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May 24, 2009

Pink skivvies: Whitewashing The Afghan Campaign

Pink Skivvies.jpg
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“Any soldier who goes into battle against the Taliban in pink boxers and flip-flops has a special kind of courage … I can only wonder about the impact on the Taliban. Just imagine seeing that: a guy in pink boxers and flip-flops has you in his cross-hairs. What an incredible innovation in psychological warfare.”
–Defense Secretary Gates   

So this May 11 image of Spc. Zachary Boyd of Fort Worth, Texas, fighting the Taliban in his pink “I love NY” boxer shorts, has “gone iconic.”
Lauded by Secretary Gates himself, I don’t think I could provide an analysis any better than Daryl Lang’s at the Photo District News blog:

Rare is the war photograph that connects with so many people—from a soldier’s family, to newspaper editors, to the Secretary of Defense. What makes this picture work?

  • For starers, it’s a well-shot, well-composed photo that tells a story in about two seconds. Which of these things is not like the other?
  • This photo plays into America’s aspirations for its soldiers: Bravery, camaraderie, and charming human foibles.
  • It gives people a gentle reminder that young soldiers are still doing exhausting, dangerous work in Afghanistan. At the same time, the photo carries just enough humor that nobody feels bad when they see it.
  • It shows the war at its simplest: Us versus the enemy, a shooting match between two distinct armies.

In other words, it’s a white-washed version of a complicated war. This picture is like a Norman Rockwell painting. It assures us things are as they should be. This observation is not meant to diminish Guttenfelder’s work; obviously this is not his only picture from Afghanistan. But it does reveal why war journalism is so tricky. It’s easier to summon an audience when you show people what they want to see.

And then, here are a few take-aways from photographer and occasional BNN contributer Matt Lutton of dvaphoto:

•What I was reading in this photo was the irony of that 9/11 connection, given the “I love New York” underwear. The literal ‘this is what has come of 9/11′ for the nation and this soldier: kids sitting on some hilltop under attack, in their pajamas, virtually naked in front of the bullets.   

•Too, the ‘rolling out of bed to fight a war’ is such a strange thing, echoes war video games?

•And in this situation, if he were awoken to run out to fight, what a snap from dream to reality. it should be for a nation. too.

(image: David Guttenfelder/A.P. May 11, 2009. Korengal Valley, Afghanistan)

  • stevelaudig

    the red shirt makes him an easy target to spot on the drab hillside and put in the cross-hairs. Gates’s brave chatter is just that, chatter. the Taliban guy is thanking him for wearing red and wondering how stupid these Americans reall are.

  • yg

    did you read the back story?

  • yg

    my first thought upon seeing the photo, before reading anything about it first, was that it was protest against the “don’t ask, don’t tell” policy.

  • gmoke

    “Another program Arpaio is very well known for is the pink under shorts he makes all inmates wear. Years ago, when the Sheriff learned that inmates were stealing jailhouse white boxers, Arpaio had all inmate underwear dyed pink for better inventory control.”
    Solidarity with the prisoners of Maricopa County?
    Running shoes (trainers for the Brits among us) on the middle soldier, another example of being out of uniform while on duty.

  • Lenox

    It’s a very clever picture.

  • lytom

    The pink boxers, flip-flops and red t-shirt do not represent special kind of courage. But, what else could Gates say? It is a factual photo, so why not turn it into courage. The policy of “don’t ask” does not seem to be friendly to pink underwear. Calling it an “incredible innovation” in the fight against Taliban is silly. It takes an incredible extension of imagination to believe these words, or simply brainwashing.
    What comes to represent the ugliness of the US involvement in Afghanistan are the blue plastic bags in wired cranes helping to fortify the soldiers’ stand. The Korengal Valley looks beautiful against the ugliness of the invaders. Who actually invited these Empire occupation soldiers into Afghanistan? What are they fighting for? Tell me again and again…

  • yg

    who decides that this is iconic? ridiculous when you consider the iconic image of the vietnam war was a traumatized girl running naked on the street, escaping napalm. it’s stunning when you step back and reflect on the lack of images depicting casualties. have you ever seen such a sterile war?

  • black dog barking

    The front line in fourth generation warfare is wherever the invader finds himself. Skivvies or not.

  • margaret

    Nothing courageous about a government policy that has us, way up there, looking down on people. Far better policy would be to be down there, getting to know people, living near by and daily interacting with them, bettering their lives by improvements to infrastructure, schools for girls, one village at a time.
    The soldier is careless because it is all so futile the way we are doing things now.

  • Paul

    “Any soldier who goes into battle against the Taliban in pink boxers and flip-flops has a special kind of courage … I can only wonder about the impact on the Taliban” – Brings to mind the classic ending of Carry On Up the Khyber – (5:58).

  • jtfromBC

    You go to war with the gonch you got.

  • ohthatsrich

    Not to be too snotty, but that bright red shirt made him an easy target. I am surprised that they allow soldiers to take bright clothes into combat. If he was my private and I was his sergeant, I would be screaming in his face. He would go back and get into uniform. He is risking the lives of his comrades by being so visible. I get that he was just jumping into the action and for that he should be commended, but he had no business being dressed like that. Newby.

  • dada

    What struck me more forcefully than his drawers (and flipflops) is the landscape.
    I don’t see how we can win in terrain like that.

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