2014-02-21 / Front Page

Perspectives of War

Not Your Grandfather’s Wars
By Patricia Lacouture

The recent wars in the Middle East, triggered by the horrors of 9/11, are nothing like either of the two World Wars, although they bear some similarities to Vietnam with regard to counterinsurgency tactics and the greatly increased danger of land mines. Different conflicts require changing strategies, and they leave combat troops with different scars. These new faces of war are the topic of the latest exhibit in Salve Regina University’s Dorrance H. Hamilton Gallery. “Picturing War” features oversized photographs of both returning soldiers and mock training environments.

Suzanne Opton, of New York, gets up close and personal with the faces of soldiers freshly returned from the combat theater. Her soldiers lie on their sides and they show varying degrees of emotional discomfort in their eyes – eyes so tired of death, injuries and suicide attacks that they range from startled to drained, often betraying nothing but numbness. Opton identifies her portraits by each soldier’s last name, number of days in their most recent deployment, and the year the photo was taken. They were shot at Fort Drum, New York.


Haunting images of soldiers returning from war at the Dorrance H. Hamilton Gallery. “Soldier: Bruno –355 Days in Iraq,” 2004. (Photo by Suzanne Opton) Haunting images of soldiers returning from war at the Dorrance H. Hamilton Gallery. “Soldier: Bruno –355 Days in Iraq,” 2004. (Photo by Suzanne Opton) Boston’s Claire Beckett takes a step back from the soldiers to capture the simulated “battlegrounds” used to prepare military personnel for deployment to areas with a vastly different terrain and the players who work the scenario. The show features a mosque, a village, and a “terrorist” at work on an explosive device. The buildings look manufactured yet eerily realistic. Their sense of repose belies the dangers lurking beneath their surfaces. Beckett took her photos at the National Training Center at Fort Irwin, California, in the Mojave Desert. Various locations in the desert Southwest conceal centers much like Fort Irwin’s.


Army SPC Gary McCorkle playing the role of terrorist Jibril Ihsan Hamalat the National Training Center, Fort Irwin, Calif., 2009. (Photo by Claire Beckett) Army SPC Gary McCorkle playing the role of terrorist Jibril Ihsan Hamalat the National Training Center, Fort Irwin, Calif., 2009. (Photo by Claire Beckett) Opton, a self-trained photographer, took a degree of inspiration from performance art in composing her images. These soldiers have been asked to lie a specific way, but their faces mask any attempt at performing. “Soldier Pry–201 Days in Afghanistan,” (2005) has his eyes closed, but his facial muscles look taut from either the discipline of training or, possibly, from what he has seen and fears he will reflect if he opens his eyes. “Soldier: Bruno– 355 Days in Iraq,” (2004) opens his blue eyes, but they register shock as though he’s still seeing horrific events.

Beckett earned a degree in anthropology at Kenyon College and worked in the Peace Corps in West Africa before earning her MFA in photography at Massachusetts College of Art. I was especially intrigued by her “Above Medina, Jabal Town,” (2009), a maze-like village of empty streets where the tension she captures from the angle and a single set of footprints in the sand made me uneasy yet curious to take in every detail. Looking closely at “Jabal Village Mosque” (2008), I saw traces of the artifice inherent in these training centers: A wall of plywood is fixed next to a more realistic-looking wall of clapboards. From a distance, the homes look like they are made of the region’s more authentic poured concrete, another example of how Beckett’s work highlights the fake reality of this site.

If I had to vote for Best of Show, I would select Beckett’s Army SPC Gary McCorkle (posed as) “Jibril Ihson Hamel,” (2009) a key member of a terrorist group. Kneeling as if in prayer and wearing a Middle Eastern hooded white robe, his fingers are captured in the act of wiring an explosive device. This portrait reveals the irony of this playacting. McCorkle wears very American-looking jeans and white sneakers beneath his camouflage garb. It takes a bit of scrutiny to see that one’s first impression of a man kneeling in prayer is really a man making a device for killing and destruction.



Patricia Lacouture teaches film studies at Salve Regina Univesity. She completed her graduate studies in film at Boston University. Patricia Lacouture teaches film studies at Salve Regina Univesity. She completed her graduate studies in film at Boston University.

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