My father, who served in the Army in World War II and Korea, once told me that if you don’t have a few pictures of the places you’ve been, no one will ever know that you were really there. They are life’s ballast. They help us to remember the stories of our lives and to tell them as the details fade.
My father lived 94 great years. He recorded his wars and travels with Eastman Kodak Brownie box cameras. In late 2005, in advance of my first military deployment with the Army’s 10th Mountain Division, I went shopping for my own camera.
I could have spent hundreds of dollars on a fancy model with myriad lenses offering unimaginably complex shutter speeds, as some soldiers did. Or I could have just taken a cell phone and used its built-in camera.
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My choice: a Canon PowerShot A410 camera, with 3.2 megapixels and a 3.2x zoom. It sounds fancy, but it cost me all of $100. It’s a digital camera, so I save money on film and photo paper too.
It turned out to be one of the best purchases I ever made. That little camera slipped easily into a pocket and was always there, whether on a helicopter, plane, or Humvee, or around the base. Also—and this is important—the camera is both cheaper and more rugged than a phone. My Canon was immune to dust, drops, and every manner of battlefield indignity. If it gets dropped out of a helicopter flying over Ramadi, Iraq—as one of mine later did—the camera is replaceable. Amazon will send a new one just about anywhere. In fact, I’m on camera No. 4.
The pictures themselves, however, have been irreplaceable, and in ways beyond what my father predicted. I recorded the wonders of northern Iraq, including the ruins of the Parthian city of Hatra, the Assyrian city of Nimrud, and the sixth-century Saint Elijah’s Monastery, among the oldest Christian sites in Iraq. They have all now been destroyed or damaged by the Islamic State.
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During my second deployment, to Iraq in 2009, I brought a $700 laptop with an SD card reader, which allowed me to download photos to a disk to share with fellow soldiers. Cell phone coverage in central Iraq and Afghanistan is very unreliable, so you couldn’t send photos other than in a few limited Wi-Fi hotspots around more-developed operating bases.
Those little cameras let me capture the experiences my colleagues and I had with an amazing array of people: curious children, carpet dealers, women in burkas, Afghan policemen, Iraqi generals, judges, politicians—the hopelessly corrupt and idealistically hopeful. They are one soldier’s story as well as a collective memory of good people in demanding times.
Col. George Smawley is a career Army lawyer who recently redeployed from a yearlong tour in Kabul, Afghanistan.
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