Infidel is an intimate portrait of a single U.S. platoon, assigned to an outpost in the Korengal Valley—an area considered one of the most dangerous Afghan postings in the war against the Taliban—but it is as much about love and male vulnerability as it is about bravery and war. Embedded with writer Sebastian Junger, and shooting over the course of one year, photographer Tim Hetherington made a series of images that prove surprisingly tender in their depiction of camaraderie and vulnerability (among the most moving is a series of the platoon sleeping). Alongside revealing interviews with Hetherington’s subjects and an introduction by Junger (with whom Hetherington co-directed the award-winning film Restrepo, about the work of the battalion), the book is also illustrated with graphics of the tattoos the soldiers gave each other in the camp. The title Infidel is taken from the tattoo the men adopted as a badge of their comradeship. Warm, moving and full of humor, this book is a tribute to the “rough men ready to do violence on our behalf” and a provocative contribution to the documentation of war in our time.
Tim Hetherington was born in Liverpool, U.K., and took up photojournalism after studying literature at Oxford University. Five years spent living in Liberia resulted in the book Long Story Bit By Bit: Liberia Retold (2009), and awards for his photojournalism include World Press Photo of the Year 2007 (for his dramatic war photography from Afghanistan), the Rory Peck Award for Features (2008) and an Alfred I duPont Award for excellence in broadcast journalism while on assignment with Sebastian Junger for ABC News (2009). As a filmmaker, he has worked as both a cameraman and director/producer. Restrepo won the Grand Jury Prize at the 2010 Sundance Film Festival. He is based in New York and is a contributing photographer for Vanity Fair magazine.
“Their name for us was ‘infidel’. We were in the Korengal Valley, in eastern Afghanistan, and the US military could listen in on enemy radio communications in the area. ‘The infidel are climbing the hill,’ enemy fighters would report to each other. ‘The infidel are at their base.’ Sometimes they called us much worse things, but ‘infidel’ was their favourite, and after a while the men began to tattoo the word in huge letters across their chests. A certain amount of warfare is posturing, but in the Korengal the fighting happened at several hundred metres, so for the most part this posturing was lost on the enemy. It was mainly meant to be appreciated by the other men in the unit. Along with ‘Infidel’, the soldiers also tattooed bullets and bombs and eagle wings and names of their dead on their arms. Then on quiet days they lifted weights so that these tattoos were stretched across masses of muscle that Achilles would not have balked at.
“At times there was a lot of combat and at times there was almost none. The problem with the quiet stretches was that the men never got to release the tension that built up from maintaining a constant state of readiness, and they prayed for contact like farmers pray for rain. There was nothing at the outpost – no running water, no hot food, no communication with the civilian world, no alcohol or drugs or girls or entertainment of any kind – and so if the enemy didn’t shoot at you, it was pretty much a wasted day in your life. Tim and I were out there for a total of five months each (sometimes together, sometimes apart) and it was very easy to fall into the trap of thinking that without combat there was no story to tell. I remember one stifling June day in the middle of a real combat drought – nothing for two weeks straight – and almost every soldier at the outpost was asleep. They were sprawled on their bunks in the fly-infested hooches or slumped against sandbags wherever they could find some shade and I remember sitting there thinking that this was pretty much hell on earth: twenty guys trapped on a hilltop with the heat and the dust and the tarantulas and the flies and nothing to do but wait for someone to try to kill them.
“It seemed to be the definition of a moment where there’s no story to tell, and yet that wasn’t quite true. Creeping through the outpost came Tim, camera in hand, grabbing photographs of the soldiers as they slept. ‘You never see them like this,’ he said to me later. ‘They always look so tough, but when they’re asleep they look like little boys. They look the way their mothers probably remember them.’
“One of the most curious things about war is how often men miss it. They return to the ‘world’, as they often refer to it, and find something lacking. Not adrenaline, exactly, but purpose. Significance. A sense of being necessary to others. A platoon of combat infantry is a brotherhood, and that bond is expressed in ways that aren’t acknowledged or really even permitted back home. That – not war – is the true topic of this book. It’s an aspect of war that few photographers have even noticed, much less captured with their lens.”
Sebastian Junger, excerpted from his introduction to Infidel.