Even as the battle over the Imam Ali Shrine in Najaf quickens toward a devastating conclusion neither the U.S. nor Muqtada al-Sadr likely imagined when the first shots were fired, American hearts and minds are elsewhere, on other contests — the Olympics in Athens (especially, in the media coverage, women’s beach volleyball), and the presidential campaign in Wisconsin, Ohio, and on the Bay Hap River, in Vietnam, 35 years ago.

But the photographs now coming out of Iraq, should anyone care to look at them, are among the most revealing of the war so far. Gone are crowd shots (who would gather in public in Iraq now?), gone are the images of mangled children. The photographs from Iraq now show the serious, grinding business of war. More and more of them are like those on the left and the right above: close, uneven, frightened, frightening.

The picture on the left, by Jim MacMillan for AP, shows a U.S. Army soldier clearing a building on the approach to the Imam Ali Shrine. It is a representative picture. There are dozens more like it in the press, of wary soldiers moving slow and deadly with rifles at the ready. The soldiers look more scared than they used to, but also, strangely, almost more accepting; the war has been going on long enough that everybody knows they’re not going home soon, that this isn’t a temporary blip on a military career that ends in college. It’s life. It will be with them long after this picture is forgotten.

The photograph on the right, by Zahid Hussein for Reuters, can stand in for any number of others in another growing category: portraits of resistance. Black scarves and wild rage are still in evidence in some photographs of insurgents, but pictures such as this, angry but composed, faces revealed, are becoming more common. Much more common, in fact; this woman isn’t even an Iraqi. She’s a Pakistani Shi’ite, at a rally in support of al-Sadr — in Karachi.

The photograph in the middle, by Tod Pitman for AP, is a rarer find. Its caption is worth quoting in full: “Army chaplain Capt. Warren Haggray, speaks to an unidentified assistant next to a cross set at camp Hotel in the northern area of the besieged city of Najaf, Iraq. As American troops learn to cope with life — and death — on a faraway battlefield, a hallowed tradition of military chaplains copes with them, offering prayers, comfort and crucially, spiritual advice that helps keep the U.S. military machine running. ‘One of the things that I teach my soldiers from the Bible is that there’s a time for war and there’s a time for peace,’ says Army chaplain Capt. Warren Haggray. ‘And there are times that you just have to get out there and fight.'”

The soldier in the picture to the left already knows that. The woman to the right knows it, too, and to her, the picture in the middle may show the reason why. Leaving aside the question of whether the war in Iraq was a crusade from the beginning, it proceeds now with ever-more deeply embedded religious symbolism. Spiritual neutrality may not be an option when you’re coping with the death of a friend, or even just life “on a faraway battlefield,” a battlefield that is no longer a temporary residence so much as a place with permanence. A place in which soldiers must live as well as die. So who would deny them their crosses? Who would have the nerve to question whether “spiritual advice” is really the best fuel to keep the “military machine running”?

Not the soldier on the left. He has other things on his mind. Not the woman on the right. She knows a holy war when she sees one. So do we all by now; that’s why the media instead focuses on beach volleyball, and argues about whether killing a Vietnamese teenager three decades ago was an act of heroism, or simply ordinary “life — and death — on a faraway battlefield.”

–Jeff Sharlet

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