Acknowledgment of Danger

Acknowledgment of Danger

Nina Berman, 2016 Winner

This project documents the toxic legacy of war on the American landscape. This is the third part in a trilogy of important work by Nina, who has spent more than a decade investigating the American military, the human cost of war and the militarization of American life. The first two installments of this trilogy have been published as monographs, Purple Hearts – Back from Iraq (2004) and Homeland (2008).

US Marines in Times Square for Fleet Week - demonstration weapons including rifles and arriving in an armored personnel carrier. New York City, 2015. From the “Homeland” series.

USMC holds fleet week activiities in Glenwood Island Park in New Rochelle.  Activities included chin up bars and landing of the Osprey. New Rochelle, New York, 2015. From the “Homeland” series.

Terrorists attack Midway Airport, as part of “TOPOFF2” a $16 million Homeland Security exercise. Chicago, Illinois 2003. From the “Homeland” series.

Soldiers on Red Carpet, Columbus Day Parade, two days after the bombing of Afghanistan began. New York City, 2001. From the “Homeland” series.

Stealth Bomber flies over at Thunder over the Boardwalk. Atlantic City, NJ, 2007. From the “Homeland” series.

"All America Day" at Ft. Bragg, home of the 82nd Airborne, a day when the public can enter the base and take part in military games.  Here,

a soldier helps a boy fire a rifle equipped with a laser at human targets who drop to the ground and play dead when hit, part of the festivities. Ft. Bragg, North Carolina, 2006. From the “Homeland” series.

Helicopter fly by, during All America Day, at Fort Bragg, North Carolina, 2006. From the “Homeland” series.

Marines land attack helicopters, paint children in camouflage and unfurl infantry weapons, including pistols with silencers for the public's amusement with the unspoken aim of recruiting new marines. Orchard Beach, Bronx, NY, 2007. From the “Homeland” series.

Salute to our Troops Event - About 50,000 people attended the parade in downtown Raleigh - said to be the biggest military appreciation event in the city's history. A flyover by F-15E Strike Eagle jets from Seymour Johnson Air Force Base kicked off the parade. Kids could make their own dog tags, and were given warrior certificates. Raleigh, NC, 2008. From the “Homeland” series.

PFC Randall Clunen, wounded in Tal Afar Iraq when a suicide car bomber broke through base security.  Photographed at home in Salem, Ohio, 2004. From the “Purple Hearts” series.

Tyson Johnson III, 22, a corporal and mechanic with Military Intelligence at the Abu Ghraib prison in Baghdad, was injured in a mortar attack. He suffered massive internal injuries. Photographed at his home in Prichard, Alabama, 2004. From the “Purple Hearts” series.

PFC. Alan Jermaine Lewis, 23-years-old, a machine-gunner with the Army's 3rd Infantry Division, was wounded July 16, 2003, on Highway 8 in Baghdad, when the Humvee he was driving hit a land mine blowing off both legs, burning his face, and breaking his left arm in six places. He was delivering ice to other soldiers at the time. Photographed at home in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, 2003. From the “Purple Hearts” series.

Spc. Jose Martinez, wounded in Iraq. From the “Purple Hearts” series.

Adam Zaremba, lost his leg when he was wounded while guarding a bank in Baghdad.  An Iraq child was killed.  Photographed at Ft. Riley Kansas, 2004. From the “Purple Hearts” series.

Platoon Sergeant John Quincy Adams, 37-years-old, father of two children and a National Guard reservist with Charlie Company, 1st Battalion, 124th Infantry, was riding in a Humvee early in the morning August 29, 2003, in the town of Ramadi, as part of a routine patrol and mind sweeping operation, when a remote controlled bomb exploded under his vehicle sending shrapnel into his brain and body. Adams remembers nothing of the day. He has metal in the right lower quadrant of the brain, rock and shrapnel to the face, several entry and exit wounds in the arm which damaged nerves and tendons in his hands and fingers. He is on medication for seizures, mood swings and depressions which leaves him drowsy and he speaks in a small lilting voice. He is not permitted physical activity as any fall could jiggle the metal in his brain leaving him without speech or motor skills. Photographed in his home in Miramar, Florida, with his wife Summer, 2003. From the “Purple Hearts” series.

Purple Hearts Sgt. Jeremy Feldbusch 24-years-old an Army Ranger from the 3rd Battalion 75th Regiment was injured April 3, 2003, defending the Hadithah Dam and awarded the Purple Heart and Bronze Star with valor. He is completely blind and his brain is held together with titanium plates. He suffers seizures and some brain damage. He sees nothing but darkness. Photographed in his home in Derry Township, Pennsylvania, 2003. From the “Purple Hearts” series.

Sgt. Joseph Mosner wounded in Iraq, photographed on base in Ft. Riley Kansas 2004. From the “Purple Hearts” series.

Spc. Robert Acosta lost his right arm and use of his left leg during an ambush while he was driving near Baghdad International Airport.  Photographed at home in Santa Ana, CA  2014. From the “Purple Hearts” series.

Carl Sampson, from the Purple Hearts series.

