Thursday, December 11, 2008

Portraits of War

I picked up a copy of Detroit Free Press' Portraits of War (2003) after reading an article about the artist featured in the book. The collection is a concise and intimate survey of the first year in Iraq from the perspective of different ranking soldiers from Infantry, Colonels, Medics, Navy Officers, and Marines. The illustrations make the book. Richard Johnson's traditional graphite drawing are paired with one page descriptions of each soldiers' everyday routine with confessional quotes detailing their anxieties, fears, and courage. Jeff Seidel, the journalist, gets it right by letting his subjects do the talking. As a documentation, it's emotionally spot-on and accurate.

Civilians aren't featured with the same care. Interviews and sketches of Iraqis are pushed to the back of the book where they only get twenty-something pages, but the book isn't about people on the other side. Initially, this was the same problem I had with David Simon's adaptation of Generation Kill, but HBO tasked him with translating the book to screen – and the book is about Marines, not Iraqis. I remember marching, collar fuming, out of the National Press Club after a pre-release screening and Q&A with Simon and Brookings experts, but that's fodder for another blog post.

You can grab gently used copies of Portraits of War on Amazon for around 5 bucks, which is a bargain for such a fascinating volume. But don't let the naivety of the first few pages turn you off; it would have been prudent for the publisher to wait a few months before printing the book. I scanned the title of the preface to show how quickly dated the language is. Precision-guided. Please.

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