The Bombsight and the Viewfinder

David Beers

In the spring of 2002, grieving Afghans gathered outside the U.S. embassy in Kabul to ask the world power that had dropped bombs on their loved ones to offer some accounting, some compensation, some acknowledgement. None came.

The West has not measured the “collateral damage” inflicted in the American-led war to topple the Taliban in Afghanistan. The West has never formally tallied dead civilians, much less made an estimate of the immeasurable: the social and psychic pain that lingers, like so many explosive mines, beneath the surface of war’s aftermath.

We were told the war was precise. It was so laser guided as to be “humane” according to the U.S. Secretary of Defense. We were told it was a “merciful war” by New York Times columnist Nicholas Kristof, who figured it this way: Though far more innocents might be killed by U.S. bombs than died in the previous month’s Al Qaeda attacks on New York and Washington, the coming rebuilding of Afghanistan, he reasoned, could save a million lives by giving its people more food, health care, education, freedom and opportunity. 

Now that time (and another war) has elapsed, a person like me, who does not know Afghanistan but wants its people to recover and thrive, may comb the Internet to see whether the promised precision and mercy have borne fruit.

But nothing yet tells how 2,000-pound cluster bombs dropped from high-flying B-52s managed to obliterate precisely. And on the ground today, the mercies seem stingy. “In 2003 Iraq received $26 billion in reconstruction aid” while far less went to Afghanistan, which is “larger and more populous and with a fraction of Iraq's wealth and infrastructure,” writes Anne Brodsky, a professor at the University of Maryland who recently spent six months in the region. Afghanistan got about $3 billion. “Meanwhile, the 2003 opium crop brought an estimated $2.3 billion,” notes Brodsky, adding that much of Afghanistan is off limits to the U.N. as fighting factions killed 1000 people last year, including 600 aid workers.
The view fashioned from such numbers can seem like a grainy aerial photo, so coarse and wide-angled and distant as to numb a Westerner to our ongoing complicity in Afghanistan’s fate.

Very valuable, then, is this exhibit made by Western eyes peering not through bombsights but through viewfinders.

Like most fine photo-documentary, these images would seem to beautifully simplify moments, yet alert the imagination to myriad implications. We see a vendor holding up a doll he can peddle now that the Taliban have been banished from power. The doll is blond. Does that imply some measure of cultural liberation for the doll’s eventual buyer? Or estrangement from local customs, the slide into globalized glitz?

We see a place impossibly exotic: A dogfight in the desert. Polo played with a goat carcass. An abandoned palace. A crowd straining to kiss a velvet pole for luck. You think to yourself, What a strange and ancient land . . .

We see a place perfectly prosaic. Kids flying their kites. Kids doing their kung fu. Kids with hammy grins and paper butterflies on their noses. You think to yourself, How similar are young children everywhere . . . 

We see as backdrop, in almost every frame, ruin. You wonder, How do these people, how would I, dig out and move on?

If photo-documentary is meant to engage the viewer in this kind of open-ended “conversation,” what keeps rudely intruding here is the stark horror of limbs gone, arms and legs blown off by some version of Western-made bombs before the subject ever made his or her way into a Western viewfinder. How does one muse about a stump of flesh? who is so cerebral as to stand before a beautifully made image and muse about the terrible, inevitable wounds of war?

Instead, distilled emotion is what such photographs summon. Tragically aware, shoulder-slumping emotion rather than the furious, fist-pumping emotion that ruled the West just after 9/11. The fierce craving then was for retaliation against a shadowy enemy, a craving that blurred bombsights over Afghanistan and, three years hence, is losing more focus every day. 

These photographs are sharp, clear, permanent. They demand of my Western eyes some accounting, some compensation, some acknowledgement.

David Beers is a widely published journalist and founding editor of the on-line news source, based in Vancouver, BC