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The photograph was the first published in America during World War II that actually depicted dead American soldiers—three of them lying on a beach, the nearest one half engulfed in sand, the bow of a sunken troop carrier jutting out of the water nearby. A battle had obviously just occurred there, and these men—three Americans—were obviously dead.
September 1943. My grandfather was in boot camp at Camp McCoy in Wisconsin at the time and he almost certainly saw this photograph. Life Magazine made the rounds among the enlisted men, and he was an avid reader of the publication. I remember him telling me once that Life always published the best war photography.
Did he have any notion when he first saw that photo that he would end up in Buna Bay, New Guinea, encamped nearby on what had once been an airfield for Japanese warplanes, just a few miles from the beach where this photo was taken? Did he even imagine this was possible? The Army was never forthcoming about destinations or locales, so how could he know? The enemy is always watching and listening, they would tell him. No one knew where you were going, yet you ended up there. It was mystical and terrifying, the power to move men like hollowed-out pawns in a long game of chess.
The battle for Buna Bay, I would learn much later, was fought and won more than a year before my grandfather arrived there in the summer of 1944, across a peninsula that juts out like an accusing finger from the bottom of New Guinea pointing in a southeastern direction towards New Caledonia and New Zealand. The Japanese landed on the northeastern shore and crossed the width of the peninsula to within eyesight of Port Moresby on the opposite shore, but they were recalled back to where they had initially landed to defend their position on the beachhead. From June to December they fought the Australians in the mountains at the center of this peninsula in what would be called the Kokoda Track Campaign. There were no roads for a vehicle to pass through, only footpaths. The Australians were hobbled by malaria; the Japanese by dysentery. Eventually the Japanese were driven back into a narrow strip of land at Buna Bay. Many died of starvation in the siege that followed. Some resorted to cannibalism.
I also learned about the circumstances that led to the photograph being published nearly a year after it was taken by photographer George Strock on either December 29, 1942 or January 1, 1943. The photograph was initially censored, but a 25-year-old Life correspondent named Cal Whipple mounted a personal crusade on behalf of publishing, talking to captains, colonels, and eventually the assistant secretary of the Air Corps, who then put the magazine’s request to publish directly on President Roosevelt’s desk. An argument had to be made that Americans were ready to see the bodies of Americans killed in the war. Would it help or hurt the war effort?
This photo first surfaced in my consciousness in a college journalism class in 1985 where it was presented on an overhead projector as an example of the effects of censorship on journalists who covered the war. At age nineteen, I was still mostly clueless about death. My life up until that point had been free of trauma and real hardship. I was still wrapped in a placenta of breezy oblivion. The photo was just another curiosity, another data point about World War II whizzing past me in blur. Bodies on a beach. I had already seen pictures like this, of D-Day and Iwo Jima. But looking at the photograph now, in my fifties, my focus fixes itself on the dead man closest to the camera, the one being swallowed up by the sand as if Mother Earth is reabsorbing his corpse before our eyes. A man without a name.
I am reminded of the refrain from Ash Wednesday:
From dust thou were born, and to dust thou shall return.
Only now do I have a sense of this soldier’s cosmic fate. Now that I am older and I have lost friends and loved ones, I can feel it in my own body, the visceral knowledge that no one of us is any more important than any one of the grains of sand that brush up against this dead man’s skin. I have felt in the pit of my stomach that fear of being lost to time, my puny, short-lived existence hanging on to the thread of that moment all the while knowing how easily I too will someday be decompiled by the universe, like so much ash from a fire swept up in a passing breeze.
The GIs called it “Maggot Beach” because there were so many corpses strewn across it when the battle was done. If you zoom in on the corpse closest to the camera, you will see the maggots.
I am reminded of how Homer’s Iliad begins, in a military encampment on a beach, in the tenth year of an invasion that had long ago stalemated, with a sentence that contemplates the fate of fallen warriors whose corpses have littered the countryside:
Wrath—sing, goddess, of the ruinous wrath of Peleus’ son Achilles, that inflicted woes without number upon the Achaeans, hurled forth to Hades many strong souls of warriors and rendered their bodies prey for the dogs, for all birds, and the will of Zeus was accomplished; sing from when they two first stood in conflict— Atreus’ son, lord of men, and godlike Achilles.
