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April 12, 2007

The Soldier Referendum: Watch The Hand


(click for full size)

This post is not about McCain.  It’s about the rapidly escalating war over the war.

The conventional wisdom might be right — that the Dems, ultimately, will not take on Bush, and that the country will still be in Iraq after Junior leaves office.  I offer that thought, however, against a powerful and building, almost manic political tension.

What is intensifying, as well, is the media’s projective casting of U.S. soldiers and Iraqi veterans.  Over the past few months and weeks, “the soldier” (along with his or her slightest impression) has sharpened into the focal symbol and conduit for gauging, on a near daily basis now, the political status of (and emotional temperature surrounding) the war.

Under those terms, what makes this photo so significant — taken at Virginia Military Institute yesterday, where McCain gave a nervous, if unqualified pro-war speech — is the apparent expression of hesitancy on the part of the soldier to give it up for McCain.

Of course, how can you trust one instant in time to indicate hesitation as motive?  Obviously, you can’t.  Just as well, perhaps, the Times could have (first) run this shot, taken one instant later, in which U.S. Marine, Iraqi Veteran and Cadet First Classman Robert Frazier does shake McCain’s hand, while supplying the socially-normative warmth and eye contact.

Still, it’s the shot above that commanded attention first, capturing the skeptical look of VMI Iraq veterans set up selected to sit in the front two rows.  It’s an image, by the way, which remains fully consistent, if not even as skeptical as the look on the faces of the vet-Cadets in the shot with the smiling Frazier).  And then, it seems to also embody the self-conscious quality of the (made-for-TV) event.  (If you watch the NYT video, notice how McCain has to prompt for applause after recognizing the student veterans).

If there’s one caveat to the skepticism, it’s the possibility the reaction has more to do with McCain than the war itself.  That’s completely reasonable, of course.  But, outside of Bush, this war doesn’t have a bigger cheerleader than McCain.  And to look down on John as the fallen messenger as the soldier’s “visual verdict of the day” is just as determinative of the war (and the political surge) as anything more direct.

(h/t: Dave)

(image: attribution unavailable. Matthew Cavanaugh /European Pressphoto Agency. Lexington Va.  April 11, 2007.  linked image: Don Petersen/AP.  Via YahooNews)

  • noname

    Well, the ‘borrow and spend’ Republicans have successfully divorced the fiscal cost of the war from the war in the public eye. Similarly, the chickenhawk Republicans have managed to keep people from worrying about a draft. As a consequence, we, ultimately see professional soldiers as the ones experiencing the cost of this war.
    I can’t help but think that whomever is selecting or taking the photographs of McCain is the same guy that was responsible for the photos of Kerry a few years ago. The new picture is worth discussion in its own right since, in it, we see McCain literally isolated, marginalized, and overshadowed by the silhouette of an anonymous cadet. Meanwhile, McCain, and his podium, are facing away from the camera, giving the sense that he’s speaking to someone else, or going in the wrong direction. And, to really round things out, the scowl on the face of the seated man sharing the stage with him is really just as bad (if not worse) than the expression on the soldier’s face in the original.

  • MonsieurGonzo

    ‘borrow and spend” (?) mais, non : “Borrow and Bleed voila! l’âge du ‘Great Depletion’.
    PRESS the FLESH : idiom; what politicians do in order to garner support for themselves from the common people; going out into the public to meet and greet; similar to baby kissing; eg., that skeezy politician was out pressing the flesh to try and save his sputtering campaign.
    impressments : “The Impress Service was formed to force sailors to serve on naval vessels (there was no concept of joining the navy for non-officers at the time), based legally on the power of the King to call men to military service, as well as to recruit volunteers (who were paid a bounty upon joining, unlike ‘pressed men’)…
    …Impressment, particularly press gangs, were consistently unpopular with the public, and local officials often acted against them ~ to the point of imprisoning officials from the Impressment Service or opposing them by force of arms.
    However, about half of the seamen the Impressment Service brought in were volunteers, not pressed men (though some might have volunteered to make the best of a bad situation, avoiding impressment and collecting the volunteer bounty), and popular captains and other officers were often petitioned by sailors to be allowed to join their ships’ companies.”
    dommage, je suis presse !

  • lowly grunt

    THe post may be about the war but that picture is all about McCain.
    THe cadet is thinking to himself, “Ew. Do I HAVE to?”

  • lowly grunt

    I went back and read the post.
    STUDENT veterans? We’re sending our kids over there to fight the war????
    Well, I knew that we were sending just out of high school volunteers, but doesn’t qualifying the word “veteran” with “student” seem politically stupid? It’s like admitting that you’ve run through your supply and are now looking for any able bodied individual to shoot a gun.
    That this happened at VMI leads me to think about the Confederacy sending boys and old men to the front lines because all of their soldiers were dead.
    Lord, have mercy.

  • Matthew Cavanaugh

    The photo should be credited to Matthew Cavanaugh / european pressphoto agency (as it was on

  • Megan

    Mr. Cavanaugh, Mr. NewsNotes is a stickler for attribution and a strong supporter of photographers. He even left a line for the attribution and said it was unavailable. I’m sure he’ll correct it at his first opportunity, but from what I’ve seen of him, I’m inclined to think that he looked for a name for a while before giving up and running the picture with the source he had.
    Since you are here, maybe you can tell us your impression. Did you have a sense of hesitancy to shake McCain’s hand? Do you think the apparent hesitancy was created by the catching such a brief instant?
    It really does look hesitant from here, largely because the student’s body is leaning so far forward that his hand looks relatively behind. And McCain’s gesture is more than halfway between them; he had to keep extending when the return shake didn’t come. Neither of the two of them are looking into each other’s eyes. They both want to know what is going to happen in that handshake.

