Roger Fenton Crimean War

In the sixth grade, we did a project on the cultural traditions of a foreign country. We had to write reports in our chicken-scratch-children’s penmanship, and some kids cooked food as well. One Korean student brought in some Bul Go Gi, and it was delicious.

I ended up with Yugoslavia, about which I knew next to nothing. Fortunately, a family friend had started importing Yugos to the US, so at least I could talk about that.

A less-than-educated young person might reasonably ask, “What is Yugoslavia?” Or, rather, “Where is Yugoslavia?” Because it doesn’t exist on the map, I can assure you.

Most of us know, of course, that Yugoslavia was a created 20th Century entity, a post-war land mush that brought together some version of Croatia, Bosnia, Serbia, Montenegro, Kosovo, and probably a few territories I’m neglecting. They’re still around, of course, as are the people who live there. But the country, the geo-political entity, is dead.

Similarly, I just read a piece in the New Yorker that was nominally about the television industry in Turkey. (Yes, I’ve officially become the kind of guy who references the New Yorker all the time.) I say nominally, because the real subject was the manner in which the Turkish leader, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, is highlighting historical connections to the vast and powerful Ottoman Empire, rather than the small and relatively weak Turkish republic that was built, again post-war, by Ataturk.

Closer to home, I can tell you that here in New Mexico, there are certain people, whose ancestors have been here for generations, who resent the mass culture of the United States. You can occasionally feel tension in the air. Why? I might point to the fact that the US essentially annexed New Mexico. Or stole it, if you will. And that was only shortly after the land was called Mexico, having recently freed itself from the country called Spain.

What I’m trying to say here, if you haven’t caught the gist, is that history is all about the long view. Names change, but dirt doesn’t. (Unless it’s being violated to reach its mineral goodies, but that’s another rant for a different day.)

The big news, in our age, is that we are all hyper-aware of what is going on everywhere, all the time. That is a radical change to the way we live our lives. So big, in fact, that no one has had the chance to really process the results of the shift.

But we see the effects every day. Take Crimea, for instance. A week ago, that word might have been meaningless to you. (I say might, as I’m aware that this audience is highly educated and up-to-date.) Now everyone knows it as a territory in the country called Ukraine that was just invaded by a country called Russia.

Russia? We’ve all heard of that place. Except when I was young, it was called the Soviet Union, and included the country now (and formerly) known as Ukraine. Names change, but greed and aggressive behavior do not. They are, and I’d venture to say will always be, a part of human nature.

When we look at a globe, or a map, it seems so permanent. Built or plotted, the objects refer to information with a sense of certainty. This is here, that is there. If you go too far in one direction, you might fall off the face of the Earth. (Sorry, forgot that one has been debunked already.)

Of course, we know that the information encoded in maps changes all the time. They’re no more accurate than a restaurant menu from 10 years ago. That’s just the way it is.

We live these dramas in real time, and the pain, misery, and tragedy they engender are not to be made light of. I feel for the people who die in wars, or who die from lack of clean water, or who have to watch their family members killed by horrible forces of darkness that will never face retribution. (Until they do, one, two or three generations down the line.)

The point is, (should I actually have one,) that we’re now judging the news on a minute to minute basis, but the root causes of said “news” go back decades, centuries, or millennia. And that is the kind of information least served by Social Media. You couldn’t possibly know about the Taos revolt that killed Governor Charles Bent in 1847, just like I don’t know who ruled Crimea before the Soviets.

Sure, we have access to so much information via Google, but that’s not the same thing as genuine, lived, history. It’s just not.

So while I could easily mock the monster Putin, and put this all on him, it seems too simplistic. He is the unchallenged leader of a country that has long lived with strongmen, and has a history of territorial aggression. Anyone who was surprised by his behavior wasn’t paying attention.

How many non-Americans might point to the US invasion of Iraq, and the subsequent removal of Saddam Hussein? How many people might suggest the situations parallel? I couldn’t say, but I’m sure they’re out there. (And some of them probably work for the Russian propaganda agency.)

I can’t tell you who ruled Crimea in the 19th Century, and I can’t tell you how this latest crisis will play itself out. If I could, I’d be working for Obama by now.

But I can tell you that sometime in 2013, I had a unique experience in which I got to see, first-hand, what a shitstorm looked like in Crimea in the aforementioned 19th Century. How was that possible? (I bet you’ll guess it’s through the wonder of photography…)

In September, I paid a brief visit to the Prints and Photographs division at the Library of Congress. The Library actually functions like one, which is a bit of a shock. It’s free, and anyone can come in and personally request to “check out” work from the collection.

So I did.

I was handed a stack of plastic-protected prints by the famed, and perhaps brilliant photographer Roger Fenton. I’ve written of him previously, as he stole the show at the “War/Photography” exhibition I saw last year in Houston.

It was a rare pleasure to get to look at the pictures, to hold them in my hands, and connect visually and viscerally to a strange place in a time that had passed away into non-existence. Rare only because I live far from Washington, DC. If you live on the East Coast of the US, you could go often, and look at work not on the wall, but in your immediate physical space.

What did I learn about Crimea, or at least about a slice of the Crimean War?

Look at the collection of rebels, rapscallions, roughnecks, and killers. They obviously come from all over the world, as the costumes will attest. There are a lot of dirty faces, scruffy beards, and hardened tough guys. My goodness.

We can see it’s a desolate place, or was. And we can guess that any conflict with that many warring parties must be messy, confusing, and dangerous. Why would they all be there, fighting? My first guess would be that there’s something of value? Natural resources, maybe? Oil?