Photographer's Statement: 

Vietnam, 1987, was the first time I saw the effects of war; conjoined twins were lying on a bed, their bodies connected at the waist. In utero, they had absorbed dioxin, also called "agent orange.” In the photograph I made that day, one child holds a nurse's hand, the other fingers a cash bill offered in meek apology by a visiting U.S. war veteran.

The twins lived the pain of war even though they hadn't yet been born when the US introduced environmental destruction as a war tactic. Defoliate the landscape, and the enemy would have no place to hide.  It was a chemical version of the old "smoke 'em out" strategy.

War is the dirtiest business in the world and the United States is the planet’s most prolific and chronic polluter.

Decades and generations after armed conflict ends, civilian populations live amid war's residue. Rarely is the American military held accountable. It dumps, it discharges and returns home, leaving someone else -­‐ from the Philippines to Iraq, from Vieques to Okinawa-­‐ to clean up the mess.

The situation within the United States is much the same. We live in a constant state of war's aftermath with vast stretches of the American landscape contaminated by the business of war and armed aggression: unexploded ordnance, toxic chemicals, depleted uranium, radioactive particles, a filthy legacy stretching from World War II to contemporary wars of democracy.

Scratch a cancer cluster or dive into a superfund site and the likelihood is that the US military played a role. Some of the history is known -­‐ the down winders in the atomic west for example -­‐ but a great deal more is obscured, covered up, artfully redefined, with the lasting impacts of environmental pollution rarely connected to armed conflict and the American war economy.

With the Aftermath grant, I will document the toxic legacy of war on the American landscape.

Crisscross the USA and one encounters places like Midland, Michigan, and the Tittabawassee River floodplain, where dioxin from agent orange production has poisoned the water and seeped into the soil. Residents are advised not to eat fish and game. Studies have found unusually high incidences of breast cancer.

Or travel to Niagara County, which was the site of the 1978 Love Canal disaster. An entire community was resettled after carcinogens were found in the water supply. The popular retelling blames Hooker Chemical for dumping pollutants yet a 273-page report by the NY State Assembly in 1981 reveals that Hooker was contracted by the US military and that the entire Niagara County region was used as a production hub for the Manhattan Project. Today, the people in Niagara still live the war's aftermath. One of the largest deposits of radioactive waste in the world lies smack in the middle of their community.   Predictably, few businesses are willing to invest or purchase property for fear of what lies beneath.

Some towns have been completely abandoned, bought out by the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) such as Treece, Kansas and Picher, Oklahoma. This area once provided 75% of the metals used for World War II bullets. Now it's a ghost town, contaminated with lead.

From World War II through the 1980's, members of the Navajo nation were enlisted to mine the uranium that drove America's Cold War against the USSR. Today, more than 521 abandoned mines lie scattered across 17 million acres of reservation land in Arizona and New Mexico.

Tests show that babies being born today have high levels of uranium in their blood and urine. Lung cancer is rampant. Meanwhile, clean up efforts are stalled, with private companies claiming the federal government is responsible and the federal government, woefully under funding their commitment. At the current pace, it would take 100 years before the mines are safely cleared.

The truth is that the amount of contamination from America's many wars, and continued military economy, is so vast, and so toxic, there is no possibility of wiping away this legacy.

And so, a recent strategy is to not even try, and instead, rebrand some former military sites as nature preserves. More than 23 million rounds of ammunition were fired at the Jefferson Proving Ground (JPG) in southern Indiana. During the Balkan campaign and the first Gulf War, those rounds were coated with depleted uranium, of which 77 tons now sit in the soil.

The JPG base closed in 1995 and the Department of Defense (DOD), in a nifty maneuver, transferred stewardship and responsibility of a piece of the former base to the US Fish and Wildlife agency. Just like that, a contamination zone was transformed into the Big Oaks Wildlife refuge. A metamorphosis dubbed "bombs to birds" by the refuge manager. To enter, visitors must first sign, an "acknowledgment of danger" form and are advised to only use cell phones while standing on paved surfaces to avoid detonating unexploded ordnance through cell phone radio waves.

"The Army never thought much about the future," a former site employee told the Courier-Journal. "They just wanted to test ammunition...No thought was given that you've ruined this land forever.

With the Aftermath grant I will document these histories, the landscapes, the communities around these sites and the individuals who bear witness to this American war legacy.

For the last 15 years I have been photographing the militarization of American life and the aftermath of war through close studies of severely wounded US veterans. Now it's time for me to consider war's impact on the land around me, the air, the earth and the water. Sadly, there is so much to see.

Nina Berman
nina.berman's picture
Nina Berman is a documentary photographer, author and educator, whose photographs and videos have been exhibited at more than 100 international venues including the Whitney Museum of American Art, the Museum of Fine Arts Houston, the Portland Art Museum, and Dublin Contemporary. She has received awards from the New York Foundation for the Arts, (NYFA), the Open Society Foundation, World Press Photo and Hasselblad among others. She is the author of two monographs: Purple Hearts – Back from Iraq, and Homeland, which examine the aftermath of war and the militarization of American life. Her photographic series Marine Wedding was exhibited at the Whitney Biennial 2010, and is considered an iconic work on the Iraq war. She is an associate professor at Columbia University and is a member of the Amsterdam based NOOR photo collective. She lives in her hometown of New York City.