A Dual Focus

After a 21-year career in the U.S. Army, John Bechtold is now a PhD student in UNC’s Department of American Studies, using photography as a means to discuss American public memory and cultural perceptions of war.

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August 20th, 2019

John Bechtold wanders the streets of Lumberton, waiting for something to catch his eye. He spots a floral arrangement perched in a window of a local business and pauses. As he moves from one location to another, he adjusts the composition of the image to suit his creative vision. A few seconds and a couple shutter clicks later, he has a photograph he’s happy with and continues on his journey. To an outsider, his route seems aimless — but that’s not the case.

For the past three years, the retired Army officer has created visual projects challenging how American citizens think about war. He’s interviewed wounded veterans, sharing how they reclaimed their lives after injury. He’s visited Beirut, creating a photographic narrative that went beyond the city’s association with violence. Most recently, he has been using photographs to challenge American public memory of war.

“There’s a difference between the cultural perceptions of war and then how it is experienced by the people who live it,” he says. “And more often than not, it doesn’t include the perspective of the citizens of the countries where the American military occupied and fought for some time.”

When the average American thinks of the Vietnam War, Bechtold says, a U.S. veteran may be the first image to come to mind. For many, the War on Terror conjures scenes of American marines, soldiers, and airmen in the heat of battle, but not necessarily Iraqi and Afghan citizens directly affected by the conflict.

Bechtold wants to conduct a more thorough investigation that includes both sides of the story and is using the Second Battle of Fallujah as the foundation for this inquiry.

On November 7, 2004, a coalition of American, Iraqi, and British military forces began an invasion of Fallujah in an attempt to eradicate the stronghold of insurgents. Also known as Operation Phantom Fury, the 46-day battle is widely seen as the bloodiest of the Iraq War. Deployed at the time, Bechtold was in the nearby city of Baqubah — only about two hours away.

“I feel like that battle has become canonized in American memory, more so than any other battle in Iraq or the War on Terror,” he says. “So it’s kind of time to reinvestigate and interrogate exactly, you know, what Fallujah means for different communities.”

To illustrate this, Bechtold visits hometowns of marines and soldiers killed in the Second Battle of Fallujah to photograph what has been lost in their absence and how they are remembered.

He starts this process with some background research, like looking through newspaper archives to learn about these veterans and their role in the community. Wandering around town on foot he chats with locals, and before long usually meets someone who knew the veteran.

“You talk about them and get a sense for the person,” he says. “And I think that helps me respond differently to the place.”

Bechtold wants to eventually return to Iraq and photograph Fallujah. Mirroring his images in the U.S., he will think about the citizens who lost their lives and how they’re memorialized in their community.

“Essentially the point that I will want to make is that it’s not only American families that suffer some type of loss in war, and that should be obvious.” he says. “Often those perspectives are kind of eclipsed by larger narratives, at least I think, in American public memory.”

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John Bechtold is a retired artillery officer in the U.S. Army and PhD student in the Department of American Studies within the UNC College of Arts & Sciences.