How does the United States of America conduct war in the 21st century?
That was the question we asked ourselves when first considering the exhibition Engines of War. We were thinking largely in terms of high tech materiel and we envisioned that the photographic record of the past decade of our involvement in the Middle East would provide images of that materiel in action. But although there are images here of drones and of other state of the art military equipment, the reality that comes to the fore is that the human body of the men and women who serve in the armed forces remains the primary, highly trained yet fragile weapon of the United States military.
The images in Engines of War interweave three themes surrounding the United States as a nation at war and the realities faced by soldiers on the ground in the wars of past decades.
First we look at a nation undergoing the process of preparing its will for war and the inevitable resistance that process also provokes. These images show the roles played by politicians, the media and the population itself in gearing up for the assaults on Afghanistan and Iraq. They range from the sloganeering of a small town restaurant in the American South, to an address by President Obama to the graduating class of West Point, to a video game produced by the U.S. Army that has proved to be the most effective recruiting tool the armed services has had since World War II.
Then there is the actual conduct of the war. Drones dominate much war news and we look at the industry behind the building of drones and their effectiveness in the field. We go with soldiers on patrol and see the landscape through the windows of Humvees or under the green tints of night vision glasses. We see the aftermath of a U.S. helicopter attack on a street in Baghdad.
And constantly we see the men and women who carry out the war. We see them as recruits and we see them in the field. We see how we, as a nation, honor their service and how we deal with the devastating physical and psychological damage done to so many of them.