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June 23, 2014

Staring Our War in the Face

On Friday, U.S. Marine Corps Corporal William “Kyle” Carpenter received the Medal of Honor at the White House. It was awarded for “conspicuous gallantry” performed while serving in Helmand Province.

Nominally, the photo recognizes the heroism of an American soldier through a rare and esteemed ritual.  Also, it marks the conscientiousness of the White House in honoring and, symbolically, keeping faith with the country’s fighting force. Using the President’s suit and tight framing to simulate a simple dark background, however, the ensuing gaze, and Mr. Carpenter’s remarkable face, transcends the President’s hands, as well as the medal and the (irony of the) medal ceremony, to make its own larger statement. As much as the country tends to either avoid dealing with the war’s futility or quickly compensates with an air of a guilt, the photo simply demands we witness. And in the process, Mr. Carpenter’s face serves like a road map — a road map of battles, days and events barely attended to.

What Carpenter’s face also attests to is cosmetic artistry. The right eye is distended, perhaps artificial, and out of sync with the left, but it’s not so altered that Carpenter doesn’t looks intact. In spite of the scarring and some discoloration, the rest of the surgical work is impressive too. You can’t say America hasn’t done its best to undo damage, on the surface at least. But then, as direct and simultaneously commanding and disarming as the gaze is, we’re drawn to contend with the patchwork, to consider with the map.

Credit the photographer, Kevin Lamarque, for catching us, and awarding Carpenter with something as valuable as the medal — our attention.

(photo: Kevin Lamarque/Reuters. caption: President Obama presents the Medal of Honor to retired U.S. Marine Corps Corporal William “Kyle” Carpenter during a ceremony at the White House, June 19, 2014. Carpenter received the award for “conspicuous gallantry” performed while serving in Helmand Province, Afghanistan. Via Reuters Photos of the Week.)

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