More than 1,000 photos and 60 videos were taken by U.S. military photographers during the evacuation of Afghanistan, but few captured what those chaotic days and nights must have been like for American troops as they attempted to rescue as many people as possible from a seemingly never-ending crowd of desperate Afghans outside the walls of Kabul’s airport.
Now, thanks to a U.S. Marine’s GoPro-shot deployment video, we can see the other side.
The appearance of an orderly and “responsible withdrawal” from Afghanistan comes as no surprise since military photographers are trained on what not to make public and are often told to avoid showing the uncomfortable parts of war. And even when they do capture the realities of combat operations — with the swearing, the unbloused boots and ripped trousers, the shaggy hair and gallows humor, to say nothing of the anger, confusion, and aggression — that version of events rarely makes it through the gauntlet of public affairs officers reviewing outgoing stories, photos, and videos to ensure they align with the “command message” of the day. The visual record of Iraq and Afghanistan has long been filtered through a Department of Defense website where very little goes against the “very specific narrative” the government wants to promote, as one public affairs soldier put it. No profanity or smoking, stick to the hearts and minds stuff, and absolutely no casualties.
“It is easy to get a pulse on what story the military hopes to tell by looking at what images and videos it produces,” military journalist Kelsey Atherton recently noted after studying the “visual canon” of a war propped up by a web of lies spun by top military and political leaders over two decades. The carefully curated gallery of Afghanistan evacuation images, Atherton wrote, showed the “same outward look of calm present in the ‘Afghanistan Withdrawal’ images, of calm established by military order. The reality of this war — its rapid end and live aftermath — is missing. There’s nothing here about the drones used for a ‘self-defense unmanned over-the-horizon airstrike,’ the euphemism given by the Pentagon for an attack on a suspected suicide bomber. That attack reportedly killed ten civilians, including six children.”
Yet U.S. Central Command released images of a “ramp ceremony” at the airport in which service members carried the caskets of 13 service members killed in the terrorist attack at Abbey Gate on Aug. 26 to the planes that would fly them home. Some journalists were surprised since such images are rarely seen publicly without a lawsuit. There was a good reason for skepticism: They were uploaded by mistake.