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January 3, 2007

Your Turn: Man At His Best

Esquire-Anderson

It’s great Sgt. Bryan Anderson has such a strong spirit and positive outlook.  One can only hope it keeps up as he goes on dealing with his circumstances.

Still, it’s hard to imagine he’s not being used in just one more media effort to paint a happy face over this miserable war.  As part of a year-end issue in which various personalities respond to the “What I’ve Learned” question, the Esquire teaser for the Sgt. Anderson’s entry reads:

Triple amputee, Iraq-war vet: “You have two options once this happens: Roll over and die or move on. I’m still me. I’m just 75 percent off.”

I’m interested in your reaction to the photo, especially the way the editors, shaping the narrative, place so much emphasis on Anderson’s replacement arm.  I guess, being a publication dedicated to machismo, the utility of that limb (or, reading the article, you might say, the “sport utility” of it) is critical.  Maybe it’s completely accidental, but I see a similar emphasis in the photo.  If you notice the crease of the shirt and the shadow it creates, it shades the “Y” in “ARMY” so that the word “ARM” stands out.  And in fact, isn’t what Anderson uses to hold his purple heart, in fact, a UNITED STATES ARM?

And then, I was wondering about the emotional dynamics of Sgt. Anderson’s injuries, especially to his lower limbs.

In the interview, Anderson expresses bravado about his prosthetic legs, not carrying if anyone sees them.  But we don’t see them.  And, reading between the lines (in the references to getting bumped into, getting knocked down, and having the physically therapy record for falling down), I wonder if Bryan even makes use of those prosthetics, or whether, instead, he’s holding out for those “Terminator limbs” that he envisions being created.

But why do I even raise the issue?  What’s noteworthy about a disabled vet — a former gymnast, in particular — unable to face the fact that prosthetic legs aren’t very functional?

What’s noteworthy is not the tone of the vet, but the tone of the magazine.  What’s “off” is the characterization of Bryan as a model of positive thinking without an appreciation that what is normative at this point — thirteen months after his injuries — is not blanket optimist, but a mixture of hope and an even larger amount of “healthy denial.”

Given the crafting that goes into a cover portrait, there are all kinds of elements here worth a comment, especially in the context of the article.  Here’s the link.



(photo: unattributed.  Esquire Magazine.  Cover.  January 2007)

  • http://uggabugga.blogspot.com quiddity

    I find pictures like that very hard to take, no matter how much the person claims to be adjusting.

  • http://epitaphforacentaur.blogspot.com epitaphforacentaur

    johnny got his gun meets andy warhol/jeff koons meets arnold schwarzenager. this is distasteful, the article is distasteful, even your comments are distasteful.

  • thirdeye pushpin

    PTSD Poster Boy for the post war normalization back host me. It paints a best case scenario picture. Certainly makes me think twice about complaining about my bulged discs and sciatica pain; althought health care support could go a long way towards increasing my optimism

  • juniper

    It seems like it’s another attempt to kind of sanitize the casualities in the war – yes, he’s a triple amputee, but he’s pictured here in a way, as you say, makes him seem normal. When glancing at the photo, it’s easy to miss the fact that his legs aren’t there (they could just be cropped out of the frame). We don’t get to see the messy side of all the injuries.
    Also, you have to stop to read the words on the left hand side to know who this is, and in some ways he’s presented as the average joe american.

  • ummabdulla

    He’s pictured in a way that makes him seem sort of athletic. The thing on his arm could be some kind of brace or equipment used for sports, and it takes a few seconds to realize that he actually has no legs under there. It’s hard to read the “United States Army” on his T-shirt. The purple heart is an indication of who he is, though.
    With all the clutter of letters around him, I didn’t even notice the words on the left that referred to him.
    If he can come out of this with a good attitude and have a good life afterwards, then more power to him. I’m reminded of the classic movie “The Best Years of Their Lives”, though, about veterans coming back after WWII.

