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April 12, 2009

Your Turn: The Afghan Drag


I find this a very strange cover — in the way the soldier is sitting, the way he’s smoking, the way his attention is directed, by where he’s situated. (Also can’t tell what’s to the right of his feet?) And then, the title speaks volumes — not just alone, but in terms of how it informs the photo.

I’m interested in your take. First-timers/long-time lurkers especially welcome.

(image: Adam Ferguson for TIME)

  • Withnail

    he looks very precarious. As if he’s about to fall off that mountain. Nothing about his pose, his position, looks at ease or comfortable.

  • Flan Swinson

    Agreed on the discomfort. And he doesn’t look like the professional soldiers we’re used to seeing in photos of America at War. This seems closer to the photos we saw of US soldiers in Vietnam on the way down. Somewhat beaten, dishevelled, distracted.

  • vcInCA

    The picture is very dissonant with the title, at first brush, but then it starts to make sense (to me at least). The soldier doesn’t portray winning, nor does he portray loosing, nor does he quite portray that he’s in a battle zone–he’s not particularly jubilant nor despondent, and he’s on a high, exposed perch (although surrounded by barbed wire), and isn’t ducking for cover or sheltered from fire. He’s thinking (or drawing on the cig), and his brow is wrinkled, and it looks like his attention is focused on (reading?) the board in front of him. Body posture is a little awkward, yes, but if you add up (not winning)+(not loosing)+(not in immediate danger), the result is a waiting game.
    In this waiting game, its not (visually) clear what would start the process of war again, and what direction it would go (towards wining or losing), but the title offers a hint–’how not to lose in Afghanistan’. This telling us that waiting, delay, taking time to smoke a cig & look at the view, are all an appropriate strategy here, because they collectively prevent losing (which we don’t want-who wants to lose?). Having not read the text or kept up on Obama’s thoughts on the Afghanistan timeline, I’m not sure if its challenging or supporting government policy right now, but it is interesting.
    I’m also now curious about how cigarettes are used in other pictures–are they often linked to waiting, delay? It doesn’t seem like an ‘on the go, things to do, people to see’ kind of activity…

  • Al

    He needs to wear a flak jacket and helmet and not present such a large target,and, also smoking is bad for your health,just like war.When the USA invades other countries, the people in those countries use the GI’s for target practice,so,this soldier is just making it easier for their snipers,at night you can spot a smoker from miles away!So far in history no one has won a war in Afghanistan and this soldier looks like he is learning that first hand!

  • Wayne Dickson

    Up front, seems to me that any discussion of “winning” or “losing” has to start with a clear definition of terms. In this instance, to talk about “not losing” without first defining what that means is fatuous.
    Granted, for the cover of a magazine you can’t provide a rigorous logical definition. Instead you say it with a picture. With this picture Time says not-losing isn’t about the Afghan people, or about the heads of state and their agents, or about the military strategists of all parties, or about religious faith, or about the opium trade, or about oil pipelines… It’s about American foot soldiers.
    This is like saying that a chess game is not-lost because of the pawns, not because of the one determining how best to deploy the pawns … and often to sacrifice them for what the player perceives, rightly or wrongly, as the greater good.

  • Michael Shaw (The BAG)

    Do you find this image effeminate in any way?

  • wisewebwoman

    He looks very small to me, cowed. His hands are dirty (how- was he fixing a motor?)There is something slightly ‘off’ about him, as if were staring at the photographer and was told to look away.
    Is the object at his feet some kind of hat? As in a trophy hat taken from a tribesman?
    I find it very, very unsettling.

  • Karen H.

    This photo evokes the other famous war smoking photo, Marlboro Marine by Luis Sinco:
    Very interesting contrast. Sinco’s shot is tight on the face which looks beaten up, weary. I concentrated on the exhaustion when I saw it. The Time cover shot of the smoking soldier is more focused on the over all action in the photo, the tough, clean cut soldier seems to be looking at plans, a no nonsense soldier. The photo seems to see, let the soldiers in the field do their job.
    Big difference.

