We may not yet appreciate the degree to which the advent of the digital camera has reinvented the recording of history. In the past, if we wanted to gain access to individual stories of critical events, we had to rely on scattered diaries, occasional photos and faltering oral histories, and hope that the perspective they offered bore some connection to how things actually transpired. Today, digital cameras are carried everywhere, giving witnesses and participants an easy way to record events from their own perspective and put them online. The power of this new form of historical documentation becomes most visible when it is used by soldiers.
Under Mars is an incredible, disturbing, provocative and fascinating website containing digital images from soldiers fighting in the war in Iraq. The operators of Under Mars put up the images as they are received, including the captions provided by the soldiers; subjects of the images range from pictures of buddies to shots of Iraqi buildings and people to stark photos of the dead and wounded. Make no mistake: some of the pictures in Under Mars are extremely graphic in their depiction of the horrors of war. Such images are not numerous, but they are scattered throughout the nearly 1500 pictures currently on the site. I'm not kidding -- there are some pictures that are just shocking.
These pictures are not the staged, posed and edited images of war provided by photojournalists and TV news. Few of the shots are works of art; most resemble vacation snapshots. But all represent a striking moment for the soldier who took the picture, and all have an underlying story.
Under Mars represents a new era in historiography. Future scholars looking back on this conflict will have access not just to the official perspective on the fighting -- the government statements, the stories of journalists and the investigations of international NGOs -- but to the words and images of those on the ground. The diaries and letters from soldiers in past wars gave some of that, but the easy creation of digital images make these shots orders of magnitude more abundant. I can only imagine what a near-future conflict will be like when the civilians in the crossfire can do the same thing.
Personal images of past wars do surface; the black and white picture shown here is from World War II, one of the photos given to me by my late grandfather. The 500 or so pictures from the 80th Field Hospital tell a small part of the story of that war, but such informal records are few and far between. Now every soldier has the potential to be also a reporter. The pictures on Under Mars -- should you choose to look through them -- may sadden you, or anger you, or fascinate you (or, possibly, all three), but they are proof that a revolution is underway. How we come to know our history will never again be the same.