Letter From Military History – September 2012

By Michael W. Robbins
7/5/2012 • MH Editorial

Seeing War

As far back as history has told us about human life, it has been telling us about organized violence—warfare. But most of what we know about early warfare has come down to us in words: first through oral traditions, then in extensive written accounts by Homer, Thucydides and other luminaries. Of course, the people who fought or lived in the paths of clashing armies understood the nature of war. But absent visual representations of battle, few others could have understood how war looks.

Early depictions of warfare appeared in carvings and hieroglyphics and on coins and jewelry, amphorae, weapons and shields—think Trajan’s Column (AD 113) in Rome. Eventually sophisticated drawing and painting, in both East and West, began to show how war looked. From the Renaissance to the 20th century, some artists conveyed what we now consider accurate—and often troubling—images of warfare.

Then came photography.

About 180 years ago—“yesterday” in the sweep of history—a mechanical method emerged to preserve otherwise ephemeral images of human activity. The first military actions photographed were in Mexico and Crimea, and while the technology of photography improved slowly, the impacts of early war pictures was immediate and far-reaching: The sense of loss and waste that haunted images by Civil War photographers Matthew Brady and Alexander Gardner, of sprawled dead Confederate and Union soldiers, first brought home the realities of war for millions who had never seen such sights.

As brilliant and affecting as those pictures were, there was no color, and people, after all, do not see the world in black and white. Full-color images of war finally emerged in World War I (the subject of the portfolio in this issue) with the development of autochromes. Over the ensuing century rapid developments in color film photography, then cinema, television and digital imagery, have ensured with ever-greater fidelity and immediacy that anyone in the world can see war and its consequences. That has had profound effects on public attitudes toward war. Consider the impacts of Life magazine’s iconic photographs of World War II, of television broadcasts and news photographs of daily combat in Vietnam, of the searing images of the terrorist attacks on Sept. 11, 2001, of the bloody fighting in Iraq and Afghanistan, and of the street battles of the “Arab Spring.”

Now we do know how war looks.

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