Why was it necessary for this man to be on this beach? This man who was once a man and then a pawn in a vast political game and finally, a rotting rag doll in the surf. Who moved him into place, and why? This is not a question the stars can answer.
Patriotic ideology is born a battlefield strewn with the bodies of dead young men whose lives of promise and potential have been cut short. A field of corpses speaks powerfully in the language before language. It is a catastrophe. Its meaning is terrible and clear. It cries out to be justified somehow, made to mean something.
Someone will always step forward with a poetic explanation that involves an exchange of an individual life for something of greater societal value. After the slaughter at Gettysburg, Abraham Lincoln performed these interpretive rites when he said
from these honored dead we take increased devotion to that cause for which they gave the last full measure of devotion – that we here highly resolve that these dead shall not have died in vain – that this nation, under God, shall have a new birth of freedom – and that government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the earth.
The dead are not merely dead; from them we will have the birth of a new nation. The sacrifice.
We don’t know what these three men on the beach thought when they were alive, but with the publication of this photo, their bodies were turned into symbols. The conversation was about what these bodies would communicate to the American people. What message would they deliver through their sacrifice? What was the sacrifice for?
This question was answered in an essay that was published along with the photograph. “And yet here on the beach is America, three parts of a hundred and million parts,” the editorialist writes. “America is the symbol of freedom.” And then a bit later: “All over the world, now, there are living fragments of this symbol, and all over the world they are being shot down, like these fragments.” When freedom falls “it is our task to cause it to rise again; not in living units, which we cannot make and to which we cannot give life, but in the mighty symbol of America, the beacon for all men.”
Parts to a whole, and the whole equals America and America equals freedom. That is how these three corpses were made to mean something.
There is almost never a good answer to why we go to war, why the young men must die so ingloriously in fields and forests and on beaches. In my lifetime, the explanations given have never accounted for the losses—preventing “dominos” from falling in Vietnam, for instance. The 9/11 attacks certainly justified the initial invasion of Afghanistan in the minds of many Americans, including me, but why were we still there 20 years later propping up a corrupt regime that our own government had nicknamed VICE—Vertically Integrated Criminal Enterprise? And how do we account for the catastrophe of Iraq, an unnecessary war waged to defeat threats to the U.S. that eventually proved to have never existed in the first place. World War II stands out from these conflicts because its moral justification seems clearer somehow. I have always believed this, but still, the corpses cry out to be explained. They all ask the same question: why was it necessary that I died so young?
Throughout my life, a great chasm has opened up between the aspirations of my grandfather’s war against fascism and the grim, realpolitik of American empire in the late twentieth and early twenty-first centuries. I do not see the clear line between the sacrifices of American soldiers who have died in my lifetime and my own life, liberty, and pursuit of happiness. I can see the connection abstractly, in the sense that a country such as mine without a military would be vulnerable to attack, but once I zoom in for a closer look at the actual wars—the details, their causes and their consequences—all moral clarity dissolves before my eyes. Some of these wars seem more justifiable than others. Some, not at all.
I am overwhelmed by this thought each time I visit the Vietnam War Memorial in Washington, DC. As I descend that walkway, I ponder the enormity of that black wall of names to the right of me and wonder, what great thing was accomplished there in the name of my freedom? I cannot see it. Nevertheless, I honor the dead. I am moved to tears to see the veterans of that war, themselves now old men, touching a name on the wall with heads bowed, sometimes weeping, sometimes just standing there in quiet contemplation. In such moments, the state’s justifications for war are unimportant. There is only the still-present grief over a life cut short by war.
Daniel Vollaro is a writer who lives and works in the Atlanta Metro area. His essay collection, Reservoir: Tales from the Other Jersey, was published in 2021 by Gypsy Daughter Press. His essays have been published recently in Adbusters, As It Ought to Be Magazine, Boomer Café, Litro, Michigan Quarterly Review, Missouri Review, Rise Up Review, and The Smart Set. His fiction has been published in Blue Moon Review, Crania, Creo, Fairfield Review, Foliate Oak Literary Magazine, Mobius: The Journal of Social Change, Thrice Fiction, and Timber Creek Review. He was listed as a notable writer in Best American Essays 2020 for my essay “The Lookout Tree,” published in Michigan Quarterly Review. He teaches writing at Georgia Gwinnett College.
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