Or just as likely, it probably has a geographical significance. Control of a major body of water? Access to a port, or a military high ground? Maybe some or all of these things, as you wouldn’t get a global crusade of treasure-loving-war mongers fighting against each other in a god-forsaken land for nothing.

That’s the lesson we can learn, when we engage with history. Our troubles and triumphs are not as unique as we’d like to believe. Occasionally, I admit I’ll get caught up in the moment. The Arab Spring was such a time.

The optimism blinded me to the reality: Men with guns rule the day. They always have, and they always will. The best we can achieve is a society where the rule of law dictates who gets to use the guns, and when. We have that here in America, and I get to live in peace. (For which I am extremely grateful.)

But we too have been an imperial power, and unspeakable evil has been committed in our name. In the name of Freedom.

So let’s all hope that this latest international crisis ends swiftly, and well. Let’s hope the people of Crimea can go back to a more peaceful existence, and that the Russian tanks roll back to Moscow.

But I won’t be holding my breath. That’s for sure.

Calvary camp, looking towards Kadikoi

Calvary camp, looking towards Kadikoi

Lieutenant-Colonel Lord Burghersh, C.B.

Lieutenant-Colonel Lord Burghersh, C.B.

General Cissé, chief of the staff to General Bosquet, & aide-de-camp

General Cissé, chief of the staff to General Bosquet, & aide-de-camp

Colonel Doherty, officers & men of the 13th Light Dragoons

Colonel Doherty, officers & men of the 13th Light Dragoons

Ismail Pacha on horseback, with Turkish officers

Ismail Pacha on horseback, with Turkish officers

Zoave and officer of the Saphis

Zoave and officer of the Saphis

Cornet Wilkin, 11th Hussars

Cornet Wilkin, 11th Hussars

Balaklava, from Guard's Hill

Balaklava, from Guard’s Hill

Lieutenant Yates, 11th Hussars

Lieutenant Yates, 11th Hussars

The valley of the shadow of death

The valley of the shadow of death

Jonathan Blaustein

There Are 7 Comments On This Article.

  1. The Crimean War is also supposedly the first war to be photographed, making it the birthplace of conflict photography. There’s an old quote, “war is God’s way of teaching Americans geography,” but I’d say that goes double for photos of war.

    I’m sure I’m not the only American to learn about and get enamored with Europe and Asia as a kid from looking at photos from WW II, and then going to a map to figure out where exactly things like the Ardennes forest and Midway Island are. It’s then a small step to start learning about those places and people more in general.

    And yes, the current situation had me reading some about the Crimea. And the conflict in Africa, too. Maybe it’s sad to learn about a place only through its current conflicts and photos of it, but most history books are filled with conflict, too, so it’s pretty unavoidable.

  2. About that last photo, “The Valley of The Shadow Death” (made famous by Alfred, Lord Tennyson’s poem “The Charge of The Light Brigade” http://www.poetryfoundation.org/poem/174586 ) see Errol Morris’ multi part essay about the photo at http://opinionator.blogs.nytimes.com/2007/09/25/which-came-first-the-chicken-or-the-egg-part-one/?_php=true&_type=blogs&_r=0

    The Crimea. which prior to Khrushchev “giving” it to Ukraine in the mid-1950s, was historically part of Russia, so in the 19th century it was part of the lands ruled by the Tsar and mostly populated by the Muslim Crimean Tatars. fearing them and when the Nazi’s rolled into Western Russia in 1940 they weren’t always see nas enemies at first, some saw them as liberators from Stalin, until the Nazis showed their true colors towards all of the people living there and not just the Jews. As revenge in 1944 Stalin killed as many of them as he could as he could and forcibly removed the survivors to Siberia. As you say, the history there is deep, complex and densely layered – far more so than that of the United States. As you also point out there have been some truly ugly and horrific things done in the name of the USA’s Monroe Doctrine and the idea of a “manifest destiny” as well.

    The man who would be Tsar, Vladimir Putin, is a criminal, a thug, a murderer, and a kleptocrat. He’s also more than a bit paranoid, and more than a little insecure, and very thin skinned. Meaning he’s typical nationalist Russian leader through and through. He also has nuclear weapons. Neither NATO or the USA is going to war over what he’s doing. The only we can do in the West is cut off his financial legs and hope that who ever follows him in Russia’s leadership is smart and more stable. But honestly I don’t count on that ever happening.

  3. Nicely excavated and timely.

    I’m surprised, though, that you didn’t mention the controversy around the final photograph, “The Valley of the Shadow of Death,” given that said controversy was documented in the War/Photography exhibit and very publicly by Errol Morris recently, having concluded with the help of an optical expert that the ordnance in the road was staged, and that Fenton had taken an earlier photograph showing a clear path. I just think it’s interesting given the past two years’ controversies in photojournalism and the degree to which a photograph (or caption) can be altered before it’s a “fake.”

  4. Hey Jonathan!

    Not to put too fine a point on it, but “Calvary” is where Christ died. Cavalry, on the other hand is a unit of horse-mounted soldiers…

    As always, enjoyed reading your commentary…

    John

  5. Love the write up and provoking thoughts. The US is a PG country when you consider the evil deeds of leaders whose obliteration of racial and or ethnic groups in eastern block countries. The first time I saw the last photograph, when I was in my teens, at first glance I thought they were skulls but quickly realized I anticipated something too evil.

    I don’t think too much of the events taking place in the Ukraine, it is something that previous leaders have wanted to do since the economic collapse/fall of the soviet Union. Putin wants to resurrect the Union and put down the barking dog in north America. I don’t think he will be successful, but I have been known to be wrong.