Author Essays, Interviews, and Excerpts, Books for the News, Commentary, Politics and Current Events

Whiskey Tango Thank You

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Veterans Day has been around in one form or another for almost a century, since that great Tea Party-scourge Woodrow Wilson first proclaimed Armistice Day on November 11, 1919 and Dwight David Eisenhower pushed through a bill (originated by a shoe store owner from Emporia, Kansas) expanding the federal holiday to honor all of those who have served, regardless of conflict. Veterans Day, and the commemorations, protests, and remembrances associated with the call for continued and greater freedoms, has long been a time of serious-tempered reflection. With that in mind, we’d like to call your attention to a book we’ve blogged about here and there over the past few years, whose project is framed by the perils and virtues of today’s holiday and whose author has engaged in a particular kind of service that allows our own intimate access to those lives put on the line for our varied causes.
Ashley Gilbertson is a contemporary photographer, born in Australia, who lives in New York but spends much of his time on assignment in the roadside fields, army hospitals, federal corridors, recovery homes, and civil unrest zones of Iraq, Afghanistan, and even Washington, D.C. In 2007, the Press published Gilbertson’s Whiskey Tango Foxtrot: A Photographer’s Chronicle of the Iraq War, which gathers the best of his extraordinary photographs of life in occupied Iraq, as he followed marines in to the cauldron of urban combat. Beyond the vivid images that chart the day-to-day experiences of U.S. troops on the ground, Gilbertson’s own story—his guilt over the death of a marine escort, his struggles with post-traumatic stress, and his tenuous turn from hard-drinking photo ace to scarred survivor—plays an evocative role.
Since the book’s publication, Gilbertson has become a regular at the New York Times’s Lens Blog, with images of everything from the bedside recovery of a Times colleague and landmine victim in Afghanistan to a recent New York Times Magazine photo portfolio that examined a day in the life of Barack Obama. Whiskey Tango Foxtrot saw a fairly significant amount of acclaim when it was published, including George Packer’s review for the New Yorker:

“Remarkable. Whiskey Tango Foxtrot collects Gilbertson’s four years of work in Iraq, with an introduction by his Times colleague Dexter Filkins, and a colloquial, self-revealing text beautifully written by the photographer himself. The pictures chart the descent of Iraq from the initial post-invasion euphoria into the extreme violence of the battles for Karbala, Samarra, and Falluja. They also show a young photojournalist, who wasn’t interested in covering combat, learning his craft, proving his mettle, forcing himself into situations that nearly destroy him morally as well as physically, and finally discovering, amid the inferno of Falluja in November, 2004, the strange tenderness that characterizes the very greatest war photography.”

Despite their obviously gritty and difficult circumstances, Gilbertson’s photos, with their searing composition and verité style, can be easy on the eyes of consummate craftsmen. But not unlike Veterans Day, Whiskey Tango Foxtrot has its dark side; it reminds us of what and who and how we make sacrifices for the battles we choose to fight. Perhaps all of this is better said by Gilbertson himself, who sat down with the book’s editor Alan Thomas for a video interview, the first part of which follows below: