Whiskey Tango Foxtrot

Ashley Gilbertson's photographs of the Iraq war have the power to freeze the blood in your heart. Turning the pages of Whiskey Tango Foxtrot, it's impossible to merely skim through the images of oppressed Kurds, stunned Baghdad residents, weary U.S. Marines, and dead insurgents sprawled in the growing pond of their own blood. "It was never my intention to become a war photographer," Gilbertson writes at the beginning of the book. "If people wanted to kill each other, so be it, not my problem." Famous last words. In 2003, he was in northern Iraq among the Kurds, working as a freelance photographer, when the U.S. began its invasion from the south. Eventually, he signed a contract with The New York Times and was criss-crossing the country, following the action to Baghdad, Samarra, Tikrit, and Falluja, his lens capturing the many ways people kill each other. The best of those photos have been gathered into Whiskey Tango Foxtrot (the military's phonetic acronym, politely translated, amounts to "What the frick?"). That spirit of surprise and confusion hangs over the book, both in the pictures and in the textual interludes that dramatize Gilbertson's experiences. He rarely misses an opportunity to illustrate the irony and heartbreak of the events unfolding around him. Here, for instance, is one photo's caption: "A doctor at the morgue in Ramadi stands reflected in a pool of blood while waiting for more victims from a car bombing." As good as the photos are, the stories behind them are even more riveting. His account of moving under fire with Marines as they assault Falluja will leave you dry mouthed and looking at the distant conflict in a new light. Like legendary combat photographers Robert Capa and David Douglas Duncan, Gilbertson knows it only takes a shutter click to bring the war home.
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July 25: On this day in 1834 Samuel Taylor Coleridge died of heart disease at the age of sixty-one.

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