  • Chris

    Looks like he’s sitting on a teeter totter…a fulcrum and lever. His head blocks the ‘M’ in the magazine title leaving T I E…stalemate. The complementary tilt of Miley’s head is interesting and she almost looks like a thought bubble for the soldier. Top left gives great advice, “Don’t be depressed…”

  • Karen H.

    I should add that the Marlboro Marine was in Iraq.

  • jtfromBC

    Dug in on a mountain top in the Korengal region know as the “Valley of Death.”. These soldiers are supplied and defended with suppression fire by the most sophisticated and lethal weapons of the US Air Force. Subject to constant surprise attacks from mortar or RPG’s by a handful of Afghan fighters must be a grunts worst 24 hour night mare. Chain smoking and rifle fire I suspect are first cousins.
    This pic suggests a GI in a state of tired, casual, indifference. I get the feeling he is about to” go off duty” wash up and get whatever shut eye the conditions will allow. The bubble thought of our cover man is How To Stay Alive while his reliable friend nicotine provides momentary comfort.
    Overall the pic is as confusing and contradictory as the article.
    The U.S. in Afghanistan: The Longest War,8816,1890243,00.html
    No, Michael I don’t find this image effeminate in any way, but it definitely has a soft and pensive quality about it.

  • Steve

    I think the perspective of the soldier sitting on the top of the mountain with the other mountain peaks in the background, evokes a feeling of the soldier being a giant. He, the soldier, aka USA, the most powerful nation on Earth, is sitting on Afghanistan.

  • Victor F

    “not losing” doesn’t imply “winning” in any sense. TIME could just have well written “how to force a stalemate in Afghanistan.” I agree with the commenters above that the terms need to be defined better in order to determine whether we’re “winning” or “losing,” and what “not losing” looks like exactly.
    Perhaps, though, by “not losing,” they mean, “not losing (more American lives).” This cover acts as a reminder to us that there are Americans still in harm’s way, fighting yet another poorly-managed war with ill-defined goals.
    And more importantly, there are no winners in war. TIME is clearly full of commie pinko socialist peaceniks, with their efforts to humanize conflict and all!

  • dada

    The color is so strange. Like a color-tinted black & white photo.
    Are those two baby bottles next to his left knee?

  • jtfromBC

    with all due respect.
    I don’t believe we can define the terms for winning or losing in war unless we evaluate our assumptions about our adversary. It seems to me that Parag Khanna presents some uncomfortable realities in this regard, if interested you can listen @
    Parag Khanna: Anxious in Afghanistan, a 29 minute interview in which he makes the argument that Afghanistan is, first, a neighborhood problem. Enlist China, Iran, Pakistan, Russia and India ahead of the Pentagon:
    Or alternatively check his article in Foreign Policy entitled The Road to Kabul Runs Through Beijing (and Tehran)
    or how about a few moments thought to McNamara’s life lessons
    1 Empathize with your enemy 2 Rationality will not save us
    3 There’s something beyond one’s self
    4 Maximize efficiency
    5 Proportionality should be a guideline in war
    6 Get the data
    7 Belief and seeing are often both wrong
    8 Be prepared to reexamine your reasoning
    9 In order to do good, you may have to engage in evil
    10 Never say never
    Unless we make a major shift in our strategy concerning AlfPak we will be the most recent Empire where history suggests, ‘Afghanistan is a country where Empires go to die’. In our case we will not die but the trama will exceed that of Viet Nam and as Iraq draws closer to Iran and Russia, we will really feel betrayed and wonder who to blame.

  • nina

    At first glance I thought it was an illustration and the soldier wasn’t real but a model. Maybe it’s the colors, or too much photoshop sharpening. Where are his weapons? His helmet? What’s with the strange hair cut and color? Is he looking at battle plans or maybe his facebook page? It all seems so relaxed. If not for his uniform, I would think it was a story for an outdoors sports adventure magazine about mountain climbing. Very weird and completely different from the images in the slideshow.