  • loop

    Does anybody here remember the grinning Chernobyl victim on the cover of LIFE magazine (Aug 1, 1986)? It seemed to me then that the editors were trying too hard to put a happy face on a disaster. This Esquire cover strikes a similar chord.
    I don’t know how to link, but I found the cover on: http://www.life.com/Life/cover_search/view?coverkeyword=chernobyl&startMonth=1&startYear=1936&endMonth=12&endYear=2006&pageNumber=1&indexNumber=0

  • Aunt Deb

    I guess we’re supposed to admire this young man for his refusal to — well, what is he refusing, exactly? To ‘give in’? ‘Surrender’? To admit defeat?
    This is a pricelessly perverse image, isn’t it. The viewer is being taunted: don’t even think about pitying me. And that is the attitude most comforting to those who luv the GWOT while driving around in their Hummers, listening to Toby Keith or whatever. That viewer can identify with this young man, against the librul surrender monkeys.
    But in the real life this kid isn’t going to be able to avoid having to live, there is less and less VA aftercare available and jobs are disappearing.
    Were others reminded of Max Cleland by this picture? And the contempt with which this administration treated him and his sacrifices?

  • itwasntme

    We see here a young, strong man. I’d like to see a repeat photo in 10 years. Speaking as someone over 40, everyone should know that the only good arm he has left will be extremely overworked over the next decade or so, and the good arm will itself become full of pain. If joint deterioration sets in, he will need more and more help. I hope like hell that prosthetics improve for this, and all the other young men greatly damaged by this “war,” but the future for him is probably full of increasing dependence upon his family’s resources. As those resources dwindle, as his parents age, he will probably need more and more help from the government. We must never forget these young men, and be prepared to stand by them years from now when more help will be needed. It’s a reminder to myself to stay vigilant in the future to elect politicans who will stand by them too, in the decades to come.

  • tina

    I agree with itwasntme. It is going to take time for the full psychological and physical ramifications to make themselves felt. Right now, he is young, he is a hero to everybody (and on the cover of Esquire), he’s determined, as we can see from his photo. But as he ages (and he’s not being called by media outlets who want to hear about his peppy attitude) and he realizes his injuries are going to give him progressively more problems and the “hero” image of himself is replaced with a knowledge of the potential he’s lost, if he has a grain of intelligence he will struggle with incredible despair and bitterness. I wish him luck but I don’t think this is the end of the story.
    We will be seeing more of this surreal imagery. This morning on the radio they had an advert for the Air Force Reserve. Breathlessly, an announcer tells us over a crackly old-fashioned dispatch radio that our heroes “in the War on Terror have been airlifted out of the desert of Iraq to Germany”. Um, if you get flown to Germany it means you’ve been blown up….this is supposed to be attractive to potential recruits? HELLO anyone home???
    What will appeal to young people in this ad will be 1) the chance to be a “hero” 2)excitement and travel–”hey it’s worth it to get wounded if I get a trip to Europe….”
    My friend was recruited and they REALLY played up the international travel and chance for excitement end of it while downplaying the responsibilities, commitments, and dangers to a point that I felt was really dishonest.
    Did this young man enjoy his “free trip to Germany”? Was he even conscious for any of it?
    My God. It’s all so crazy.

  • http://fuming-mucker.livejournal.com Darryl Pearce

    …I’d like to refer everyone to the movie Murderball which deals with quadroplegics and their sport: quad-rugby.
    These pictures bring to my mind the adage: “Healing is giving someone the will to live.” Whether that will is self-motivated or just an affected pretense, the behavior is the same.
    Our behavior towards someone who’s a casaulty is best done with some reality-checking. “Can I help?” and then respect the answer to that question.

  • mugatea

    The use of text is bold. It works with his T. I find it appealing.
    The ‘two legs and one arm in Iraq’ was the first wordage my eye saw after the subject and the masthead.
    Powerful cover, subject and design, regardless of what it’s ultimate meaning is. I’d be interested to know how it’s sells on the newstands vs. some other covers they’ve run.

  • Neal

    The will to live is amazing-there was laughter and music by the concentration camp inmates even with death all around. The will to live or die is in the mind. I hope Bryan finds that will rewarded. And, what about all those brain injuries that we don’t hear so much about?

