It is impossible to know war if you do not stand with the mass of the powerless caught in its maw. All narratives of war told through the lens of the combatants carry with them the seduction of violence. But once you cross to the other side, to stand in fear with the helpless and the weak, you confront the moral depravity of industrial slaughter and the scourge that is war itself. Few books achieve this clarity. "The Photographer" is one.
A strange book, part photojournalism and part graphic memoir, "The Photographer" tells the story of a small mission of mostly French doctors and nurses who traveled into northern Afghanistan by horse and donkey train in 1986, at the height of the Soviet occupation. The book shows the damage done to bodies and souls by shells, bullets and iron fragments, and the frantic struggle to mend the broken.
The narrator and photographer is Didier Lefèvre. His black-and-white photographs — many reprinted directly from his uncropped contact sheets — are interwoven with drawings by Emmanuel Guibert. The small sequential frames of the contact sheets merge seamlessly into the panels of artwork. The book, at 267 pages, is long. But its length is an asset, allowing the story to build in power and momentum as it recounts the arduous trip into mountain villages, the confrontation with the devastation of war, the struggle to save lives and Lefèvre's foolish and nearly fatal attempt to return to Pakistan ahead of the team.
The three-month mission was led by Dr. Juliette Fournot, who spoke Dari, dressed as a man and commanded the respect of the French and Afghans, including the village chiefs and local warlords. Her role, and her immersion in the Afghan society where she spent her teenage years, repeatedly shatters easy stereotypes about Afghan and Muslim culture.
Lefèvre (who died of heart failure in 2007) tells his story with a mixture of beguiling innocence and sensitivity. He retreats in tears to a secluded corner after seeing a wounded 10-year-old girl who will never walk again and will die of septic shock six months later. Photographs of the child are juxtaposed with Guibert's drawing of Lefèvre, silhouetted and hunched over in grief.
"In a corner, a woman with a white head scarf is watching over two of her children," one panel reads, "a teenage girl and a baby, both bloodied. The little boy is maybe 2 or 3. He hardly moves but from time to time lets out a little wail of 'Aoh.' "
This panel is followed by a yellow frame with the word "Aoh" in the upper left corner, a black-and-white photo of the wounded child, another frame with the word "Aoh," a picture of anxious relatives huddled outside the door and then a half-page photograph of the bewildered boy and his sister, her face covered with blood as she gazes at her doomed brother.
The book has the feel of a film, attesting to the skill of Guibert and Frédéric Lemercier, the graphic designer. But there is nothing romantic about Afghanistan or the Afghans, who can be at once courageous and generous as well as heartless and menacing. Lefèvre, on the way back, is abandoned by his feckless guides; his horse collapses and eventually dies; and the photographer nearly succumbs in the snowy mountain passes. "I take out one of my cameras. I choose a 20-millimeter lens, a very wide angle, and shoot from the ground," he says — "to let people know where I died." The next page shows his exhausted pack horse amid snowy boulders, followed by a bleak spread of the gloomy mountain pass. Lefèvre is saved by a band of brigands, who shake him down for much of his money but get him out. The physical toll of his trip left him suffering from chronic boils. He lost 14 teeth. But before he died he returned to Afghanistan seven more times in an attempt to tell the stories of those he first met in 1986, whom he could not abandon or forget.
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The disparity between what we are told or what we believe about war and war itself is so vast that those who come back, like Lefèvre, are often rendered speechless. What do you say to those who advocate war as an instrument to liberate the women of Afghanistan or bring democracy to Iraq? How do you tell them what war is like? How do you explain that the very proposition of war as an instrument of virtue is absurd? How do you cope with memories of children bleeding to death with bits of iron fragments peppered throughout their small bodies? How do you speak of war without tears?
The book concludes with contact sheets showing Lefèvre walking with his mother on the beach in Blonville with Bienchen, her small dog. A postscript notes that she did not learn the details of her son's travels until the publication of this story, two decades after his first trip.
The power of "The Photographer" is that it bridges this silence. There is no fighting in this book. No great warriors are exalted. The story is about those who live on the fringes of war and care for its human detritus. By the end of the book the image or picture of a weapon is distasteful. And if you can achieve this, you have gone a long way to imparting the truth about warfare.
Chris Hedges, a former war correspondent for The Times, is a senior fellow at the Nation Institute and author of the forthcoming "Empire of Illusion: The End of Literacy and the Triumph of Spectacle."