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Shooting the Truth

Shooting the Truth



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Published by GoodMenProject
"Shooting The Truth" is photojournalist Michael Kamber's account of what it's like to be a photojournalist in Iraq and Afghanistan. It's one of 31 personal stories from The Good Men Project book, one of countless stories of men on a quest towards figuring out "what is good?"
"Shooting The Truth" is photojournalist Michael Kamber's account of what it's like to be a photojournalist in Iraq and Afghanistan. It's one of 31 personal stories from The Good Men Project book, one of countless stories of men on a quest towards figuring out "what is good?"

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Published by: GoodMenProject on Apr 19, 2010
Copyright:Attribution Non-commercial


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My father left in 1969, when I was six and he was forty-ve.
He got a VW microbus, a nineteen-year-old blonde, andstarted making up for time lost on the three kids and the
drunkard wife back in Maine. He was chasing hard afterthe tail end of the ’60s. I always supposed it must have
been a tough time for a man to be tied down—watching all
that chaos out there, while having to stay home and diaperthe kids and pay the bills.
He left a few things behind: some tools, a handful of warmedals, and a fantastically detailed lithograph he’d bought
at a yard sale. It was dated 1918 and called Over the Top.
It showed a company of steely-eyed doughboys storming
a trench, their bayonets xed and the ag waving abovethem. The Germans looked scared and slightly evil in theirpointy helmets. One American was falling, looking skywardas his comrades killed the Huns around him.
I used to stare at the print for hours, studying it as if it werea religious talisman, searching the images—the smokefrom the cannons, the charging soldiers, the blood dripping
from men’s bodies—for some clue I’d missed. These menhad the answer to a question I wanted to ask. I just wasn’tsure what the question was. I wanted to know why men
go to distant places to slaughter one another, and how
that becomes something noble. But there was a deeperquestion beyond that.
Some of the medals my father leftbehind were from the First World
War. They had belonged to hisfather, my grandfather, Bob Kamber.The most beautiful of his medals
was a rainbow-colored campaignribbon with brass bars inscribed withthe names of the battles he’d fought
in: St. Mihiel, Meuse-Argonne, AisneMarne, Belleau Wood. I used to runmy ngers over the names like ablind man reading Braille.
My father also fought, in the SecondWorld War, with
the 5th Marines. He celebrated histwentieth birthday in the volcanic ash of Iwo Jima. I hadhis medals, too, and a tattered fatigue jacket with a front
pocket bearing the Marine Corps logo—the globe nestled
on a rope and an anchor.
My grandfather hung out at the VFW and was a proud
member of the Disabled American Veterans. But he nevertalked about the combat, and neither did my father. If Iasked, they gave vague responses.My father never really t in anywhere. He fought
his way
through life, never held a job for long, ran through four
marriages (one before my mother and two after), surroundedhimself with guns, occasionally threatened other men—
“I’m an ex-Marine, you know.” It was only later, after I’dbeen to war, that I began to wonder, Did he live with thingshe’d seen that never went away?My daughter was born when I was nineteen. I was
transmissions in a small shop in Asbury Park, New Jersey,during the day and working in a restaurant at night. Therewas a waitress there with blonde hair and a tight uniform.
I got her pregnant one night in the backseat of my ’67
Mustang. A few months after my daughter was born, I wasin the supermarket buying Pampers and formula when Iran into my boys. They were buying beer for a night on thetown.
I was ashamed I wasn’t out chasing women and getting
drunk. I felt I’d failed a vision of manhood that I’d inherited,both as my father’s son and simply as an American male.
I’d lost my independence to roam, to seduce women, and,
most important, to inict or endure violence.
I contemplated going to Mexico, like I’d seen guys in the
movies do, just running someplace where no one knew meand I could get a clean start. But I’d never been fartherwest than Ohio, so I stuck it out in New Jersey and slept
on my girlfriend’s mom’s couch, until the mother, seeing I
wasn’t going to marry her daughter, threw me out.
I did raise my daughter, after a
fashion. She stayed
with me onweekends and for a month or twoin the summer, and got my phone
calls from the road. I put her throughcollege and grad school. I learned
from my grandfather that you workhard and you take a certain amount
of responsibility.
In all fairness to my father, he tried
to keep in touch when I was young.
It didn’t help that my mother had a
