The essence of war

January 11, 2012

By Umit Bektas

As the medical staff rushed to prepare the seriously wounded soldier for immediate surgery, I stood in one corner of the emergency room wondering how publishable the pictures I would take of this bloody and violent scene would be and what would be the benefit of it, if they were indeed published.

No photo of the soldier who lay there covered in blood and unconscious would ever be sufficient to express his agonizing pain. There was no way I could ever sum up the earlier life of this solider, the life which would never be the same again. I could never explain why this happened to him. I could never relay in a single frame what really happened to him and what purpose his injuries would serve. For some time I watched the medical staff working frantically around the soldier, making superhuman efforts to keep him alive. Their efforts would probably save a life. What would mine accomplish? What would I have achieved if in the middle of this bloody scene I succeeded in taking a photo appropriate to be printed in newspapers and people thousands of miles away would bring into their homes to look at. What photo or photos would ever help the soldier to regain his limbs which would likely be severed very soon. I happened to catch a glimpse of the soldier’s boots lying on the floor. As the soldier was wheeled into surgery after emergency first aid, and the commotion in the room died down, I approached the bloodied boots and snapped them.

It is now more than a month since I returned from my assignment as an embedded photographer with the U.S. troops in Afghanistan. Now, as I write this blog I am looking at that picture. I want to talk about what a pair of blood-soaked boots means to me; as a human being and as a photographer.

For a month I reported with photos from a number of different assignments the American troops were engaged in. But I admit the days I spent with the 628th Forward Surgical Team were the most trying. It is not only the issue of seeking a meaning and an outcome in what I witnessed that still occupies my mind – it is a problem of the essence of the whole thing.

Let me explain what I mean by essence. The premises where three patients can simultaneously receive emergency treatment is in fact a tent. Unavoidably, it is cramped and the space left after three gurneys are placed side by side, is barely enough for the medical teams to squeeze in. If you are a photographer allowed to take pictures, obviously you cannot move an inch. Not because anyone has prohibited you, but to avoid hampering the medical staff, you take care not to change your position unless you absolutely need to. From where you stand you can clearly see what is happening but most of what you see cannot be photographed, cannot be transmitted if photographed and cannot be published if transmitted. It is bodies bloodied and mangled.

As a result it becomes extremely difficult to convey the drama unfolding right before your eyes. The photo you should take must be vital enough to relay the gravity of the situation and it must also be bearable. While striving to achieve this balance I discovered two things: Hands and faces. I thought I would take photos of the hands of the wounded.

Hands clenched in pain, a hand seeking another hand to hold on to, hands covered in blood pressing down on open wounds and hands too heavy for the exhausted bodies to hold up. And I took photos of the faces of the staff striving to keep those soldiers alive and their expressions. I focused on their expressions shaped by the drama which you will never see but which they lived and experienced.

Let me now talk about the meaning. Like everyone, I have my personal outlook on life and my own political stance. I am confident that I always set aside my political beliefs when I am taking pictures. Impartiality and observance of ethical values are my main concerns. But the right to live, to enjoy this fundamental right and to enjoy a life of peace is the privilege of every human being. It is unacceptable that any person should lose his body, his most valuable asset, and his right to life especially by dangers that can be avoided. No American soldier in Iraq or in Afghanistan, no African dictator, no child, no old woman should be deprived of the right to live or be threatened with its loss by someone else’s weapons, bombs, or someone else’s power. If a person is to be punished for what he or she has done, the punishment should not be death. Will the photographs I took in that tent in Afghanistan communicate this message? Well, it depends on how you look at the pictures.

Personally, I believe my photography does carry this message. If you read them correctly, you will be able to say this: “My hands should never be bloodied as in those photos, no one’s boots should become so blood-soaked, no one should lie surrounded by medical teams trying to give him back a life almost swept away by weapons with unknown purpose, no one should suffer this pain.” To me, news photography is the unadulterated and stark reflection of reality. But what you make of that reality is yours to decide.

For a week, every injured soldier carried into that cramped tent helped me realize again the value and the significance of life. There, I came to know doctors whose responsibility to the patients ended after their situation stabilized and they were transferred out, but who still continued to monitor their healing process even after the patients were flown home to the U.S.

I thought: We should all feel the same concern as those doctors. I dreamed that there were people who saw one of my pictures in the newspaper or on the Internet and wondered what became of that injured soldier, wondered what he or she can do individually to prevent such incidents. People ready to make an effort to prevent all this – good people!

And I hoped that they would not only look at my photos but try to read a meaning into them.


We welcome comments that advance the story through relevant opinion, anecdotes, links and data. If you see a comment that you believe is irrelevant or inappropriate, you can flag it to our editors by using the report abuse links. Views expressed in the comments do not represent those of Reuters. For more information on our comment policy, see

Thank you for doing this difficult work of covering suffering. I work with Tibetan exiles, mainly former political prisoners, and know well the difficulty of conveying the unspeakable suffering that most of the world will never fully understand, but needs to be aware of.

Your images are valuable and do convey your thoughts without intruding on the privacy of the individual.

Posted by TWinandPhoto | Report as abusive

Thanks for this. In a society inured to the sight of blood by ceaseless TV violence offered as entertainment these simple images are an important benchmark of reality; it is only the pity they will only be seen by limited audiences…

Posted by EnglishAmerican | Report as abusive

it makes me wonder.,what is he thinking -‘the medical staff/man with glasses’ maybe.,he’s this all for a reason.?All worth it.?.To die for.?They are the most effected.,the true ‘casualty’ of this WAR.To see pain in the eye.,the blood,sweat and tears of a grown man.,no words can describe what he is feeling at that moment.,or any given moment.,similar to this.,that I manage to ‘peek’.here I’m .,trying my/our best.,to imagine his feeling.,
god.,i just pray and hope.,he makes it home to his love ones whom been long awaiting his presence where he should have been.Amen.

