Photojournalist Jo Metson Scott talks to i-D’s Tom Seymour about her new book The Grey Line, compiled of photo and text portraits of American soldiers post-Iraq.
It was spring 2007, and George Bush was in the midst of ‘The New Way Forward,’ a surge of 20,000 troops sent to an Iraq burning itself to the ground.
London-based photojournalist Jo Metson Scott had just returned from Indiana in America’s midwest. She’d spent a week in the company of a deserter; a 19-year-old radio operator called Robert who, at the end of his first deployment, had gone into hiding. He’d rather face prison than the war again.
Over the next five years Metson Scott travelled across the small towns of America, making contact, building relations, photographing and interviewing veterans who had chosen to protest the Iraq war. “Their voices,” she writes, “have been met with varying consequences, from being outcast to imprisoned, shunned to celebrated.”
The result is The Grey Line, a mosaic of photography and correspondence with the men responsible for the ousting of Saddam, the search for WMD, the desperate attempts to contain a country cleaved by sectarian violence, and who had decided – through a mixture of courage and despair – not to be a part of the war anymore.
“He was facing up to three years in prison,” Metson Scott says of the boy in Indiana from her studio off Broadway market, East London. “He would rather face a three-year prison sentence than return to Iraq. He had developed a sort of clarity.”
It’s a loaded term in Britain, but Robert had applied, and been denied, the status of conscientious objector: “I’d heard about conscientious objection in terms of conscription in the First and Second World War,” Metson Scott says. “I was intrigued, but I was also very skeptical, about the equivalent in Iraq. Why would a soldier suddenly want to be considered a conscientious objector after willingly signing up in the first place?”
Since the invasion in 2003, just over 400 American service men have applied for conscientious objector status. Only 179 of those requests have been granted. In the same period, approximately 20,000 soldiers have gone AWOL (absent without official leave). The war became egodystonic for the men who decided to fight in it, and for the image of America held of itself. The war sparked an identity crisis that bed itself in to a generation of men.
“I realised there were a huge amount of soldiers speaking out,” Metson Scott says. “They had believed in the war and had faith in their government, and they had a signed a contract with the military committing themselves for six years. The Grey Line is about the process they went through to get to the point when they were willing to turn their back on it all.”
The portraits Metson Scott took of the objectors – in their homes and around the towns in which they grew up – is coupled with emails she swapped, letters she had shared, quotes they bestowed to her. It’s about details, memories; the tattoo across a soldier’s back reading “Forgive me, for I have sinned,” or a soldier getting chewed out for refusing to fire his gun at children, or a soldier saying of the hunt for WMD: “We didn’t know what we were looking for. We didn’t know how to look. We didn’t know what it would look like if we found it. So we literally turned everything upside down.”
Ten years on and the polemics, the moral imperatives and the misinformation continues unabated. The dust refuses to settle. But, if there is to be a clarity, it is from the words of men like Garrett Reppenhagen, a sniper who toured Iraq in 2003: “One day we were doing a typical roadside checkpoint and a car sped at us. We realised it wasn’t stopping. Most of us got the hell off the road. One of our guys was manning the machine gun on the Humvee and he fired at the vehicle and ripped it apart. We found out later from a man who ran a local market stall, a relative of the people in the vehicle, that it was a husband taking his wife to hospital because she was pregnant. We killed all three of them. Then two weeks later we got into this firefight, an ambush, and we killed two of the insurgents. One of the insurgents was the man from the market. So when did he decide to fight against the Americans?”