  • matthew frederick

    To me it is a non-heroic pose and perspective. The soldier is idle, and isolated on a mountain top. It’s really a rather static composition. Much like the situation in Afghanistan, apparently.

  • Michael Shaw (The BAG)

    I think you put your finger on something that was really bothering me about this image. It’s the scale, and the fact the soldier looks like a giant (creating a particularly strange contrast with his more reserved or passive pose).
    The last two times I’ve been to the movies, I’ve seen a commercial/trailer for a TV show called Rescue Me. It depicts giant fireman traipsing through a city. One of them, in fact, drops a cigarette but on the sidewalk, if I remember right. This effect has always made me sort of ill, as if an expression of American omnipotence — even over nature itself. Of course, the example of this that I’ve never been able to shake was the Coors commercial, “Tap The Rockies.” I find it really offensive — especially the way they weave the sexual innuendo in there with the omnipotence. Here’s the link if anyone cares to check it out:

  • Michael Shaw (The BAG)

    I completely agree about the odd contrasting/sharpening. I’ve looked at a lot of covers and I was really taken aback to discover this wasn’t a photo-illustration.

  • S2

    The elements of this photo seem to add up to: we have a new product designer producing this war and its moving up to a prime-time slot. Its a movie poster for “The Other War.”

  • stevelaudig

    The “M” in Time gives him “bat ears” and reminded me of Batman in a tower looking down on the corrupt metropolis except it is corrupt [by our standards] Afghanistan. The same Afghanistan that was never quite a colony and beat the British 2-1; the Soviets 1-0; and is leading the Americans 1-0 at half-time. What Batman [or maybe its Prometheus chained to the rocks with his liver being eaten for the transgression of bringing fire to humans, not unlike the present self-assigned Western "crusade" of bringing "enlightenment" to those Afghanis sitting in darkness] sees is the end of the Obama presidency. Instead of “Hey, Hey, Ho, Ho, LBJ has got to go.” it will be “Hey, Hey, Ho, Ho! BHO has got to go!” Better rhyming meter too. I hate having to write this.

  • Mani Sitaraman

    Is he sitting on a slab of wood or a piece of slate rock? The picture has been too heavily photoshopped, with a bizarrely great amount of high-dynamic range processing, making the shadows, background and sky about equally bright, causing an unnatural lighting effect. I hate the look but its catching on these days…

  • DennisQ

    Is the war in Afghanistan a sort of poker game? The soldier seems to be evaluating his hand as he sits at a sort of table and draws a deep puff. Trying not to lose is a critical part of poker, since good cards are distributed randomly.
    If this sounds far-fetched, I’m looking at anomalous things in the picture which suggest card playing. The soldier’s exaggerated widow’s peak (something of a pun in itself) forms the top part of a heart, and the soldier’s legs form a heart. There’s a diamond to the right of the soldier’s arm, the patches on his uniform suggest a deck of cards.
    I don’t see a club or a spade, which represent power and death, but their presence may be implicit in the theme of the photograph. Perhaps they’d be visible by adjusting the color values.

  • greentuna

    This picture looks staged and artificial. It looks like the model (he doesn’t even look like a soldier) is “on set” with a backdrop that doesn’t necessarily match the foreground. Even the cigarette looks posed, as if he doesn’t smoke at all. I don’t know…the whole thing seems fake to me, which makes me suspicious about the content and veracity of the article.

  • braidwood

    Yes to the slightly effeminate- something about the way he is holding his cigarette?
    Also, I think its interesting that they have him smoking. At first I thought that maybe it was so he could look rough and tumble, but now I wonder if its a reference to Obama- the man with the plan.
    All in all, I don’t like it.

  • braidwood

    It gives me the creeps.

  • Apple

    Is a storm brewing in the clouds? The position of the cigarette and fingers is unnatural for a smoker. A truly creepy cover.