  • dissector

    I’ve seen this man on TV and feel that he is generally, in public, in denial and being used to put a ‘can-do’ face on the war and to give people a way to feel good about it in some way.
    regarding the photo, I cannot help but notice the posture of his new hand and the placement of the medal relative to what was his crotch. Manly presentation indeed.

  • Stella

    I agree with dissector as to the presentation. I kept trying to figure out the expression on his face. Now I think he’s just a boy showing us the piece of decoration that we (his country) gave him in exchange for his arm and legs, and trying to understand it.
    Reading the article didn’t make me feel good at all, if that’s the point. Words and poses aside – it’s all there in his face.

  • Bugboy

    The first impression I get is that he’s saying “I’m a triple amputee and all I got was this stupid medal.”
    What’s with the goofy hair-do?

  • http://www.theunapologeticmexican.org/elgrito nezua limón xolografik-jonez

    the positioning! is the medal a surrogate cock? this cover is like amputee fetish porn, yikes.

  • PTate in MN

    It took me a moment to realize that he was a triple amputee. What I saw first was the manly black & red body art. I didn’t realize it was a prosthetic arm. I thought it was some kind of a leather fashion accessory.
    The cover is so cluttered with text that all I comprehended were the headlines of “the meaning of life” and “Esquire.” The palette is neutrals–black, gray, tan, flesh tones. The only bright colors are his gold hair and gold medal, the red in Esquire and on his arm and the purple ribbon. The choice of colors emphasizes the prosthetic arm and the medal.
    The purple heart as phallic symbol makes me sad–what is the meaning of life to the readers of a men’s magazine like Esquire? I wonder how many babes will fancy a triple amputee? I wonder if he is likely to ever marry and enjoy the blessings of being a father?
    On the other hand, Czikszentmihalyi’s research on “flow” suggests that people who have experienced such near-death traumas often experience life more fully and with greater meaning than the rest of us. It may be denial, but what else is he supposed to do?

  • http://www.reciprocity-failure.com Stan B

    Critique the photo as you will, comments on the man should be kept to oneself.

  • http://ruinsofempire.blogspot.com/ Rafael

    WAR: The new XTREME SPORT!
    YOU PLAYED THE GAME, DEFEATED THE EXTREMIST RELIGIOUS FANATIC COVENANT ON DELTA HALO NOW JOIN THE REAL MASTER CHIEF IN THE BURNING SANDS OF THE MIDDLE EAST AND ROCK BAGHDAD TO ITS CORE. RIDE IN BLACKHAWKS AT 120MPH OR RUN SHOT GUN ON OUR VERSION OF THE WARTHOG, THE UP ARMORED HUMMV!

  • http://www.woodka.com donna

    My brother-in-law is a disabled vet, suffers from PTSD after a terrorist attack in the Philippines, and leukemia, and only gets partial disability since he was exposed to Agent Orange in the Philippines and not ‘Nam. Apparently this somehow makes a difference in getting full disability, go figure. They wouldn’t even treat his PTSD until recently.
    After dealing with the VA for a number of years, this poor kid will be so broken down it’s hard to imagine he will appreciate the strong image presented of him here.
    We treat our veterans like crap. This is a broken military with a broken veteran’s administration. And these poor kids now get to deal with all that garbage, on top of their loss of limbs and other injuries.

  • http://www.theanonymouswoman.com AnonWoman

    I find Bryan to be a remarkable young man. He is brave and kind and honest and, as he admits, a bit “crazy.” He is an inspiration. I could only hope to have a fraction of the courage he exhibits here if I were struck by similar bad “luck.”
    I do take issue, however, with the men who have exploited him along the way. From the men who started this war, to the men who misrepresent service in the military as “sport,” to the men who who publish magazines wrapping horrific injuries in an attractive machismo package. “The Meaning of Life” jumps out in large, bold type at the top, while “Man At His Best” is merely a footnote beneath the Esquire logo. Brings to mind the book, “War Is a Force that Gives Us Meaning.”
    I find it interesting that Bryan would discourage his own children from entering the military. If only he had someone who had been willing to give him the same advice. Then again, would he have listened?