warrant out for him. In my teens Ilived with him for a time, but he wasa violent, bitter man, and we fought constantly. The dayafter graduating from high school, I was gone.I never set out to cover wars. I saved some money at thetransmission shop and went to art school in New York to bea ne art photographer. My daughter and her mom stayedbehind in New Jersey; my daughter’s mom still waitressesin the same restaurant where I met her twenty-ve yearsago. I dropped out of school when the money ran out,and I started trying to make it as a photojournalist—a jobwhere I could combine my love for photography with myfascination with history. I worked construction during theweek, then shot on the streets of New York at night andon weekends, peddling pictures to the wire services fortwenty-ve dollars apiece.
The most beautiful of his medals was a rainbow-colored campaign ribbon with brass bars inscribed with the namesof the battles he’d fought in:St. Mihiel, Meuse-Argonne, Aisne Marne, Belleau Wood.
In 1987, when I was twenty-four, a friend was going toHaiti to cover the rst election after the fall of “Baby Doc”Duvalier and invited me along. A community newspaperin New York gave me credentials and a promise to givemy work a look when I returned. I went with my friend
and accidentally made it to war, but it didn’t look like the
picture on the wall in Maine. There were no battle lines, noarmies in uniforms. On a steaming November morning, I
found myself in a room full of women and girls who’d been
hacked to death with machetes by Duvalier’s thugs.Later that morning, those thugs, the Tonton Macoutes,
caught me out in the street, photographing a fresh corpse
like it was some sort of anthropological experiment. I knewwhat that deeper question was now: A few minutes ago,this man was alive, breathing, going home to his family,working on his dreams for tomorrow. Now he lay dead onthe pavement. I wanted to know why. I thought my cameramight reveal an answer, but I had lingered too long. The
killers trained their guns on me, talked for a moment, and
then drove away.Other journalistswere killed that day. Iwas spared. For days
afterward I shook sobadly I couldn’t pick
up a glass of water;
sleep eluded me for
months.I’ve covered a dozenwars since then. I
manage it betternow, but that feelingof absolute, heart-pounding terror
never goes away.In Iraq, near Ansiyah or Mosul,we would drive down
a dirt road where, aday or two before, a
Humvee had blown up; we would see bodies being carriedout in small pieces. You knew the insurgents had been outat night setting new IEDs—improvised explosive devices—and so you’d sweat and clench and swear you’ll never dothis again. If you can just make it through this time, youpromise, you’ll never come back. Then you turn around
and do it again the next day or the next week, and you
can’t explain why.Some men think its bravery. John Burns, the Baghdadbureau chief for the New York Times, once told me thatmuch of what is termed bravery is simply men being tooobstinate, or too dumb, to understand their own mortality.
I don’t know what it is for me, but I sometimes feel as if
I’m standing on a beach and there are waves smotheringme—waves of advertisements for shit I don’t need, ofproles of people who’ve never done anything except be
famous, of politicians mouthing platitudes, of hundreds of
TV channels showing nothing. And sometimes I can take
one picture that lets me grab onto something real in this
world.Not long ago in Iraq, I walked into the countryside in thedawn light with a platoon of U.S. soldiers. Most were intheir early twenties; a few were only eighteen or nineteenyears old. They had joined the army for many reasons,
some out of patriotism, some—the ones from military
families—because that’s just what you did at eighteen,some because they wanted to prove themselves and lovedthe action and camaraderie. They were a cocky, cheerfulbunch. They told fag jokes and stories about getting pissedtogether, about bar ghts and getting so drunk they ateone another’s puke.On patrol that
morning, the commander paused for a long
moment to get map coordinates and do radio checks.Then we set off along
a sandy trail thatwended through ahandful of bombed-
out houses. The air
was still, and in the
palm groves beyond
the trail there was anearly-morning beauty
that I’d never seen
before in Iraq, a placeI would rate as the
most unlovely of thefty or so countriesI’ve worked in. Still,
I felt uneasy on the
trail. The sand wasgood cover for an
IED or a command-detonated mine,
and the palm grovesoffered excellent cover for snipers.
 I stepped inside an abandoned building to photograph the
patrol through a shattered window. Birds chirped in thedistance as I studied the rubble for trip wires. And thenwhoomph! The air lled with smoke. Shrapnel rained downaround me. A soldier screamed. I checked my legs andthe rest of my body for wounds. Had I tripped an IED?Was I dead and didn’t know it? There was no blood. A feeling of nausea settled over me. I’d heard the sound ofan explosion often enough before. It comes at the momentof a man’s death. I knew I had to go out there and startshooting.I ran through the smoke, listening for gunre—a sign ofan ongoing attack—but there was none. A call went out

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