War as They Saw It

Black and white image of rusted out Soviet tank in open grasslands, a few buildings in the distance

A Soviet tank rusts in the Afghan countryside. Photo: Dean Baratta. Veterans History Project.

— This is a guest post by Nathan Cross, an archivist in the American Folklife Center. It first appeared in the Library of Congress Magazine.

Service members long have used photography as a means of capturing the essence of their experiences. As technology improved, cameras became more available, and pocket-sized digital cameras gave service members in Iraq and Afghanistan the freedom to take hundreds of photographs without having to worry about running out of film.

Today, hundreds of those images are housed in the collections of the Library’s Veterans History Project. The project recently released a research guide focused on photo collections contributed by veterans of the global war on terror that followed the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks.

Joseph Beimfohr’s photos let viewers peek into his war.

Beimfohr enjoyed his time in the Army, as can be seen by his broad smile in photos with Iraqi soldiers and civilians. But he did not shy away from harsh realities, either, and he prepared himself and his soldiers for the worst situations they could face. In his photos, he and his section undergo medical training, learning to start IVs — an unpleasant but necessary skill when lives hang in the balance.

Color image of a U.S. soldier in full battle gear, wearing sunglasses, smiling, standing among three Afghans citizens

Joseph Beimfohr in Iraqi in 2005 in full battle gear. Photo courtesy of Joseph Biemfohr. Veterans History Project.

On July 5, 2005, Beimfohr faced one such worst-case scenario. An improvised explosive device detonated under his feet, grievously wounding him and killing another soldier. Injured in both legs, his hand and abdomen, Beimfohr had both legs amputated. Despite being told by doctors he wouldn’t walk again, Beimfohr was walking on prosthetic legs within six weeks and went on to compete in adaptive sports such as paramarathons and paratriathlons.

“I’ve learned that we place the limitations on ourselves as far as what we think we can’t do,” he said. “People will tell guys that are injured, ‘Oh, you won’t be able to walk, you won’t be able to do this and you can’t do that.’ And then we go out and do it.”

Biemfohr in rehab, walking on a treadmill with two artificial legs

Beimfohr gutting it out in rehab. Veterans History Project.

Dean Baratta served as an Army intelligence specialist deployed to Bagram Air Base in Afghanistan as part of a task force responsible for base security.

In an early email home, Baratta characterized his unit’s mission in optimistic terms: “So many armies have come to Afghanistan to fight and die for prestige, money or power. We actually have the opportunity to make the lives of countless people better and, in turn, the world safer for everyone.”

The photos in his VHP collection convey a palpable sense of dashed hope, of shattered idealism. There are joyous scenes, such as a Christmas parade at Bagram, and idyllic vistas of the Afghan mountains and countryside are captured in rich colors. But there also are heart-wrenching pictures of poverty and the detritus of decades of war — often in stark black and white.

In his day-to-day work analyzing security threats around Bagram, Baratta learned firsthand the frustrations of trying to bring about positive change as part of an unwieldy international intervention while navigating complex and often cynical local politics.

“I’m an idealist at heart, and I went in really hoping to see some change and being able to point to one thing that I really improved some lives or made things a lot better or something,” Baratta said in his VHP oral history. “And I left not really feeling that way.”

The photos of other Iraq and Afghanistan veterans in VHP’s holdings provide many other visual accounts of service and sacrifice. Captured in the oral history interviews they gave and the personal photographs they took, these veterans’ stories offer a human collage of the American military experience in Iraq and Afghanistan.

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