October 25, 2004
I don’t believe in ghosts but I am seeing them now on my computer screen and it does somewhat have the effect that I imagine people feel when they believe they are seeing ghosts; apprehension, a reluctance to see yet at the same time a strong desire to verify that they do exist – or did.
Yesterday I escorted some members of the press and also photographed a graduation ceremony of the Iraqi Army’s 17th Battalion, 7th Brigade, 5th Division at Kirkush Military Training Base. As we prepared to leave, the sunshine and warm breeze elicited a wish that we could leave the doors open on the Blackhawk as we buzzed the treetops on the relatively short helicopter ride to the base.
As we landed and exited the helo I immediately assessed the light with the intent of figuring out what lenses to use, how I wanted to shoot the ceremony and all the other mundane thoughts that go along with photographing an event of this type. Leading the press to the parade ground was a quick affair as the ceremony was starting upon our arrival.
I was instantly struck by the formations of soldiers with Iraqi flags standing in the middle of the field and the wall of attendees sitting on wooden bleachers – fellow soldiers from the base, some still in training themselves. The flags were apparently new, made of satin or like material and absolutely blazing red, white, black and green in the hazy sunshine, occasionally fluttering in a breath-like rhythm with the shallow breeze.
The ceremony was typical and beautiful. Proud soldiers making crisp movements, words of encouragement from the speakers of the day, congratulations from comrades and friends before marching off together to more pats on the back and handshakes among the soldiers. It was later that things would get crazy. Later, as I downloaded and began the process of cropping and selecting photos for publication; later, as I studied in detail the eyes of the young soldiers to check for focus and contrast; later, as I cropped out serious faces and men at earnest attention, trying to get the best composition, attempting to choose those few photos that would preserve the spirit of that day and event in frozen images of immortality. It was then that the ghosts infiltrated my computer to haunt my thoughts as I worked in the glow their stolen visages. For as I processed the photos a coworker came into the office with some breaking news.
Forty-nine of the newly graduated recruits from the 17th Battalion had been murdered while heading home on leave; attacked on the highway several miles from the base at a bogus checkpoint. Rocket propelled grenades set at least one bus on fire, roasting some soldiers alive. The rest of the unarmed soldiers were ordered to lay on the ground in rows and were then methodically shot in the back of the head. All who tried to escape were shot down. The bodies were stripped of money and valuables – they had just been paid – and even shoes were stolen as the blood of those lifeless, young bodies drained into the sand.
It became, suddenly, a very long day even though it was only 10:30 a.m.
I closed the photos as the public affairs office became a whirl of everything that has to happen when an event of this nature takes place. Phones ringing, email inbox filling, PAOs and press asking for figures and facts to release – all happening simultaneously with the normal business of the day.
Then, in the evening, back to the photos. Which of these young soldiers were now dead? Which face no longer beamed with pride, which boot would never march again, which salute was the last, which smile gone forever, which of these digital ghosts reflected only a memory rather than a life? My computer all at once became a casket and a mausoleum; my flat-screen monitor a memorial gravestone displaying a final rendition of men who volunteered to become the protectors of a new Iraq. The benign photo cut lines seemed pitiful epitaphs.
These men should now be symbols to Iraqi citizens, just as they are easily recognized as sons, brothers, fathers and uncles. Some joined the army for patriotism and some out of the need for a steady job. Others perhaps saw a chance to improve their lives and circumstances. All were part of the building process of a new way of life in Iraq based on a respect for human rights and the dignity of self-determination under a political system that allows men to choose their own direction in life while protecting them from the fear of force and intimidation. Whether they fully realized the importance of their decision to volunteer, it remains true that these young, tragically ended lives are the seeds of liberty for all the people of Iraq. And they were killed because of it.
One can only hope the people of Iraq will connect these facts and demand justice for this crime. That they will blame the murderers of these soldiers and not the government or foreign fighters or anyone else. That they will take an active part in informing authorities of any terrorist activities in their neighborhoods and homes. Then maybe the “Fallen 49” of the 17th Battalion will become a rallying cry and a catalyst to once and for all root out the terrorists that continue to butcher Iraqis and their allies on the streets and highways of Iraq.
The 17th Battalion, 7th Brigade, 5th Division of the Iraqi Army marches onto the parade ground Oct. 24, 2004. Photo by Joe Kane
Soldiers from the 17th Battalion, 7th Brigade, 5th Division of the Iraqi Army march in a "pass in review" Oct. 24, 2004 at Kirkush Military Training Base. Photo by Joe Kane
Labels: fallen 49, funeral, ghosts, iraq, iraqi dead, iraqi flag, iraqi patriots, iraqi soldiers, joe kane, kirkush, liberty, patriots, photography, photos, soldiers, terrorism, training