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October 2, 2011

“Out, Damn Spot!”

Fighting a war against terrorism is one thing.  But apparently there’s no good reason not to maintain personal hygiene. And what better way to do that than to brush one’s teeth after a tasty MRE while on duty?  What is striking about the photograph, however, is not just the fact that we have a U.S. soldier massaging his gums while poised in a bunker between two machine guns, but that he seems somewhat—but only somewhat—nonchalant while doing so.  Leaning relaxed against a wall of sandbags, his right hand comfortably in his pocket, he seems to be without a care in the world.  But of course he is wearing a vest and a helmet, which suggests that the risk to his safety might be a little more serious than gingivitis or bad breath.

And so the question is, what exactly is the point of this photograph?  I must admit that in some ways I don’t have a clue.  He is part of the “No Fear” task force of the 2-27 Infantry in Kunar, and so there might be something here about looking death in the eye and laughing.  But there is also this:  If you work your way through the very many slideshows of the U.S. military stationed at outposts in faraway places like Afghanistan or Iraq you are bound to come across more than a few photographs of U.S. personnel washing or shaving or cutting their hair in what might otherwise be understood as primitive field conditions.   “Cleanliness is next to godliness,” and we should not ignore the sense in which the display of such behavior even under the harshest of conditions subtly visualizes a cultural commonplace that gestures to an Americanized, Christian sensibility.  But more than that, it points to something more subtle still.  Yes, such soldiers might be stationed far from home and under less than normal circumstances, their lives may be at risk and they might even be called upon to kill or die in the name of God and country, but for all of that the basic habits of a civilized people abide.

Put differently, such photographs in general serve as a reminder that war is dirty business even as they feign to suggest that one can fight a war and still maintain clean hands.  The presence of the guns that frame the scene above, and to which the soldier is destined to return, make this photograph unique in this regard, for they stand as a reminder that, as with Lady Macbeth, one cannot completely avoid the tragic stain of war’s inevitable shame.

(photo: Erik De Castro/Reuters)

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  • http://profiles.google.com/ac.missias AC Missias

    I dunno — I don’t really get cultural supriority vibes from such pictures, but sort of a reminder that these guys aren’t just “at work” — i.e., there’s no place that they go home to every day that’s not still pretty much on the front lines.  If you’re in a foxhole, then that’s where you sleep, eat, brush your teeth — it’s the little “everyday” details that make us realize how far from everyday these settings really are . . .

    • Gasho

      My thoughts, too.  This guy “lives” here for now.  Isn’t that what war is, after all.. living on the sharp end of the knife?  We forget that guys are out there because somebody has to enforce our foreign policy by physically showing up and fighting.  And between the killing and the dying is… living in a war zone. Of course he’s going to brush his teeth once in a while! 

    • Gasho

      My thoughts, too.  This guy “lives” here for now.  Isn’t that what war is, after all.. living on the sharp end of the knife?  We forget that guys are out there because somebody has to enforce our foreign policy by physically showing up and fighting.  And between the killing and the dying is… living in a war zone. Of course he’s going to brush his teeth once in a while! 

    • Gasho

      My thoughts, too.  This guy “lives” here for now.  Isn’t that what war is, after all.. living on the sharp end of the knife?  We forget that guys are out there because somebody has to enforce our foreign policy by physically showing up and fighting.  And between the killing and the dying is… living in a war zone. Of course he’s going to brush his teeth once in a while! 

  • LanceThruster

    I think it’s just a reminder of the mundane duties that still have to take place even in a combat environment.

    Toofies don’t brush themselves (Oh, how I wish!).

  • Bonacbub27

    John, I think that you are thinking too much. Don’t hurt yourself.

  • Lucaites

    AC, Gasho, and Lance:  I guess we all see what we want to see, and we all ignore what best serves our own interests.  That would go for me, but for all of us … right?  And what your various explanations–which are all very sensible–fail to account for is why we see so many pictures that feature this very “everyday” and “mundane” activity?  My sense is that there is something more than just showing the everyday which arguably lacks any news value. Let’s think about it … and if we hurt ourselves in the process … well, that’s probably better than assuming there’s nothing here to see.

  • Gasho

    OK, Lucaites, let’s say there’s more going on.  Here’s what I see:  first, it’s a beautiful photograph.  The balance of the light and dark.. the warm glowing wood and the calm intensity of a casual character juxtaposed with machine guns he’s clearly manning in other moments.  Great.

    Second.. we live in a self-promotional, micro media world.  Facebook, twitter, instamatic, blogs, and all the rest are about how to frame your ego online. Well, for a young kid who works at a machine gun post the coolest character he can present is either “Eyes on fire, teeth gritting, guns blazing war shot” which is hard to get because the photographer is also in the heat of the battle OR you can get the “I’m so chill, I brush my teeth surrounded by my machine guns” shot.  There you go. As a phenomena, it’s the cool-cat war shot.

  • Mykarmazoo

    Here’s one for you (since I’ve been part-and-parcel to many such photos myself): The guy was just brushing his teeth and one of his buddies was walking around taking photos. I can count the number of photos I took of myself downrange on one finger. It was of my foot which had a nasty blister. Romanticize away, but if there should be any sort of message, it’s this: we may be soldiers, but we’re still sensible human beings who don’t want dentures at age 40. 

  • Mykarmazoo

    Here’s one for you (since I’ve been part-and-parcel to many such photos myself): The guy was just brushing his teeth and one of his buddies was walking around taking photos. I can count the number of photos I took of myself downrange on one finger. It was of my foot which had a nasty blister. Romanticize away, but if there should be any sort of message, it’s this: we may be soldiers, but we’re still sensible human beings who don’t want dentures at age 40. 

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