Special Report

Marines From an Exhibition

Photojournalist Jean Butler has captured what heroism looks like.

By 10.20.06

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BOSTON -- As I followed soldiers on raids, humanitarian missions and reconstruction projects in Iraq as an embedded reporter for several weeks earlier this year, I often wondered what sort of stateside preparatory structure was in place to steel young soldiers and Marines for the exceedingly complex and volatile situation they were about to face. Westford, Massachusetts photojournalist Jean Butler goes a long way towards providing an answer with a vivid and moving new photography exhibit, "'Good to Go': Marines Train for a War of Insurgency."

"This is what heroism looks like," Butler murmured, eyeing her photographs lining the wall of the Westford Parish Center for the Arts. "Our real heroes are real folks. They're our neighbors and friends. It isn't the Rambo you see on television. They're the people you pass in the mall, your auto mechanic, the local college student at the coffee shop."

"We as a nation present them with an incredible challenge, such an overwhelming job, and they do it with such spirit and skill," Butler continued. "It's such a huge, scary job, but they never quit."

Troubled by the horrendous scenes of chaos and bloodshed emanating from Iraq day after day, Butler did not hesitate to take advantage of the Marine Corps' offer to grant a few reporters and photographers an up close and personal look at the training of Marines en route to the toughest parts of that war-torn country.

"I wanted to know what my government was doing to protect our soldiers and the Iraqi people," she said. "I wanted to know if they were changing tactics or just letting things go on as they were."

This quest led Butler to Wadi Al Sahara -- formally, Range 215 of the Marine Corps' Air Ground Combat Center -- a simulated Iraqi town in the Mojave Desert of nearly 500 buildings on over 250 acres where Marines train to both fight an insurgency and win the hearts and minds of Iraqi citizens suffering at insurgents' hands.

Butler, a graduate of Tufts University and the New Hampshire Institute of Art photography program, sat in on field lectures, mock house and checkpoint searches, as well as role-playing exercises with Iraqi nationals recruited from U.S. communities that tested Marines' ability to use basic Arabic phrases and avoid insulting the Iraqi cultural norms.

"The idea of cultural sensitivity was in every training exercise, in every discussion, in everything," Butler explained. "The message these Marines were getting was 'You are going to a dangerous place, but you will treat everyone with respect.' I can't imagine it's easy to man a checkpoint and look at every car as both an innocent civilian and a potential suicide bomber, but that's exactly what they have to do."

She now describes her four days at Wadi Al Sahara with the 1st Battalion 25th Marine reserve as "a sort of personal fact-finding mission," adding in her artistic statement on the exhibit, "In the unfamiliar terrain of simulated desert warfare, my preconceptions fell away and I became absorbed in the story of how these men will live, adapt, and survive in a hostile environment as they work to accomplish the mission they are charged with: Bringing peace to Iraq."

STILL, BUTLER INSISTS THAT HER exhibit "is not a political statement," and indeed her artistic focus, while certainly shedding light on training methods, circles back around to the individuals in picture after picture, bringing their sacrifices into ever-sharper relief.

"Whatever you think about the political and military choices that led to this war, the sacrifices being made on our behalf are really pretty humbling," she said. "I came away feeling just such tremendous admiration for these Marines. I kept asking myself, 'Would I be able to rush into a building knowing there's a sniper inside? Would I be able to do one-tenth of what they do?'"

While pronouncements of support for the troops are hardly rare from either the pro-war or anti-war camps, some have nonetheless challenged whether Butler got an accurate snapshot of the military state of affairs from her Marine hosts.

"A lot of skeptics have said to me, 'Yeah, sure, they put on a good show for the press,'" Butler said. "Honestly, I never felt as if it was a show. I never felt as if anything was being done for my benefit. Most of the time they were so completely focused on their training or the exercise at hand, it was more than obvious that my camera and I were definitely not of great interest to them."

In culling the exhibit from hundreds of pictures, Butler sought to capture what she describes as "scenes from their world, their desert doorway to Iraq."

INSPIRATION WAS EVERYWHERE, she said, yet from an aesthetic point of view it wasn't always easy to practice her craft at Wadi Al Sahara. Many operations took place in the glaring desert midday and oftentimes she had to shoot while wearing a protective mask. Trying to compose a portrait that would tell the story of some particular action in her viewfinder was...well, trying, as well, since vehicles and soldiers are spread out to avoid mass casualties should they be attacked.

"I had to think on my feet and work around a lot of new challenges," she said. "I wouldn't trade the experience for anything, though."

Even in an arena where harmless blue paint bullets are reserved for Marines, death means sitting out the rest of the exercise with a blue casualty card and insurgents only strike with red paint bullets, however, the implications implicit in the training are never completely obscured by the veil of training.

"A fake bomb would go off and some Marines would sit down, 'dead' until the exercise was finished," Butler said. "Over there, those guys aren't going to get up. It's a sobering thought. And if I was having it, those Marines must have been having it, too."

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