Posted by farick | Report as abusive


Posted by farick | Report as abusive

Thank you

Posted by Fujie | Report as abusive

1000 yard stare. It is the thread that connects all wars.

Posted by meonlyme | Report as abusive

Millie grazie

Posted by echobravotango | Report as abusive

We need a Doctor to bring our children home. Paul 2012.

Posted by dr.bob | Report as abusive

In the book “Captivity”, author James Loney, quotes the words of 52 year old Tom Fox, one of 4 members of a Christian Peacekeepers Team kidnapped in Baghdad, November, 2005. Mr. Fox wrote, “… I have read that this word [agape] is best expressed as a profound respect for all human beings…’never thinking or doing anything that would dehumanize one of my fellow human beings.’ As I survey the landscape here in Iraq, dehumanization seems to be the operative means of relating to each other… It seems as if the first step down the road to violence is taken when I dehumanize a person… Why are we here? We are here to root out all aspects of dehumanization that exist within us…” A very small quote from a book which addresses the same concepts presented by the photographer. Thank you.

Posted by Train_Ryder | Report as abusive

How did we let the politicians and businessmen do this to our people? Bring them home.

Posted by alchem88 | Report as abusive

It took twelve years for “All Quiet on the Western Front” to be shown with its horror.

One wonders how long it will take for the full viewing of Bektus’s photos?

Lou Ayres became a pacifist afterward.

Maybe we have to have our faces rubbed in this war, to make any changes?

Posted by old.frt | Report as abusive

In providing services to homeless men and women in America I sometimes find the same situations of unbelievable suffering. Blood and pain. No one should have to endure such conditions. I wish I had medical teams with me or on the ground to provide medical services to American’s that are homeless.

Posted by D99 | Report as abusive

These brave young men give their lives and their limbs to protect a nation that won’t even pay them a living wage.

Please ask your politicians what they will do about the pay of these brave Americans if elected.

Posted by Sinbad1 | Report as abusive

These soldiers are being used as cannon fodder, nothing more than pawns in a rich man’s game of war. They are not protecting our freedoms, they are being used to do great harm in distant lands, sometimes at their own peril. Their blood, and the blood of their enemies gild the pockets of war profiteers, red turning to gold as the money flows…

Posted by Marla | Report as abusive

wars have always been the ultimate way to settle conflicts since early man..the difference lies in the weapons they use and the rhetoric that comes before it. if the way man can evolutionize wars u wonder jus when man can evolutionize the way we think about wars such that it can no longer be a deeply ingrained instinct in us from the lowest to the highest of intellect human dna.
it was never worth it for every parent but worth it for every govt that calls for it..yet politicians dont send their kids to be grunts. these images serve to remind us the structure of govts that we need to dimantle..what is good for the state may not necessarily be good for the family and vice versa..but i strongly suspect that the values of a strong family builds a strong nation.

Posted by kellycfa | Report as abusive

every american soldier,airman,marine,sailor enjoy the ultimate sacriface because when they sign they endorse a blank check with sometimes is paid in full with their own life. PO1_USNR

Posted by diablito23 | Report as abusive

Thank you, Umit. The photographs you took are so hard hitting. The world would be such a better place if people in power, politicians, dictators can see what their decisions and their politics do to men and women who are sent to the front lines. What is truly heart breaking is when you start wondering about the soldiers who do survive their horrific wounds. What quality of life are they left with if at all? It makes you realize that war is never a good thing. No matter where it takes place and between whom. You can’t put a price tag on peace nor on human life.

Posted by ST1979 | Report as abusive

None of the soldiers getting injured or dying are involved in protectng the US, they signed up for Invasion of a country !

This is just collateral damage for the Republicans and Democrats, in their quest for Foreign Policy implementation.

Posted by capitalP | Report as abusive

put me in tears, thank you for the truth of war!

Posted by Liyw | Report as abusive

Thank you.

Posted by scavenqer | Report as abusive

I enjoyed reading this as I was covering a similar subject last year with the British soldiers in the main hospital at Camp Bastion. It’s nice to read this and know that someone shares a similar view as I struggled to make sense of it once I was past the aesthetic decisions of the imagery during the shoot and edit process. Thanks for posting.

Posted by AliBaskerville | Report as abusive

Thank you for telling our story. It means a lot to us to be able to give someone an article back home to tell our story so we dont have to. It was a pleasure to have you stand with us as we worked during the time you were here. You are always welcome back, if only for a good cup of coffee and conversation.

The 628th FST

Posted by MedicRN | Report as abusive

Farick: So you are telling me the member of the medical staff is the actual casualty of war, not a Marine or soldier who was in a firefight and then became a triple amputee at a medical station like this? F— you, sir/ma’am. I have had great respect for Corpsman and medical staff while I have been deployed, but many of them don’t experience the start of the event, the actual injury taking place. Imagine what that does to a Marine, to see your friend shot through the neck or blown up, they are the ones that have those feelings… not some doctor who just met the guy.

Posted by SgtS | Report as abusive

One Percent; thats all that serve the USA military these days; when I served it was maybe 15-20% at the end of our war. The bloods still red and the tears are very real! SO SAD

Posted by Ken69 | Report as abusive