The following are excerpts from presentations given at our November 30, 2012, teacher workshop "American Wars." The workshop took place at the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston in conjunction with the museum's exhibition WAR/PHOTOGRAPHY: Images of Armed Conflict and Its Aftermath, on view until February 3, 2013. See the "American Wars" slideshow article to view photos from the workshop.
Photos brought the war to the nation’s doorstep. Civilians had never seen war before, certainly not in the United States. There were very few people alive who could remember the American Revolution, or, for that matter, the War of 1812. Here you have a massive war that is taking place in the confines of the United States of America or the Confederacy, whichever you choose to call the South during this time. It is hard to overstate the impact that photographs had on the American public, whether they were from the North or from the South.
Photographs offered far more immediacy than even the best etchings could offer. . . . Alexander Gardner got to the battlefield at Antietam within a couple of days of the end of the battle. His photos and many others appeared in October of 1862 in Matthew Brady's studio in New York City. This was the first major photography exhibit on the Civil War in the country, and it was an absolute sensation. It had an enormous impact. The lines for this exhibit wrapped around the block . . . [It] went up just a month after the battle was over, and it was the first time that the American public had seen the horrors of war. Here's what the New York Times said about it at the time: "Mr. Brady has done something to bring home to us the terrible reality and earnestness of war. If he has not brought bodies and laid them in our dooryards and along streets, he has done something very like it." . . .
[The Civil War was the] first major war that was heavily documented in photographs, which means we have some sense of an idea of how things looked at the time. It gives us a window on the world of the Civil War. It allows us to connect with the people of the time differently, to see how they lived and in some cases how they died. We can see what slavery looked like, and we can see what freedom looked like, especially for the black men who chose to fight for the Union. And as for the people at the time, these photographs give us a window onto the horrors of this particular war. For the people at the time, photography offered a way to connect differently with both their loved ones and their leaders.
Abraham Lincoln was brilliant with photography. He had a lot of pictures taken of him, and partly it was a way of connecting with the public, but for people who were paying attention, they could see the toll that this war was taking on Lincoln. This was particularly true for the Union soldiers. It gave them a very powerful connection with their commander in chief, because they could see that the war was as hard on Lincoln as it was on them. For the people at the time, the imagery, the photos of the war brought the war home to them and gave them a different understanding of the war. There was a "you are there" quality to these pictures. It made the battlefield, to some small degree, a shared experience for soldier and civilian alike, and it brought people at the time a greater understanding of the cost of war—and with the images of slaves and black soldiers, the implications of the war and a better understanding of what was at stake in the Civil War.
War photographers don't know how to photograph a war until they have to deal with war. . . . In World War I, one of the key things was you didn't want your head above ground [in the trenches]. . . . If you did have your head above ground, it was in assaults across no man's land that were often extremely futile—60 percent casualties before they get to the other side. Life was lived and died in the trenches, and these became quite elaborate. . . .
If you were in the front lines, you had to keep your head below ground as long as possible because as soon as you stuck your head up you risked getting shot in the head by a sniper from the other side. That applied to war photographers as well. It was very dangerous if you were a war photographer to try to take a picture of actual combat. As far as I know we don't have pictures of actual combat from World War I, not because of the limitations of the cameras, but because it was too dangerous. Most of the pictures of soldiers going over the top or attacking the other side are taken from maneuvers or exercises the troops have done where there's not a danger of the cameraman being shot. There are a few, but they're very few and far between. So what we're getting is that one of the essential experiences of World War I, which is this charge across no-man's land to try to rout the Germans out from the trenches, doesn't appear that often or at all in the visual record. What's not shown is often as important as what is shown. . . .
World War II was much more mechanized and much more mobile until the invasion of the Soviet Union for the Germans. What that meant was that the challenge for war photographers on all sides was how to portray this mechanized war. So bottom line is, there's a big emphasis on showing machines as well as human beings. It really actually in some ways shows the limits of still photography when you're trying to convey what airplanes can do and what their job is and what an air attack is like. That's increasingly done with moving images, in propaganda films especially.
I've always been fascinated by history. My dad was killed by a drunk driver when I was three years old, but he did fight in World War II. . . . Part of teaching is to remind people how we got here, the sacrifices made to get us here. I'm a veteran. I volunteered during the Vietnam War. I've seen war. I'm no hero, but where we are today is because millions of people—I’m sure a lot of your dads, grandfathers, and grandmothers—have been involved.
War requires leadership and extraordinary sacrifice. America to me truly is an exceptional nation. Every time that our country's been challenged, we've risen to the challenge. . . . [War is] also a story about people. And every one of you has a relative who was involved one way or another in World War II. If any of them are still alive—if there's one common element among veterans during World War II, they didn't talk—make sure you corner those family members and talk to them. You'll hear fascinating stories. You’ll hear about my dad’s bombardier, when I said, "I think I recall my mom said that y'all were close." Here's a ninety-two year-old guy. He said, "Close? He was my best friend. . . ."
It's people, it's stories, it's personal narratives, and it's the big picture, and it's moving, at least for me. Thank you for what you do.