  • dada

    Maybe he’s smokin’ some Kush?

  • Sybil

    I agree there is a feminine quality about this picture–perhaps the way he is twisted at the waist with his feet carefully together, and the odd angle of the hand to the face/lips.
    Also–the face and hands don’t really match–hands are dirty and more tan, face is very smooth and fair. Fresh haircut but rumpled clothing. The lighting of foreground and background is odd as mentioned.

  • Victor F

    Thanks for linking to that conversation with Mr. Khanna.
    It reminds me of a discussion I had with a co-teacher of mine here in Korea, who thought it was ridiculous for America to act as a global police force. And in many ways, with my own limited understanding, I’m ambivalent about it. On one hand, I did see our involvement in Afghanistan as a security matter (whereas our involvement in Iraq was clearly not, but that’s for a different thread). On the other hand, it’s pretty clear that foreign occupying forces have been rendered powerless over the history of invasions to the country. Our current approach, as Mr. Khanna explained, seems little different than our past approaches to similar conflicts over the past few decades.
    It’s all completely beyond my grasp, so I’ll probably remain ambivalent about what should happen. I could repeat the same generalities, like our diplomats should engage with the neighborhood to solve the problem, our military should ensure their actions are well-informed, and our goal should be to leave the place better than we found it… but I’m at a loss to explain precisely how to achieve that. I’m sure for many Afghans, a “better” country would be for foreign occupiers to leave, or at least to act in a more limited way. It brings me back to the pensive and ambivalent mood of the magazine cover: a soldier taking a hard drag from a smoke, with hard mountains in the background, and an even more difficult problem to solve in which he is enveloped.

  • JayDenver

    This photo has elicited some great comments. One of the better discussions I have read on this or any other blog.
    Adam Ferguson has developed a style which seems to suit his subjects and gives a different take on what might otherwise be standard photo-journalistic material. Here is a link to Ferguson’s homepage where there is a representative slide show of his work. Takes a moment to load, be patient.

  • Trii

    I immediately thought he looked like a WWII GI – dirty, disheveled, smoking, waiting – just a regular guy – but victors. I thought the cover was saying this time we’ll win the war, just like back in the old days.

  • Kathryn in MA

    I am wondering about the mountains, which look like they are low and forested, not the barren peaks of Afghanistan.

  • Eye5600

    There is a tendency to use the best photograph rather than the most illustrative photograph. )It’s especially evident on the sports pages where the picture will be of a player in some dramatic pose, even if that particular play was incidental to the outcome of the game.) I suspect editors try to stifle the urge somewhat for a cover, but not entirely.
    I think the desire here was to have a Bill Mauldin-type image of a GI showing dirt, fatigue, and resignation.
    The item near his feet looks like sandbags obscured by a clump of grass.

  • lytom

    Is this another “Charlie Wilson?” Is TIME presenting to a viewer anonymous hero, with the US flag and sparse military dress, bit naked, who will somehow solve the problem and win the war? It seems to be otherwise. The picture shows one soldier lone on a mountain top. The problems are all the peaks, that are surrounding him, with at least eight ethnic groups with which he has no way to communicate with except with military might and drones piloted from California and other states. Then there is Pakistan. The US involvement with the NATO may seem hopeful to some, until the Chinese advisers will get behind the scenes. The wild card is Iran’s past ties with Afghanistan.
    How long has Afghanistan been in existence? I doubt US can change that.

  • jtfromBC

    I appreciate your thoughtful response, and share your desire that we ‘act in a more limited way’ If this can be achieved I hope for a stalemate with as many pieces left on the board as possible.

  • Jim S

    Interesting picture. He does not have the gaunt 1000 yard stare of the Marlboro Man above or grunts in my unit in Vietnam. Appears to be sitting on rocks concentrating on a map on a bridge across a crevice on the perimeter. No M-16 rifle. I would guess he is the intelligence officer or Company XO planning the next operation.
    In the background is one thing we didn’t have, snow.