  • jtfromBC

    Senator John McCain:
    Only the *most deluded* of us could doubt the necessity of this war.(August 31, 2004)
    Pew Research Institute:
    60% of Americans continue to back the war.(March 16, 2004)
    Nearly six-in-ten (59%) support..withdrawal of U.S. forces from Iraq..(March 19 2007)
    The *deluded* have now become the *most*, John.

  • The BAG

    Thanks for writing in. Apparently, there were two NYT McCain VMI articles. The second one, with your photo (Defending Iraq War, McCain Assails Democrats), however, was not indexed by the NYT and I missed the photo credit. Got it fixed now.

  • Mad_nVT

    Those cadets are definitely suspicious/skeptical about the War-Cheerleading Old Warrior.
    There may have been a brief awkward moment with the one cadet, for whatever unknown reason- but the faces on the other six cadets in the two photos paint McCain as a ghost whose time is past.
    – With a pile of photographers in the background, recording the decline.
    And that is now- what about fifteen months from now, when the War is Worse, the Quicksand is deeper, and its Hotter than Hell in Iraq.

  • donna

    McCain can’t help us. He represents a bygone era that is rapidly declining.
    We need a future, not a past.

  • Matthew Cavanaugh

    Thanks for fixing the credit line. Ok, now that I’ve taken the time to actually read the post and check out this blog… this is a really good discussion and I’m happy to be a part of it.
    There are so many “two sides of the coin” elements to this story and picture. The event, like so many other political photo ops and speeches that I’ve covered, felt staged and stiff. Those “Iraq War veteran” cadets seated in the front row, it seemed to me, knew they were being used as props, but they no doubt respect McCain too. I’m sure they would have listened to what he had to say regardless, but they must have known why they were seated there. I thought the picture was accurate, because there was a brief moment of hesitation on the part of the cadet (on the other hand, I’m sure he was happy to meet the Senator.) But McCain is not only trying to sell his plan to the country, but also to the soldiers who will fight there. I’m sure those soldiers, like so many of the rest of us, have mixed feelings about the war too. They don’t want to die for a lost cause or a hopelessly broken mission, but they surely want to help their brothers and do their sworn duty. I too respect McCain for his service to our country and for his genuine integrity, but I think he’s supporting a failed President and a failed policy.

  • Mad_nVT

    Great to hear from you, Matthew Cavanaugh.
    Good for us to get a larger context of these photos. The photo is a split-second image, and we have to look for other clues to see how accurately it portrays the situation. The background usually helps.
    Hope that you continue to contribute here. I expect that BagMan will be looking for your photos.

  • The BAG

    Quick note to say that I edited two posts, mine and Matt’s, further up the line re: photo credits.
    Matt, if you’re still with us, I’ve got a question. You confirmed that Cadet Frazier actually did hesitate before shaking McCain’s hand. That’s interesting, because — as I mentioned in the post — it’s hard to bank on from one picture. That said, do you have an impression of the vibe from the other cadets on either side. They look almost hostile. … And, just to push you a little on what you just said, do you have any sense — from being there, and absorbing the atmosphere — how much their ambivalence, or antipathy, had to do specifically with the messenger. (Given the disasterous PR McCain brought down on the war effort in the past two weeks, and the fact these students were clearly being used as campaign props, I’m wondering about your comment that these guys “no doubt” respect McCain.)
    The thing is, I’m still trying to get at the hesitancy.

  • ummabdulla

    Mr. Cavanaugh’s comments have made this photo more interesting… thanks. So was McCain going down the line shaking hands, and he just got to this cadet? Or did he just come and approach him alone? And what are the other cadets thinking? None of them is even smiling or looks at all happy.

  • jtfromBC

    With McCain’s fixation on Iraq, his frenzied rhetoric has become more incessant and voluminous. This old soldier’s President must just love hearing his echoed cliches repeated by a “war hero”.
    Does McCain’s heavy war lifting have anything to do with Karl Rove’s Spring Marketing Campaign which sees;
    GWB abandoning his Commander in Chief jacket and creating a War Czar position. The “scrub” becoming less CIC more CEO so he can concentrate on delivering his domestic agenda.

  • Matthew Cavanaugh

    Sorry for the delay. I’m down at Virginia Tech covering this horrible shooting.
    The cadet hesitated (if only for split second), but of course there’s really no telling what he was thinking. I felt that, based on seeing their body language in person, the image didn’t misrepresent what happened there. The cadet that smiled at him was not in my view, but I would have moved that picture too, if I had it. I try to move multiple views and expressions, like we all do most of the time, so the editors have a choice depending on the tone of the story.
    To answer some of the questions above: McCain moved down the line after the event ended. The MC of the event asked the Iraq vet cadets to remain in their seats, so they really had no choice. Unless they wanted to seriously snub him. The other thing to keep in mind here is that military men don’t smile a lot when they are in formation of some kind. They were extremely attentive and formal at this event. It was also a serious topic. I think the lack of smiles doesn’t mean that much in this setting.
    As for them respecting McCain, I don’t see how a military cadet, with even a partial understanding of what he went through as a POW, could have no respect for him. But, I’m making an assumption here. I respect him a lot, but I’d never vote for him.

  • VMI Dad

    My son is the cadet proudly shaking Senator McCain’s hand in the picture. He told me he was proud to do it and had absolutely no hesitation to meet and greet the man. Nor did any of the other cadet veterans in the line up. They all were honored to meet a fellow veteran who has been to Hell and back and soulfully knows the plight of a soldier/marine and the predicament of war.
    Hesitancy and skepticism is one person’s impression of the photo. I can say I got the truth from the horse’s mouth.

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