No matter what new technologies develop, singular photos always seem to provide the lasting images that sum up wars on the whole. Matthew Brady's shots at Antietam brought the horror and carnage of the Civil War home, the V-J Day "Kiss" captured the euphoria and relief of the end of the "good war," and the terrifying "Napalm Girl" displayed the barbarity of modern weaponry unleashed on a civilian populace.
The most iconic photo of the Iraq War -- and by extension the war in Afghanistan -- is the "Marlboro Marine" shot. It's the now iconic 2004 still of a grubby, weary soldier named James Blake Miller taking a smoke break during the brutal assault on Fallujah. It's an amazing image, a young man caked in blood and dirt, dazed, but thankful to be alive. The one thing about the "Marlboro Marine" though, to me at least, it that it's more about the grit, determination heroism and fear of soldiers of all wars, not just the current conflicts. It will live on forever, but it just as easily represents Marne, Guadalcanal or Gettysburg.
Last week, the wife and I went to check out the Whitney Biennial, the 75th installment of the latest in contemporary art. Typically, it featured the sublime, the ridiculous and the generally inexplicable.
One exhibit, however, stood apart from the rest and made the entire Biennial seem small and unimportant by comparison. Nina Berman's photo essay "Marine Wedding" is a series of unstaged photos of sergeant Ty Ziegel, then 24, back home as he prepares for his wedding to his high school sweetheart Renee Klein, then 21. Ziegel survived a suicide bomber attack in Iraq, but was severely disfigured and needed 50 reconstructive operations. The exhibit's notes are few, but it does explain that, "A plastic dome, with holes where his ears and nose used to be, replaced his shattered skull."
The entire collection is gut wrenching, and the wedding portrait in particular is heart-breaking almost beyond description. Some of the photos show Ziegel adapting to his new reality in a way that at least gives us hope, but the wedding picture says otherwise. In it, Ziegel's decked out in his Marine best, looking down upon his beautiful bride, but Klein's gaze tells us her mind is elsewhere. It should be the one of the happiest days of his life, but all I could see was sadness.
It pains me to say this, and I sincerely mean no disrespect, but there is no way to look at the photo without wishing it to be some sort of Beauty & the Beast fantasy come to life. But life isn't like the movies; happy endings are few and far between where war is concerned. The wounded marine's living nightmare doesn't even offer the cathartic Grand Guignol release of an Eli Roth splatter film or a Goya painting.
This is Ty Ziegel's life. He and Renee separated after a few months and are now divorced.
Perhaps the harshest reality of Berman's incredible photo exhibit is knowing that Ziegel probably wouldn't have survived any of America's previous conflicts. The incredible advancements in battlefield medicine have given our soldiers an incredible survival rate of over 90 percent. And in what is either a gift from God, or the cruelest joke of the Devil, Ziegel's body below the neck (and minus a left arm) seems to be in working order. The collection gives the appearance that he will live for a long time.
A week later, staring at the photo gives me pangs of guilt about my own happy wedding memories. Unfounded, yes, but once a Catholic always a Catholic. Tomorrow is Good Friday and although I no longer believe in much these days, Berman's essay had me thinking about what this life on Earth means. As a kid, I always terrified by nails through hands and feet, a bloody crown of thorns, and the torturous death of the man on the cross. The hope and joy of the resurrection never washed away the pain and agony of the crucifixion... in my mind anyway.
If you can't get to New York City, I would ask that you take a few minutes to look through "Marine Wedding." If nothing else, it's a stark reminder that these wars have consequences and many of our sons and daughters are having their lives permanently altered in faraway lands.
It's not like the words of some silly blogger matter a whit -- nor do I assume anything about the man's life -- but for what it's worth, these photos will haunt me for a long time. To our troops, their families, Renee Klein, and Marine sergeant Ty Ziegel, I would like to offer one thing this Easter weekend:
Peace be with you.
(Ed Note: Anyone seeking to help seriously wounded veterans should contact Fisherhouse.org, which provided the Ziegels with housing support.)