  • http://www.fromthearchives.blogspot.com Megan

    Oh. I just see a boy, looking up out of the cover, looking for approval and someone to tell him it will be OK. He’s so young, and working so hard to be brave.

  • mugatea

    Stan B Wise.

  • floopmeister

    Critique the photo as you will, comments on the man should be kept to oneself.
    Why?
    He’s on the cover of a national magazine. We are being asked to perceive this young man in a particular way – as a particular person (or type of person). By all means, passively accept this if you want, Stan.
    I’ll make up my own mind about this young man and if I feel like making a comment about his character in this forum then I will do so.
    I will also feel free to comment on patriotism; the selling of a war; the nature of photos and what they may or may not reveal about the subject; or motivations of young men for joining an army to fight.
    If this means commenting on this young man as an individual then by damn I will feel free to do so.

  • floopmeister

    Actually, I don’t have anything negative to say about the character of a brave person who is obviously dealing as well as he can with a horrendous situation.
    He displays a strength of character that I doubt I could.
    But I will not accept an attitude that tells me how I, personally, must feel towards a wounded soldier. My view of his character is your business only as far as I choose to express it to you, Stan.

  • http://www.reciprocity-failure.com Stan B

    I made a lot of stupid mistakes in my life- fortunately, I never had to pay the price of a Sgt. Bryan Anderson, a man who has gone through more trauma than anyone commenting here should know or experience in a lifetime. Save the moral indignation for those who exploit, and then discard him.

  • SEAS

    To me it seems like a cruel version of the classic vacation T shirt that says “My Grandparents Went to Palm Springs and All I Got Was This Lousy T Shirt”, only it’s “George Bush Got His War on Terror and All I Got Was This Lousy Medal”

  • Margaret

    I heard on the radio today that a surgeon at Landstuhl has been on the job for four months and can’t believe the casualties he is seeing. The number of limbs being amputated. One or two sets of genitalia lost PER DAY. That’s one or two kids left castrated and unable to have sex ever again each day, folks. Does this young man still have a penis? The soldier’s torso is protected with body armor much more so than the limbs but even so it gets messed up, as does the head. This surgeon has begun dreading the walk into surgery. What new horror he will have to deal with.

  • boom

    I consider this war porn. This is only to titillate the keyboard warriors….see, he’s doing fine fighting our war with only 25% of his body left. We were right!

  • http://ruinsofempire.blogspot.com/ Rafael

    Ok then, the picture says to me, that even when you loose limbs, the funky colors on the artificial limb or the hip hair cut make WAR an attractive thing. War may be a necessary thing but as a wiseman once said:
    No leader should put troops into the field merely to gratify his own spleen; no leader should fight a battle simply out of pique. But a kingdom that has once been destroyed can never come again into being; nor can the dead ever be brought back to life. Hence the enlightened leader is heedful, and the good leader full of caution.
    - Sun Tzu

  • Cactus

    Nezua: “…amputee fetish porn.” I agree; I’ve been told there is just such a gay sub-culture, but of course, have no first-hand knowledge of same.
    I disagree with StanB, though. This young man has put himself out there in public and the part of the article I read was very first-person personal. In effect, he is allowing himself to be used to deny that amputees, and other severely wounded from this particular war, will have a very, very difficult life ahead.
    Margaret, I heard the same report on the Randi Rhodes show. For an article that references these problems with the VA, go to http://ipsnews.net/news.asp?idnews=36056. But think about this: Two genital amputations per day in a war that has lasted 1387 days………….so far.
    I pretty much agree with PTate; it took me a few seconds to realize that his legs, also, were missing. I can’t help but think that having the ‘empty’ shorts with no legs was a little trick the editorial board wanted to play on its potential readers. Quite cynical, that. I don’t know if this is typical of Esquire, the back-printing of titles of all the articles to find inside, but it seems to serve as a devaluing of the impact of the photo of a young amputee. All those letters detract and while we are trying to make words of them, we are not looking at a young man with no legs.
    Now, after reading the first page of the article, with apologies, I think this guy is still on psych-meds. Or under the influence of care-takers who are buoying him up constantly. The words in the article seemed to be almost hysterically upbeat. I mean this in the sense of an hysteria that serves to cover up a tragedy. I, too, wonder what will happen to this beautiful young man ten years down the road. When the reality of an amputee’s life takes over, when the VA becomes even more recalcitrant, when the glad-handers and the self-serving politicos abandon him, when the meds wear off. In short, when he has to rely on his own resources at 40-something. It will not be an easy road. I wish him luck, but those old statistics haunt……over 50% of the homeless men were VietVets.
    This beautiful young specimen is meant to make us forget that he is the exception, at least today. He was an athlete and may have inner resources others do not. Sam Stone, indeed.

