Iraqi Graffiti: The Photos of Todd Bowers

July 24th, 2007 by Michael

By Michael Slenske

SMITH contributing editor Michael Slenske's last story was a "Back Home from Iraq" feature on MoveOn's VideoVet winner John Bruhns.

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As far as Iraq war vets go, Marine reservist Todd Bowers might be the luckiest. During a routine patrol on the outskirts of Fallujah in the fall of 2004, his civil affairs unit was called to a firefight. There, amidst heavy fighting with insurgents, they spotted three civilians caught in the crossfire. Bowers’ unit attempted to rescue them, but the skirmish was too intense. “There was some gunshots kicking up around me, I saw where they were coming from, so I dropped to my knee, fired back a couple times, then BOOM!,” recalls Bowers. “A bullet literally missed my head by an eighth of an inch. It hit the scope [an advanced combat optical gunsight, or ACOG, which Bowers' father bought for him with his own money]. I’ve still got a bunch of chunks of metal in the left side of my face.” Although he had blood pouring from his head, Bowers refused to be medivaced from the site without the civilians. “I threw them in the back of a Humvee,” he says. “Then jumped in the driver’s seat with my eye all bandaged up and drove over to Bravo Surgical to get them treated.”

Amazing? Sure. But Bowers returned home with much more than a crazy souvenir and a wild story. Knowing he’d face these kinds of indescribable experiences in Iraq, before deploying he planned to mirror a project his uncle Kendall undertook as an Army surgeon in Vietnam. When Kendall wasn’t saving lives, he was taking photos—graphic snapshots of wounded soldiers and close-call incidents in the MASH—that he later turned into a slideshow, dubbed Vietnam Graffiti. To offer context to the slides for the vets who viewed them back home, Bowers’ uncle added quotes he’d heard during his tour. “He felt the time you hear the most honesty from people is when they do graffiti on bathroom walls or port-o-johns and they write it anonymously,” says Bowers. “When I took a picture I knew that moment would be the one time I would hear what people really felt.” During his two tours Bowers snapped some 1,400 photos. His images offer an intimate view of the war: from immediate pics of Jessica Lynch’s convoy after it was attacked to ironic shots of the Fallujah Career Retention Center to panoramas of the Straits of Gibraltor sailing to Kuwait for the initial invasion.

“We deployed so quickly I was using little disposables at first. They actually worked pretty well. My favorite pictures are from the Ziggurat of Ur, the birthplace of Abraham. You can tell someone what it’s like on top of it, but unless you can actually show them it’s hard to imagine,” says Bowers. “I even got pictures of when they delivered Thighmasters [to Fallujah]. We were getting humanitarian aid sent and we got in a bunch of Thighmasters—official, Made in Taiwan, Suzanne Somers Thighmasters.”

Two months after his second deployment, he made his own slideshow while he was living in Los Angeles, “sofa-surfing” at friends’ homes. Although he showed his project, Iraqi Graffiti, to a dozen or so people, and later to a couple Washington, D.C. art galleries, Bowers wasn’t comfortable taking the project public. “I got the vibe from people where they were like, ‘Oh this is so awful, the war is so wrong’ and I just didn’t want to get into that debate at all,” notes Bowers, who says the salve of time has helped him get comfortable with letting people into his world. “Things are not going well in Iraq. Everybody knows that. But all we see are the guns, bombs, and explosions. It’s hard to get a feel for what the dynamic is—where one second you’re playing soccer with kids and the next second your vehicle is blown up. I want someone to be able to watch this and say, ‘Okay, I have a much better understanding of what it’s like to be in Iraq now.’ No politics, just being able to understand what soldiers and Marines experience when they come home.”

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Fallujah, August 2004 "How the hell did I get here?" - Marine Jolan Park, Fallujah, January 2005 "Playgrounds can also be battlegrounds." - Iraqi Interpreter Fallujah, November 2004 "There goes the neighborhood." -Marine Outskirts of Fallujah, September 2004 "The smiles make this all worthwhile." -Marine Fallujah, December 2004 "We destroyed the enemy and someones home. Hard to say who wins." -Marine Outskirts of Fallujah, October 2004 "Think there is any hope for these little ones?" - Eritrean Interpreter North of Fallujah, November 2004 "Books, Pencils, RPGs, AK-47s. All the basic school supplies." -Marine Fallujah, February 2005 "Does the "V" stand for peace or victory? Or just Bugs Bunny ears." -Sgt. Bowers Fallujah Career Retention Center, September 2004 "I bet business is slow." -Marine Jolan, Fallujah, November 2004 "We are going to need more brooms." -Marine Outskirts of Fallujah, October 2004 "I think he is scared of us?" -Iraqi Interpreter The Infamous bridge in Fallujah, November 2004 "This is where it all started." -Sgt. Bowers Fallujah, February 2005 "Sir, can we take this one home?" -Marine Fallujah, November 2004 "This place is like a ghost town but the ghosts are real people." -Marine Fallujah, January 2005 "Hi. I am here to help rebuild your school. Do not mind the rifle and grenade launcher." -Sgt. Bowers Jolan, Fallujah, November 2004 Fallujah, January 2005 "I hope these kids have it better than their parents did." -Iraqi Civilian Fallujah, November 2004 Fallujah, January 2005 "These kids are eleven going on forty." -State Department Employee Fallujah, December 2004 "This book is more powerful than we will ever be." -Marine Outskirts of Fallujah, August 2004 "Some of these kids do not smile very much. I guess I would not either." -Marine Fallujah, December 2004 "I hope the owner is doing better than her doll is." -Sgt. Bowers North of Fallujah, November 2004 "Sorry we destroyed your city. Here, have a bag lunch and twenty bucks." -Marine Marine Camp outside Fallujah, September 2004 "I have got to make it home." -Marine Fallujah, November 2004 "How will I tell anyone about days like this?" -Marine Fallujah, January 2005 "These people hate us but they love our money." -Marine Jolan Park Election Site, January 2005 "I have seen polling lines before but never any wrapped in razor wire." -Marine Fallujah, February 2005 "There will never be enough soccer balls to hand out." -Iraqi Interpreter Fallujah, March 2005 "I am going to miss this place, and the people." -Sgt. Bowers Fallujah, March 2005 "I am not sure where home is anymore." -Iraqi Civilian Jolan Park, Fallujah, December 2004 "Suzanne Somers is hot and all but why the fuck is she sending Thighmasters to Fallujah?" -Marine Nasiriyah Iraq, June 2003 "Abraham was here. Not Lincoln you shit pants." -Marine Southern Iraq, July 2003 Nasiriyah Iraq, June 2003 "Abraham was here. Not Lincoln you shit pants." -Marine Baghdad, May 2003 "All Donne Go Home. They could have at least have spelled done correctly." -Sgt. Bowers

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