Since Japan launched its war in the Pacific in 1941, historians have increasingly found themselves hard-pressed to answer the question, and it's the basic question: what were [they] thinking? Now, parsing the outbreak of the war, the run-up to Pearl Harbor, is not all that difficult. Japan was trapped in a war that it could not win in China, and that neither could it bring to any sort of conclusion. It could neither retreat, nor could it win. Now, in order to bring that war to a successful conclusion, Japan looked around the Pacific Basin, saw western European empires that were now under threat and without guidance because the mother countries—Britain, France, the Netherlands—were under threat in Europe, in fact, at war, and in some cases, were run by the German army.
So you have huge resource areas that were now vulnerable. I'm thinking of the Malay Peninsula for oil and tin, the Dutch East Indies (today Indonesia), still one of the richest petroleum regions in the world, and others as well. If Japan could seize those territories, it would have the resources, theoretically, to bring that war in China to a successful conclusion. Standing in the way of course was the United States and the United States's Pacific fleet. The United States had made it clear that it would not allow Japan to build some massive empire in the Pacific or to close off American shipping from the Pacific. There were various embargoes on rubber and scrap iron, and there was a freeze on Japanese assets in the summer of 1941, which is a serious thing to do. Faced with what looked like an impossible situation, the Japanese decided to widen the war and launch the decisive stroke against the American fleet at Pearl Harbor. . . .
[The Japanese] believed that Americans were essentially business-oriented people, that they knew how to read a balance sheet. Costs and benefits. At the end of the day, they would say it's not worth ten thousand lives to assault Guadalcanal or Tarawa or Guam or Wake Island or the thousands of other islands that you could name in the Pacific. . . . There's just no way that any American president would do that, nor would the American people stand for it. . . .
Now, strategies have a way of falling apart, and this fell apart early. And I would say that it fell apart by the evening of December 7, 1941. The Japanese, of course, launched a strike on the U.S. fleet at Pearl Harbor. They intended it to be a bold, surprise action, and of course it was: it was a classic bold, out-of-the-blue attack . . . a dastardly deed carried out at the very moment that Japanese negotiators were in Washington trying to pull the wool over the eyes of the American government.
President Roosevelt nailed it in a speech the next day to Congress. Seven minutes of history. Today, presidents drone on. President Roosevelt took precisely seven minutes to outline why the United States should go to war with Japan. Of course, he nailed the first sentence: "A day which will live in infamy." . . . It wasn't just a military move. It was a crime. Americans went from anti-war to pro-war virtually overnight, and they were now ready to do the very thing the Japanese felt they never would do in a million years: war to the death. One island, one atoll, one fortification at a time across the Pacific. . . .
The iconic battle [of World War II in the Pacific] was on a pork chop-shaped hill called Iwo Jima. About four miles long, and roughly two miles wide. About fifty thousand Japanese defenders and something like fifty thousand American attackers were crammed onto this very, very small island. There was nothing detached about the fighting on Iwo Jima. The only way to get a photo of an opposed landing in World War II, like Iwo Jima, was for the photographer to be in a relatively safe position.
The Vietnam War was not just a television war, as many say it was; it was also an image-saturated war. I would make the argument to you that it is the first war where there are not only images in addition to text, but where the images come to crowd out the text in many ways—crowd out the text for those who are viewing the war, but beyond that, crowd out the text for those who are making policy about the war. I would argue this is the first time in the archives where you can find American policymakers being driven by images as much as by policy documents and policy memos, and images that have an immediacy with what they feel they’re making policy about.
When Franklin Roosevelt puts together his War Council . . . any images he's getting are delayed from the battlefield. So they're not being driven by the images. In fact, Roosevelt spent his time looking over maps, not looking over images of the war. He created the Map Room as we know it in the White House today. The Vietnam War is an image-saturated war not just for the consumers of the war, but also for the makers of the war. . . .
When we think about images of the war, we need to think beyond just the Vietnam War to images from other periods. It's extraordinary how often images of Germany and Japan are replayed during the Vietnam War because in many respects they structure the expectations a generation of WWII Americans have of what it's going to be like to be operating in another society. . . . Another set of images that is equally important with the war images are the images of domestic civil rights. One of the other points scholars have made in the last ten years is that you cannot separate the story of the Vietnam War from the story of the civil rights movement and Lyndon Johnson's efforts at building a Great Society. One of the struggles we have is to understand the relationship between these two things. . . . These images become political pieces of action in the society at the time. They are not just descriptors of the society, they are actors in it. . . .
Most Americans could not find Southeast Asia, could not find Vietnam on a map even as a late as 1964, but they had images they could identify from Vietnam. They could identify the imagery that they thought was Vietnam, but they could not identify the geography of it. The imagery trumped the geography. I think that explains in large part American perceptions of what was going on. . . . The fascinating thing about the Vietnam War and the imagery of the war is that it’s also at the center of domestic debates, to a far greater extent than the Korean War was, and really to a far greater extent than any subsequent war has been, in large part because the U.S. military and the U.S. government has learned and strived to control the imagery of the war post-Vietnam in a way it didn't during Vietnam. Just think of how rarely you see images of American service people being killed in action today. It’s very hard to find those images today, but they were ubiquitous during the Vietnam War.