Tuesday, March 9, 2010

Book Review: "Glass Warriors" by Duncan Anderson

The Bargain Books aisle is my favourite section at any Chapters-Indigo bookstore. For $4.99, I picked up Glass Warriors by Duncan Anderson. Subtitled The Camera at War, it is the "history of over 150 years of global conflict" and a "celebration of the war photographer's art, bravery, and occasional artifice and deception". Certainly, the front cover piqued my interest: Robert Capa's iconic image of Omaha Beach from June 6th, 1944.

So why does this book merit a review? Well, I've always had a slippery mental grasp when it comes to getting a handle on the chronology of events, e.g., wars (invariably, one leads to another) and royal lineage (England, France). I'd hope this book would remedy this somewhat. I am a firm believer that a full appreciation of current events is made possible with a knowledge and understanding of the past ("you won't get there unless you know where you're coming from").

Glass Warriors starts with the first practical use of photography in war: the American Civil War. Then it moves on, shortly thereafter, to the American Indian Wars, the various European wars both internecine, e.g., Balkan, and international, e.g., Franco-Prussian. There are the wars of Empire (British: Boer, Indian, French: Algeria, Indochina), World Wars, wars in the Pacific theatre: Russo-Japanese War, the Boxer Rebellion, Chinese Nationalists vs. Communists, the Korean War, and of course, Vietnam. There are the Irish Troubles, the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, the war in the Falkland Islands, post-Cold War proxy wars, and the Wars on Terrorism (post 9/11). There are also the in-between wars: Greek-Turkish, Italo-Ethiopian, Serbo-Croatian, Finno-Russian, Vietnamese-Cambodian, the Spanish Civil War, etc. Places both prominent and less-known are mentioned: Gallipolli, Sedan, My Lai, Passchendaele, Petrograd, Jutland, and others.

The various conflicts are documented in spare, lean prose, each in relation to each other, written from both the viewpoint at the time as well as from a current perspective; although the book is necessarily organized chronologically, the author jumps forward to provide a current perspective. The book may be only 200 pages long but the narrative never fails to impart in vivid detail the folly of war: the atrocities, the suffering, and the stupidity of it all.

Of course, the primary aim of the book is to relate the photographers' experience in both the battlefields as well as in the political arenas, where frequently, the outcomes of wars were determined. Primitive equipment in the early years of photography prevented "realistic" coverage. Self-censorship and government censorship are touched on, particularly with the growing awareness that war images are instrumental in formulating government policies. Difficulties with access to the battlefields and areas of conflict, whether natural or imposed by the combatants are also mentioned.

The last section of the book is an index of the biographies of war photojournalists. Glass Warriors is a book that once started on, is difficult to put down!
- written early March 2010.

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