reality of service in Iraq.
As we discuss in the new LibGuide, Frisby served with the California National Guard and deployed to Camp Speicher, Iraq, in January 2005, where her battalion took on the challenge of running large logistical convoys throughout the country. As a wheeled vehicle mechanic who was trained to operate recovery vehicles, Frisby served in a role akin to a tow truck driver, rescuing those vehicles—and fellow soldiers—that had been hit by improvised explosive devices (IEDs). A number of Frisby’s photos depict the aftermath of IED attacks, providing a glimpse into the inherent stress of her daily life in Iraq. Looking closely at this particular photo, we see that the headlight of her truck has been shot out—evidence of the close calls and near misses she endured on a regular basis.
That Frisby could provide such a wide smile for the camera, even in the face of such a dangerous job, is a testimony to her resilience, a personality trait that is woven throughout Frisby’s service story. Indeed, what the photos in Frisby’s collection don’t show—what we only learn through her oral history testimony—is how hard she worked to get to Iraq in the first place. She first entered the military in the late 1980s, when she earned a coveted spot to the US Naval Academy, but ended up resigning and facing an inquiry into her sexual orientation. Despite this devastating turn of events, Frisby never gave up on the idea of serving her country, and enlisted in the California National Guard after the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001.
Clearly, there is more to this photo than first meets the eye. Given the detail of the truck headlight, it’s entirely possible that Frisby’s thumbs up is a sarcastic gesture, coupled with a sardonic smile. But even so, I believe that her stance in this photo still reveals her ability to persevere, whether by grinning in the shadow of a bullet-riddled vehicle or by finally fulfilling her dream of serving as a combat soldier.
From Justina Moloney, VHP Archivist:
I was 19 years old and a sophomore in college when my father deployed to Afghanistan; an already momentous age filled with immense change, the vast and miniscule challenges as one grows into the person they hope to become. The year was 2011. Digital cameras were ubiquitous and reasonably affordable. Facebook was still popular amongst my peers. Applications like Skype and Google Voice were becoming accessible to everyone, thus the experience of making a phone call to Afghanistan was similar to a bad connection on a Zoom call today. It was a time when I could somewhat instantaneously tell my dad what was going on in my little college world and hear back from him, relatively quickly, about what was happening in his far more stressful sphere. Our emails back and forth tended to skew to lengthier emails coming from me. I would ask him to describe the country he was in, the people, both fellow service-members and the wider Afghan community he was enmeshed in), his living quarters, the food and any other general comforts that existed. He would share about the exhausting days, the intense heat and dusty environment, the accommodations of the military compound, his snoring bunkmate, a few insights on the mission at hand, and the feeling of constantly being under threat. But mostly, he talked about missing me and my family.
My mind kept veering back to those emails with my dad while reviewing the photography collections of Post-9/11 veterans found within VHP’s collections. The way my dad described this experience felt similar to many of the collections we have of veterans of Operation Enduring Freedom (OEF). Stephen Collins’ photos from his deployment in Afghanistan with the 1st Combat Engineer Battalion, Marine Corps, reminded me of those descriptions and pictures my dad shared during his deployment. A landscape that appears barren and dusty and endless, a beautiful desert environment –my dad likened it to El Paso in geography and Texas in size. Collins stands alone in this landscape, in front of military-contractor made, temporary structures, wearing his desert Marine combat uniform. He could easily be my father, though no physical resemblance exists between the two. The photography found in Stephen Collins’ collection gives us a glimpse into his tours in both in Iraq and Kuwait in 2003, and later a tour in Afghanistan in 2012–the same period my dad was in country. Collins’ collection also includes unit newsletters he maintained and brought home with him, and they include snapshots of messages sent home from himself and his fellow Marines to family and friends. Unsurprisingly in this newsletter, Collins also comments on the accommodations in Afghanistan, writing in his unit newsletter, “The showers have hot running water. The toilets flush. The food in the chow hall is surprisingly good.” Some experiences –and comforts—are truly universal.
I called up my dad recently and reminded him about those emails. He shared with me that, “only those who’ve experienced a war zone will ever truly know what it’s like.” And while I can never pretend to truly grasp what any veterans, particularly of Afghanistan and Iraq, have experienced, I find the abundant photography taken by the veterans we’ve highlighted provide a small glimpse into this environment.
Did you serve in the years after September 11, 2001, and document your experiences through photographs? We would love to add your collection to the Veterans History Project. Please see our website for more information on how to participate: www.loc.gov/vets.