  • Michael

    I am seeing a lot of diagonal lines and tensions with twisted twisted torso etc – a picture of impermanence, superimposed on a much more horizontal calm and permanent landscape in the background

  • incognitolibido

    King of the Hill … I’m surprised no one else evoked this particular term to describe the peculiar balancing act that the soldier seems to be concentrating on … After untold conflicts have scarred the mountains, after a handful of empires have done their best to “civilize” the dirt roads and tribal communities … And won naught … A man lords over all he sees, his cigarette a pretense of casual gesture … At any time he may be tumbled from his throne.
    Afghanistan has long been America’s Forgotten War. The missteps of Iraq made Afghanistan seem a victory by comparison. In redoubling our efforts there, we risk bringing the true danger of modern war back to the fore — the daily body counts, the tallies of bombings, back to our everyday …

  • Sharkbabe

    Effeminate, definitely. Who but little kids, women, and fops sit with their feet so tidily together like that? Real Men splay their legs as far apart as possible (see Chimpy Bush) both to take up the maximum amount of space and to show off their basket (ibid.)

  • Victor F

    one more thing I noticed: feet going (viewer’s) left, head going right. Conflict about which direction to go, perhaps who to listen to, and definitely conveys a loss of direction. Alternately, a change in direction, but will he follow his head or his boots (or: follow his thinking or follow his reactions)?

  • stonelake

    “Effeminate” was my first thought before reading these comments, seeing that it has been mentioned I will add myself to the pile. There’s something of the young pinup about the fundamentals of this image, the pose, the cigarette, the feet together and the knees slightly spread. The way the cigarette is held, with the fingers together and straight, even slightly concave in profile, with the thumb out and away.
    Of course this all contrasts highly with the subject, about as traditionally masculine a person as you could possibly ask for. It’s a highly stylized body position and I can’t imagine it was held for long, so it’s either the only shot the photographer could get or it was particularly chosen from a range of such shots.

  • cyrilblair

    Yes, the first thing that struck me was that it seemed effeminate – the pose, the way his body is twisted just a little, and the way he’s holding the cigarette. Most men inhale using their index finger and thumb. I also thought it was an illustration at first, because it seems kind of Norman Rockwell-ish.

  • Hubris Sonic

    great thread. but noone mentioned the plank he is sitting on. Is it a bridge? a bridge to nowhere?
    especially liked the America the Giant sitting on Afghanistan comments..

  • David Wilton

    Effeminate, thoughtful, appears to be reading something, a map perhaps, relaxed.
    The color and pose looks staged or Photoshopped. I can see the caption informing the appearance that the soldier is studying a map while smoking a cigarette like an academic.

  • barbara feinberg

    OK, I saw a Moses–with the “horns” (a la Michelangelo), and the “tablets”–what he’s studying. He’s gonna have to DO something, in my interpretation of this capture. The cigarette (burning bush???!) I see as our local, pious no-nos versus the reality of what soldiers do for their anxiety relief. It is background.

  • lynne r
  • lynne r

    Sorry about that obnoxious URL! :-(
    Here’s the better one.

  • Angie

    I would love to get a copy of the photo of a different soldier, same scene, that’s on the Table of Contents in that TIME issue … wanted to show these two photos to my high school journalism students and ask why this inside shot was not used on the cover. It’s certainly dramatic. The imposing mountains in back, coiled barbed wire at his feet, a soldier standing in a pose of either exhaustion or frustration … or both.
    The choice of photo to put on a cover is so telling ….

  • yg

    we have troops from turkey in afghanistan. syria once offered their help but were rebuffed.

  • yg

    i looked all over. i couldn’t find a reference to this guy’s story. they were willing to exploit his image to sell their magazine but they couldn’t be bothered to mention his name?

