‘War Is Beautiful’: How The NY Times Has Glamorized War For Over A Decade

FORT CARSON, CO - NOVEMBER 10: Family members and U.S. soldiers embrace following a welcome home ceremony for troops returning from Iraq on November 10, 2011 in Fort Carson, Colorado. More than 100 soldiers from the 549th Quartermaster Company, 43rd Sustainment Brigade returned after a seven-month deployment. They played a key role in removing excess equipment from Iraq as other troops withdrew from the region. (Photo by John Moore/Getty Images)
Cover of ‘War Is Beautiful’ by David Shields

The below is an excerpt from David Shields’ book ‘War Is Beautiful’, available today from powerHouse Books

For decades, upon opening the New York Times every morning and contemplating the front page, I was entranced by the war photographs. My attraction to the photographs evolved into a mixture of rapture, bafflement, and repulsion. Over time I realized that these photos glorified war through an unrelenting parade of beautiful images whose function is to sanctify the accompanying descriptions of battle, death, destruction, and displacement. I didn’t completely trust my intuition, so over the last year I went back and reviewed New York Times front pages from the invasion of Afghanistan in 2001 until the present. When I gathered together hundreds and hundreds of images, I found my original take corroborated: the governing ethos was unmistakably one that glamorized war and the sacrifices made in the service of war.

Reviewing nearly a thousand front-page war pictures, I noticed that many, even most, repeat certain visual tropes, or gestures. This book aims to demonstrate what these patterns are and how these patterns work together.

Nature

Military action becomes a habitat, the preserve of masculine desire for war. Men are as glorious as nature when in bellicose tribes occupying wilderness and believing in regeneration through violence.

FILE -- A severe sandstorm blanketed a convoy from the Headquarters Battalion of the 1st Marine Division north of the Euphrates River in Iraq, on March 25, 2003. President Barack Obama announced Oct. 21, 2011, that the United States had fulfilled its commitment in Iraq and would bring all U.S. troops home by the end of the year. (Ozier Muhammad/The New York Times) EDS NOTE: PHOTO HAS ORANGE OVERCAST BECAUSE OF SAND STORM - DO NOT COLOR-CORRECT
FILE — A severe sandstorm blanketed a convoy from the Headquarters Battalion of the 1st Marine Division north of the Euphrates River in Iraq, on March 25, 2003. President Barack Obama announced Oct. 21, 2011, that the United States had fulfilled its commitment in Iraq and would bring all U.S. troops home by the end of the year. (Ozier Muhammad/The New York Times)

Playground

War is the playground that authorizes the male psyche to exercise its passions. It’s also the dangerous arena into which the Times sends its employees to win awards and promote its brand.

Soldiers from the 1st Battalion The Parachute Regiment practise driving all terrain vehicles in the Kuwaiti desert.
Soldiers from the 1st Battalion The Parachute Regiment practise driving all terrain vehicles in the Kuwaiti desert. Chris Ison/Press Association

Father

Within another culture, the American warrior is presented as protection and relief from the chaos and blood that he himself has unleashed upon the indigenous culture. Children need faux-fathers because their real fathers may already be dead.

U.S. Navy Hospital Corpsman HM1 Richard Barnett, assigned to the 1st Marine Division, holds an Iraqi child in central Iraq in this March 29, 2003 file photo. Confused front line crossfire ripped apart an Iraqi family after local soldiers appeared to force civilians towards positions held by U.S. Marines. March 20 marks the one year anniversary of the beginning of the U.S. led war against Iraq. The war started on March 20 Baghdad local time, March 19 Washington D.C. local time. REUTERS/Damir Sagolj HIGHEST QUALITY AVAILABLE - RTR1ADKJ
U.S. Navy Hospital Corpsman HM1 Richard Barnett, assigned to the 1st Marine Division, holds an Iraqi child in central Iraq in this March 29, 2003 file photo. Confused front line crossfire ripped apart an Iraqi family after local soldiers appeared to force civilians towards positions held by U.S. Marines. March 20 marks the one year anniversary of the beginning of the U.S. led war against Iraq. The war started on March 20 Baghdad local time, March 19 Washington D.C. local time. REUTERS/Damir Sagolj

God

The military commands the globe; the Times surveys and imagines the battlefield from a vantage point high above the field of play; everything is under control for the creation of a new world.

An Iraqi civilian kisses the hand of U.S. Marine Cpl. Joseph Sharp from Peoria, Ill., after Marines from the 1st Battalion 5th Marines gave him a supply of food and water in Fallujah, Iraq, Monday, April 19, 2004. (AP Photo/John Moore)
An Iraqi civilian kisses the hand of U.S. Marine Cpl. Joseph Sharp from Peoria, Ill., after Marines from the 1st Battalion 5th Marines gave him a supply of food and water in Fallujah, Iraq, Monday, April 19, 2004. (AP Photo/John Moore)

Pietà

War death = Christ’s death on the cross. The process of removing the body from the cross and battlefield is sacred. Mourning is always muted and respectful. Hysterical grief is banned.