  • readytoblowagasket

    I once saw a man who had only a torso and arms pull himself along on a skateboard through a subway car to panhandle for money. Now *that’s* bravery. Appearing on the cover of Esquire is not.

  • tom bjork

    i am an amputee through trauma as well (right below knee).
    survival is an instinct.
    some may not know they have that instinct until trauma happens.
    after ten years i only realize how well i have healed and how my existence continues to get easier as an amputee.
    how i have learned to manage skin break down etc.
    how i have managed to reconstruct my body image
    and how this is no different, day to day,
    from my neighbor’s scarred knees and the repercussions of aging he feels.
    i saw this soldier and understood his percentages.
    the text in the backround was the texture
    he had settled in,
    where he was whole again.
    the medal, while a surrogate penis, is also the answer to his question ‘why’?
    because i am a warrior.
    holding his penis or a medal is a great accomplishment post trauma.
    even today i must resist feeling sorry for this man,
    feeling sorry never helped me and i object to the comments which express this unwarranted sympathy.
    feeling sorry is selfish gratitude that it wasn’t/isn’t you.
    we are all in denial,
    we all suffer in some degree,
    and our suffering can produce profound experiences.

  • tina

    Cactus, it seems to me like a fairly typical Esquire cover. I don’t know who they’ve got in charge of graphic design but I often find their covers so tooth achingly trendy, sharp and aggressive pictures with funky letters placed in unorthodox arrangements, that its distracting, hard to see at a glance what’s inside the mag, which is what you want the cover to do…sort of like those super hip ads in which you don’t know at the end what product was being advertised, supposedly the point of the exercise. I’ve wondered if this is intentional (to get a shopper to pick up the mag and open it) but have come to the conclusion that it’s just bad design. I’ve never been tempted to buy Esquire off the rack, I’m in a hurry when I’m shopping, if I don’t see something I want to read about I don’t stand around and try to figure out the cover. So I don’t think the lettering was designed to distract from the image of the soldier (it’s too light colored, which also interferes with reading it), just the usual rather confusing and poorly designed Esquire cover.
    Tom Bjork is touching on something our pain averse society rarely dares face….there’s more to the mystery (and meaning, to go back to the Esquire cover) of life than being comfy. This is way too complex a topic for me to write on right now, but a lot of us have struggled with these same things.
    Welcome back, readytoblowagasket! I’ve always enjoyed your comments.

  • mugatea

    tina have you considered that Esquire is not targeting your demographic with this art? Magazines are designed with a specific target audience. Even in this small format of the Bag’s page the type reads pretty easy for this bumbaclaat. It’s more an illustration. I see it – altho, like you, have never picked up a single copy.
    I was taken back by your attack on the designer(s). Seemed short sighted and a tad mean.
    I do agree with with your comment regarding rtbag.

  • lytom

    He went there unwanted!
    He obeyed the orders and did maintain the status of the occupation forces.
    Thanks to him many Iraqi died.
    Thanks to him many more were injured.
    The care for those Iraqi is nowhere comparable to the care he is receiving. He is hero, what are they?
    And now, he is still stoking the fire for the freedom and war on terror.

  • tina

    Well, that’s possible, mugatea, who is their demographic? I’m 39, female, and college educated. I can see well, too, I don’t find the graphics ineffective because I’m old and doddering and more used to bold print Life covers.
    I did not attack the designer(s). They could be brilliant for all I know. But as far as this consumer is concerned their cover art is not an allurement to buy. It’s possible to be good at what you do, but misguided.
    The way the lettering is arranged, right next to and following the line of the body of the man in the photo, makes the words into a backdrop, like wallpaper of a complex pattern. The words aren’t going simply from left to right but rather are two asymmetrical columns. This gives them a back seat to the photo, so it takes you a few seconds to put them in order and see what is in the contents under the heading “the meaning of life”. The words that stand out, being bolder than the others are “Wisdom and DAMN good advice”. Wowee. Tough guys.
    Their covers are frequently like this and frankly just not very appealing to me. That’s all. I guess I don’t care about “attitude”, I just want to know what’s in the magazine.

  • ray

    What kind of English sentence is that:
    I guess, being a publication dedicated to machismo, the utility of that limb (or, reading the article, you might say, the “sport utility” of it) is critical.

  • Lt. Bighorn

    There is only one reaction possible to this photo: anger that young men and women are being killed or maimed because of the stupidity and greed of cowardly psychopaths who think profits are more important than human lives.

  • mugatea

    I think they are going for active people in their 20s, with design like this. They used to be Esquire ‘for men’ as opposed to ‘man at his best’.
    ‘makes the words into a backdrop, like wallpaper of a complex pattern’ .. yes, in gray they look like bars or wires – perhaps something the subject is attempting to break thru.
    Sorry to jump on your comment, tina. When possible I like to challenge the rules of type in my design work. This thread and too many mugs of tea had me emotionally charged yesterday. You make some good points. Readability is important. This site and the comments here have made me a better (well, at least, more informed) designer. Peace.

  • tina

    Sorry mugatea for any offense.
    It’s that old rule, if you sit next to a polite old man on a train and give a long monologue insulting royalty in every conceivable way, when he gets up to leave you always find out from the other passengers that it was the King of Spain.
    Or something like that.

  • Jo

    to sad for words.

  • linjoop

    Taking offense to off-handed comments is tired and boring.
    However, I want to point out that there is nothing wrong with finding the image of this attractive, young former soldier (who happens to be a triple amputee) sexy. So what if I am part of a “gay fetish sub culture?” I happen not to be, but I reserve the right to be. The boy is hot, he’s young, he’s on the cover of a magazine, and he has a great big purple metal where his penis should be. To some of us, whether we be soldier fetishists, amputee fetishist (and the term, my dear, is “devotee”), causasian fetishists, or bad-hair-dye fetishists, we reserve that right. And you know what? I’ll bet you Ryan Anderson is thanking whatever god he believes in that there are people out there like me who aren’t embarassed or (wrongfully) ashamed to stand up and say, “I find you incredibly sexy.”
    We all look at people on the covers of magazines and instantly ask ourselves if we’re attracted to the model. If the answer is yes, sometimes we buy the magazine. In this case, for me, the answer was and is yes. And I bought the magazine. And I loved it.

  • linjoop

    Taking offense to off-handed comments is tired and boring.
    However, I want to point out that there is nothing wrong with finding the image of this attractive, young former soldier (who happens to be a triple amputee) sexy. So what if I am part of a “gay fetish sub culture?” I happen not to be, but I reserve the right to be. The boy is hot, he’s young, he’s on the cover of a magazine, and he has a great big purple metal where his penis should be. To some of us, whether we be soldier fetishists, amputee fetishist (and the term, my dear, is “devotee”), causasian fetishists, or bad-hair-dye fetishists, we reserve that right. And you know what? I’ll bet you Ryan Anderson is thanking whatever god he believes in that there are people out there like me who aren’t embarassed or (wrongfully) ashamed to stand up and say, “I find you incredibly sexy.”
    We all look at people on the covers of magazines and instantly ask ourselves if we’re attracted to the model. If the answer is yes, sometimes we buy the magazine. In this case, for me, the answer was and is yes. And I bought the magazine. And I loved it.

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