  • jtfromBC

    As you probably know, Turkey is there because they are a NATO member, I don’t recall Syria offering troops for Afghanistan, but I’m interested if you could provide me with a source. I know Syria has offered passage for US troops leaving Iraq.
    Who remembers Iranian involvement with the US in 2001. I’m encouraged that the Big O and Hillary are whispering with Iran and down playing that A of E theme.( on a personal note – David Frum who coined that bullshit jingle, Axis Of Evil was a Canadian citizen and I’m pleased he renounced his citizenship and is now treading water with his American neocon buddies.)
    For those with a short memory and subjected to MSM sound bits, out of context reporting who recalls these activities;
    The British-based Jane’s International Security reported March 15, 2001 that the new American administration was working with India, Iran and Russia “in a concerted front against Afghanistan’s Taliban regime.” India was supplying the Northern Alliance with military equipment, advisers and helicopter technicians, the magazine said, and both India and Russia were using bases in Tajikistan and Uzbekistan for their operations.
    On June 26 of this year, the magazine IndiaReacts reported more details of the cooperative efforts of the US, India, Russia and Iran against the Taliban regime. “India and Iran will ‘facilitate’ US and Russian plans for ‘limited military action’ against the Taliban if the contemplated tough new economic sanctions don’t bend Afghanistan’s fundamentalist.
    We started out with a Parag Khanna approach, there is ever reason we should return to it.

  • staghounds

    What a racist, Eurocentric comment that was!
    The Afghans have won quite a few wars in Afghanistan. Most recently, unlike Germany, Poland, Esthonia, Latvia, Lithuania, C2echoslovakia, Bulgaria, and Romania they drove the Soviets out.

  • staghounds

    That sounds all deep and meaningful, but it’s nonsense. Tell Stalin, Hitler, and their victims- or Jeff Davis and all those slaves from 1865- that there are no winners in war.

  • Nell

    I don’t believe at all that this was intended by the photographer or the editors who chose the photo, but the immediate connection I make is to a front-page photo in the NY Times during the 1971 war in which East Pakistan became independent Bangladesh. It showed a Pakistani soldier, in almost the exact same posture as this GI, but what he was holding down in the right-hand part of the picture was a cowering Bangladeshi prisoner whom he was about to burn with the cigarette.
    The image has stayed with me for the almost forty years since, but it’s quite likely that the editors who chose the cover weren’t even born then. Adam Ferguson, the photographer, was certainly not: Adam Ferguson was born in Australia in 1978 and graduated from Griffith University with a Bachelor of Photography in 2003. (from a Verve Photos bio)

  • FormerPro

    It caught my eye immediately and I’m surprised no one’s commented on it yet: The peaks of the background letter M evoke devil horns coming out of the top of his head.

  • studioh

    it just looks staged.

  • Scott San Diego

    Yes – wow there is no end of questiosn about this picture. It does not convey a clear meaning or even a precise feeling – maybe that is the goal. We are so very confused about Afghanistan – just like the way we feel after looking at this cover.

  • not even close

    Ok…here it goes. The man is dirty and tough looking. He is probably a veteran soldier, and knows the deal judging by the roled sleeves, and un bloused boots. These are things new soldiers don’t usually do. He appears to be in Korengal Valley aka Valley of Death which sees some of the heaviest fighting in the war. Probably in a remote outpost judging by his state of cleanliness, as those outposts typically don’t have showers, or bathrooms. Usually only 20-30 men in one, and they get attacked routinely, therefore the weary look. Like someone else said, he is not in full battle gear, and is sitting, almost waiting. It is basically saying that sitting and waiting won’t cut it, just like it didn’t cut it in Vietnam either. It looks like he is either looking at a map or something, or looking over his shoulder into the valley. Either way, it means he is waiting for a fight. It basically paints a picture of reality for the men in the Infantry. It isn’t like you usually see in pictures. They aren’t clean, well fed, and safe. Technology doesn’t fight and win wars. It’s still men with rifles that fight wars, and people need to realize that and help them win.

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