FILE -- In this photo by Joan Silva, Ali Hadi, a professional body washer, prepares the body of a bombing victim for Muslim burial as the man's relatives watch in Najaf, Iraq, on March 3, 2004. Silva was severely wounded on Oct. 23, 2010, when he stepped on a mine while on patrol with American soldiers in southern Afghanistan. (Joao Silva/The New York Times)
FILE — In this photo by Joan Silva, Ali Hadi, a professional body washer, prepares the body of a bombing victim for Muslim burial as the man’s relatives watch in Najaf, Iraq, on March 3, 2004. Silva was severely wounded on Oct. 23, 2010, when he stepped on a mine while on patrol with American soldiers in southern Afghanistan. (Joao Silva/The New York Times)

Painting

War stuns the senses to the point that its portrait needs to be painted over and over. These images apotheosize adrenaline and firepower, preserving American idols.

French soldiers arrive to the scene where a car bomber killed three Afghan police and wounded five people in Kabul, Afghanistan, Monday, Sept. 18, 2006. A suicide car bomber killed three Afghan police and wounded five other people in Kabul on Monday, an official said. (AP Photo/Rodrigo Abd)
French soldiers arrive to the scene where a car bomber killed three Afghan police and wounded five people in Kabul, Afghanistan, Monday, Sept. 18, 2006. A suicide car bomber killed three Afghan police and wounded five other people in Kabul on Monday, an official said. (AP Photo/Rodrigo Abd)

Movie

The positing of action heroes, video games, and special effects in cinematic stills. Countless American war movies are behind the image screens. The body’s grotesque disfigurement and death are erased by technology and art.

GAZA CITY, -: A Palestinian youth stands in front of a burning vehicle during clashes between rival Fatah and Hamas in Gaza City, 14 May 2007. Two Palestinians were killed in fresh fighting between rival Fatah and Hamas gunmen today despite a truce aimed at ending the worst factional violence since a unity government took office. AFP PHOTO/MOHAMMED ABED (Photo credit should read MOHAMMED ABED/AFP/Getty Images)
GAZA CITY, -: A Palestinian youth stands in front of a burning vehicle during clashes between rival Fatah and Hamas in Gaza City, 14 May 2007. Two Palestinians were killed in fresh fighting between rival Fatah and Hamas gunmen today despite a truce aimed at ending the worst factional violence since a unity government took office. (Mohammed Abed/AFP/Getty Images)

Beauty

Portraits of the other: the occupied and displaced, mostly women and children, beauties seeking salvation. Male sacrifice and war are consecrated in these faces—the rationale for going to war. Fathers and God are the necessary destroyers.

BAGHDAD, IRAQ - SEPTEMBER 30: Iraqi citizen's flee the scene after three explosions September 30, 2004 in Baghdad, Iraq. Three seperate explosions near a U.S. military convoy which was passing the opening ceremony for a sewage station killed at least 35 people and wounded more than 100 others in southern Baghdad according to Iraqi police. (Photo by Wathiq Khuzaie/Getty Images)
BAGHDAD, IRAQ – SEPTEMBER 30: Iraqi citizen’s flee the scene after three explosions September 30, 2004 in Baghdad, Iraq. Three seperate explosions near a U.S. military convoy which was passing the opening ceremony for a sewage station killed at least 35 people and wounded more than 100 others in southern Baghdad according to Iraqi police. (Photo by Wathiq Khuzaie/Getty Images)

Love

Proximity to death, which marks the separation between military and civilian life, is unmistakably erotic. Like sex, war is a force that gives us meaning; a male soldier’s combat death is as close as he’s ever going to get to birth, to the origin of things.

FORT CARSON, CO - NOVEMBER 10: Family members and U.S. soldiers embrace following a welcome home ceremony for troops returning from Iraq on November 10, 2011 in Fort Carson, Colorado. More than 100 soldiers from the 549th Quartermaster Company, 43rd Sustainment Brigade returned after a seven-month deployment. They played a key role in removing excess equipment from Iraq as other troops withdrew from the region. (Photo by John Moore/Getty Images)
FORT CARSON, CO – NOVEMBER 10: Family members and U.S. soldiers embrace following a welcome home ceremony for troops returning from Iraq on November 10, 2011 in Fort Carson, Colorado. More than 100 soldiers from the 549th Quartermaster Company, 43rd Sustainment Brigade returned after a seven-month deployment. They played a key role in removing excess equipment from Iraq as other troops withdrew from the region. (Photo by John Moore/Getty Images)

Death

The machine rolls on; the war dead incarnate the immortal epic told as if they agreed to lie supine to support the light and civilization that surely surround them.

Art is an ordering of nature and artifact. The Times uses its front-page war photographs to convey that a chaotic world is ultimately under control, encased within amber. In so doing, the paper of record promotes its institutional power as protector of death-dealing democracy and curator of Western civilization. Who is culpable? We all are; our collective psyche and memory are inscribed in these photographs. Behind these sublime, destructive, illuminated images are hundreds of thousands of unobserved, anonymous war deaths; this book is witness to a graveyard of horrendous beauty.

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David Shields

David Shields is the internationally bestselling author of twenty-two books, including Reality Hunger (named one of ...

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Image Credit: GAZA CITY, -: A Palestinian youth stands in front of a burning vehicle during clashes between rival Fatah and Hamas in Gaza City, 14 May 2007. Two Palestinians were killed in fresh fighting between rival Fatah and Hamas gunmen today despite a truce aimed at ending the worst factional violence since a unity government took office. AFP PHOTO/MOHAMMED ABED (Photo credit should read MOHAMMED ABED/AFP/Getty Images)

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