Imagine Chicago empty. Picture the city perfectly intact, and nobody in it. Not a soul, we say, to describe such abandonment. Empty, we say, deserted. And yes, there would be nobody there—no bodies to be seen—but the souls of the missing people would permeate the place they'd left behind. All those buildings full of rooms, all those rooms full of stuff—and the rooms and the stuff brimming with the presence of absent life. You would have to visit everybody's room to feel the enormity of the loss, an impossible mission, and an impossible feeling. Chicago is a city of 2.7 million people, and that is why I'm asking you to imagine all of them gone—because 2.7 million is the number of men and women in America's military services who have died in our wars since the country took up arms to win its independence on the battlefield.
"At the close of that struggle," Abraham Lincoln said of the American Revolution, "nearly every adult male had been a participator in some of its scenes. The consequence was that of those scenes, in the form of a husband, a father, a son, or a brother, a living history was to be found in every family—a history bearing the indubitable testimonies of its own authenticity, in the limbs mangled, in the scars of wounds received, in the midst of the very scenes related—a history, too, that could be read and understood alike by all, the wise and the ignorant, the learned and the unlearned."
The same could be said, in turn, of Lincoln's war. There were more American military deaths in the Civil War than in all our subsequent wars combined, and once again every American family knew its reality intimately. What's more, the image of that war was seared indelibly in the national memory by the advent of a new technology: photography. Never since has America fought a major war on its own soil, but wherever our troops have gone, cameras have followed them. War has been unimaginable without them.
Still, throughout the twentieth century, as pictures on film became the dominant medium through which we saw war, Americans maintained the sense of direct connection to our military that Abraham Lincoln remarked in the early days of the republic. In both World Wars, in Korea and Vietnam, conscription meant that every family in America should have a stake in its wars. That was the principle and to a large degree the practice. The draft insured, much better than all the cameras in the world, that the toll of war could not be made invisible.
That seems like ancient history now. With our retreat from Vietnam, we also retreated from the idea of a popular army. The military became the business of a small, self-selecting subset of the nation, whose charge it is to fight so that the rest of us should never know war. And perhaps this arrangement has succeeded too well. Since September 11, 2001, America has been engaged—along with our NATO allies—in two of the longest, most grimly grinding, wars in our history. Military families have endured every conceivable strain and anguish. But for the vast majority of us, these wars are not just overseas, they are completely foreign: they do not hit us where we live.
Nearly seven thousand Americans have died in Afghanistan and Iraq, and more than fifty thousand have been wounded. This loss has received only faint and fleeting official recognition. Mourning is treated as a private matter, as if these dead belonged only to their comrades and kin, and not to us all. For many years, the government, fearful of a negative effect on fragile public opinion, forbade the publication not only of images of combat casualties, but even of flag-draped caskets coming home. But isn't it a dishonor to the dead to try to hide them from the nation they served?
The need to see America's twenty-first-century war dead, and to make them seen—to give their absence presence—has consumed Ashley Gilbertson for much of the past decade. The initial impulse was purely personal. While he was working as a photojournalist in Iraq, a Marine stepped forward to protect him, and was killed; and Gilbertson was haunted by the feeling that Lance Corporal Billy Miller, in doing what he understood as his duty, had died for him.
In the appalling immediacy of his experience, Gilbertson came to recognize a general truth: that, like it or not, these wars really are ours—they implicate us—and when our military men and women die in far off lands, they do so in our name. He wanted to depict what it means that they are gone. Photographs of the fallen, or of their coffins or their graves, don't tell us that. But the places they came from and were supposed to go back to—the places they left empty—do tell us. So, to picture death, Gilbertson decided to picture how and where the dead had lived. He set about photographing their bedrooms, many of which had been preserved by their families in much the same spirit that Gilbertson preserved them with his camera: as memorials.
Some rooms are starkly spare; some explode with personality. There is a lot of sports gear and memorabilia; there are not a lot of books. There are rooms that belonged to people blown up by IEDs, and rooms that belonged to people who were blown up by suicide bombers. The only room that is in real disarray—bedclothes scrambled, belongings spilling from bags—belonged to Private Danny Chen, who took his own life in Afghanistan. Seen all together, Gilbertson's photographs defy any effort to seek in a room's furnishings an echo of its former occupant's fate. Their power lies in reminding us of the disconnect between life and death. One of the most elaborately and carefully kept rooms, nearly every inch of which is lovingly decorated, also belonged to a soldier defeated by the enemy within: Specialist Ryan Yurchison, who returned traumatized from Iraq, and took an overdose.
You can spend a great deal of time visiting each of the rooms in these photographs, studying their endless particularities. Gilbertson found these rooms all over the map: in cities, suburbs, and hinterland, scattered across the country. And since America's story is always bigger than America, and our losses in our recent wars have been shared with NATO partners, there are rooms here from the Isle of Mull in Scotland, from Versailles, France, and from Bitetto, Italy. But one thing that all the rooms here have in common is that they belonged to young people, people just out of high school, mostly, people well on their way to adulthood but still living in their parents' homes, sleeping in single beds, often with a teddy bear or two looking over them— like children. That is who we send to fight our wars for us, our children. Ashley Gilbertson is right: we should never lose sight of them.
Above: Marine PFC Josue Ibarra, 21, was killed by a roadside bomb on June 19, 2011, in Helmand province, Afghanistan. He was from Midland, Texas. His bedroom was photographed in December, 2012. Photograph by Ashley Gilbertson/VII.