War games: Soldiers reenact life and death in Iraq and Afghanistan

You're serving in the National Guard in Iraq, and you're leading a nighttime convoy of military vehicles at 60 miles per hour. Suddenly, a young Iraqi woman dressed in black steps into the street, and your armored Humvee — and every truck and tractor-trailer behind you — runs over her, severing her head and one of her legs. You race back to the scene to collect her body — and months later, when you return to the United States, a photographer invites you to reenact your harrowing experience, only this time your wife and two young children will pose in the vehicle with you. Sound good?

Well, yes, if you're Mike Moriarty. The now-former guardsman volunteered to work with Jennifer Karady on her series of staged photographs that show how U.S. veterans live with the aftermath of war. "In Country: Soldiers' Stories from Iraq and Afghanistan" stands out from any similar series done within the context of a modern war. Each of Karady's images is meticulously constructed like a movie still. Wearing fatigues, the featured veterans act out incidents that happened in Iraq or Afghanistan, or something from their current home lives that represents a wartime flashback. Their friends and family also play roles in Karady's depictions.

In one photo, retired Army Sergeant Andrew Davis holds a toy eyeball, blood on his uniform, as he sits by the water's edge in upstate New York and smiles at two bloodied soldiers, both of whom are laughing and sporting funny eyeball glasses. Davis' wife, meanwhile, kneels by a tent in the background grass. In Iraq, it turns out, insurgents surrounded Davis and his fellow troops at a Euphrates River dam, and when one of the soldiers stood up, a bullet pierced his eye. Davis and others helped put the soldier's eye back in its socket; later that day, as the soldiers washed the blood from their clothing, they began telling eyesight jokes because dark humor was "the only way to get through it," he says in the text that accompanies his photo. After Iraq, Davis refused to go camping with his wife or to sleep in a tent, so the photo we see of him at SF Camerawork — surreal, disturbing, and (if you know the context) darkly humorous — reveals an unforgettable story about one soldier's reconciliation with a trauma that still sears.

Retired Army Sgt. Andrew Davis (far left) poses for one of Karady's war re-enactments.
Jennifer Karady
Retired Army Sgt. Andrew Davis (far left) poses for one of Karady's war re-enactments.

That's why Davis, Moriarty, and other vets (including two from the Bay Area) were happy to work with Karady. For these military men and women, it was therapeutic — a chance to go public with their experiences, aided by an acclaimed photographer who was sensitive to their plight. Even without their accompanying narratives, Karady's images are visual gems, like entering a series of private dreams where people are badly out of sync with the world around them. Before orchestrating the photo shoots, she spent weeks getting to know each soldier, dissecting their fears and aspirations. The most chilling image shows retired Army Sergeant Steve Pyle fending off unseen attackers as his family relaxes at a barbecue. These veterans are trying to move on after Iraq and Afghanistan, but Karady's dreamscapes are another potent reminder that war never really ends for soldiers — a price they (and their loved ones) pay for the rest of their lives.

Karady's exhibit is accompanied by Christopher Sims' photo display, "Theater of War: Pretend Villages of Iraq and Afghanistan." Sims visited U.S. military bases like Braggistan, where soldiers train in villages that replicate the atmosphere of remote settlements they'll find in Iraq and Afghanistan. Instead of real Taliban, the military meets faux Taliban — recently immigrated Afghans who are paid to resemble resentful clerics in Kandahar. Iraqis also play the part of potential bad guys. Interspersed in these pretend villages, though, are "good" Iraqis and Afghans, like the smiling, hijab-wearing women in Sims' Marketplace. The two women are selling plastic oranges, bananas, apples, and grapes next to a shack labeled "barbershop."

As with Karady's work, "Theater of War" is a journey into the surreal. White Americans also dress as Afghans, complete with Muslim skull caps and salwar kameez (pajamalike shirt and pants). A barracks at a village in Fort Polk, La., is converted into a mosque, but its makeshift dome rests on an ugly industrial-looking pipe, while the outside wall has the word "Go" marked on it in big black letters.

Millions of Department of Defense dollars go into building these mock villages, which most Americans don't even know exist. Sims went behind the scenes for his inquiry, even participating in the doings: In at least one military exercise, he acted the part of a photojournalist with the "International News Network." For his photos of the pretend villages, Sims won the prestigious Baum Award, given annually to an emerging photographer of note.

The Iraq war began seven years ago, Afghanistan shortly after 9/11. Countless books, movies, and news articles have analyzed the conflagrations to the point of information fatigue. This dual exhibit shows why photography is the ideal medium to bring out fresh truths from conflicts that still seem remote and abstract. These photos will leave many people shaking their heads in shock and awe.

 
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