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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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