New soldiers and empty boys: imaging traumatic memory
This essay reconstructs one important context for images published by the Vietnam Veterans Against the War (VVAW): the testimonial practices of anti-war veterans. First in small rap sessions, and then in unofficial public hearings, anti-war veterans recollected their war experiences in an effort to inform civilians about the US war in Vietnam, and mobilise them to oppose it. Photographs of introspective veterans – lost in memory – provide a visual idiom for the experience of ‘flashing back’ that was the basis for veterans’ testimony. If these photographs signify the central role of self-reflection in veterans’ anti-war organising, they also imply a distrust of graphic war photography – both images disseminated by the mainstream media and atrocity photographs taken by soldiers themselves. Anti-war veterans worried that war photographs catered to a consumerist appetite for intense, vicarious experience and provoked only a fleeting sense of revulsion. Compounding this distrust of graphic imagery was the circulation of war souvenirs, atrocity photographs taken by soldiers of their dead and wounded victims. Exploring portraiture as an alternative to photojournalism, this essay situates images of introspective veterans in relation to the pioneering activism of the VVAW and allies them with images produced by other activists working in the visual field, focusing on Martha Rosler’s ‘Empty Boys’.