The US Military as Great Chief, Father, Doctor, and Babysitter

The following is an extract from my chapter, “A Flickr of Militarization: Photographic Regulation, Symbolic Consecration, and the Strategic Communication of ‘Good Intentions’,” published in Good Intentions: Norms and Practices of Imperial Humanitarianism (Montreal: Alert Press, 2014), pp. 185-279:

In 2009 the Department of the Army produced a field manual titled, “Visual Information Operations” (US Army, 2009a). One of the significant features of this manual is that it provides a clear set of categories of photographs to be produced that are intended to positively showcase US military operations. All of these categories are vividly displayed in practice, with numerous examples of each to be found in the Pentagon’s own Flickr account. (Here the reader should also quickly review “use good pictures and images” in the National Strategy for Public Diplomacy and Strategic Communication discussed in this chapter.) We thus find examples of:

  1. “Readiness Posture Imagery” that simply “display a unit’s readiness”;
  2. “Significant Operations Imagery” that “documents situations and supports public or community affairs programs,” such as a soldier interacting with children receiving medical aid from US forces;
  3. “Significant Programs and Projects Imagery,” which can feature the celebration of achieving a milestone of some sort for a specific unit or program, with the typical photo being of a ribbon-cutting ceremony;
  4. “Civil Military Involvement Imagery” is a broad category similar to (2), one that purportedly chronicles “participation in disaster relief, civil disturbances, and environmental protection,” and involves imagery that can be used as part of a public affairs or public diplomacy program—the Army claims that such “imagery transcends the language barrier and allows better cooperation between the representatives of the military and local citizens, both American and foreign”;
  5. “Construction Imagery,” which appears frequently, showing US forces constructing, repairing, or maintaining buildings and other public facilities;
  6. “Significant Military Events Imagery,” which is a very broad category but in practice most resembles (3) above as it can involve depicting the granting of medals, or it can feature the deployment of troops, thus resembling (1) above; and,
  7. “Military Life Imagery” which is a selective portrait of “military life,” narrowed down to examples “such as Soldiers at work, physical training, new equipment usage, and enjoyment of life as a military family” (US Army, 2009a, pp. 2-5—2-8).

This is by no means a complete list, since the categorization is itself an unstable product of intention and perception, official motivation and viewers’ interpretation. There are also examples of numerous photographs, discussed in the chapter, that do not readily fit into any of the categorical areas above. However, what the list above does do is to provide a starting point, and some limited insight as to what a photographic collection is meant to accomplish, from the military’s perspective.

If we were to sum up all of the military’s categorization of desired photographs above into one single message, it might be this: happy, healthy, helpful, strong, successful, and ready to go. It is not such a far-fetched summation, in light of the above, and is one that corresponds well with recruitment advertising. It is also the intentional opposite of other realities of war and US military actions: angry, menacing, abusive, destructive, traumatized, flawed, retreating.

Many of the photographs in the Pentagon’s Flickr stream suggest collaboration between “locals” and US forces. The photographs themselves, however, are not collaborative productions. There is never an indication that the “locals” in any way initiated, conceived, sought, or desired to be photographed. Some certainly “agreed” or acquiesced to be photographed, and that is about as charitable as we can afford to be.

The choices manifested in the Pentagon’s Flickr photographs represent what Bourdieu called “a choice that praises,” one that reflects an ethos stemming from internalized objective and common regularities and collective rules, such that a photograph expresses, “the system of schemes of perception, thought and appreciation common to a whole group” (Bourdieu, 1991, p. 131). The “whole group” in question here is of course the US military. What is perhaps most different from the range of cases studied by Bourdieu, is that we are not really dealing here mostly with behaviour that is more inspired than controlled, more unselfconscious than intentional, without a call to order or formal education (see Bourdieu et al., 1990, p. 43). The point of the Pentagon’s various directives, manuals and handbooks on strategic communication, public diplomacy, information operations, and the use of photography, is precisely to institute a regular, formal, conscious and intentional selection of subjects according to fairly strict instructions. (Of course it may well be that the photographers, once educated according to the military’s regulations and well practiced, develop a habitual and seemingly intuitive mode of choosing and framing particular images.)

Another way to understand the character of the photographic communication categories outlined in Pentagon manuals (discussed in the chapter from which this is extracted) and their intended meanings is by way of Sherry Ortner’s (1973) outline of a methodology for understanding symbolism and symbolic power. First, it seems fair to say that what we are dealing with in these pictures are forms of what Ortner calls “elaborating symbols”: they provide means for “sorting out complex and undifferentiated feelings and ideas, making them comprehensible to oneself, communicable to others, and translatable into orderly action” (Ortner, 1973, p. 1340). Second, they express power as elaborating symbols, in two distinct ways: a) they have “conceptual elaborating power” in that they provide or convey, “categories for conceptualizing the order of the world” (the proper place of military power in assuring US global dominance); and, b) “action elaborating power,” in that they imply mechanisms for successful action (Ortner, 1973, p. 1340). Third, a particular type of elaborating symbol, one that closely aligns with (b) above, is what Ortner calls the “key scenario”: this implies “clear-cut modes of action” that in this case are appropriate to representing US military success and military indispensability, and the key scenario also postulates a “basic means-ends relationships in actable forms” and provides “strategies for organizing action experience” (Ortner, 1973, pp. 1341, 1342). It is important to understand that Ortner in no way intends to separate thought from action, in any of her conceptualizations of symbolism.

In the various scenarios depicted in the categorical areas produced by the Pentagon and demonstrated at length in the chapter (and in a few upcoming postings), the US military virtually represents itself as the world’s new Great Chief—protector, guide, gift-giver, and war-maker—who overrules if not outlaws all other (lesser) chiefs. If the US military repairs your home, and makes your children smile, then what does that say about you, after all, as a father or as a chief of your tribe? The arid, pretend-neutrality of the US military’s rhetoric employed to categorize the diverse imagery presented, is meant to render scientific what is in fact overwhelming ambition and national narcissism.


Bourdieu, P. (1991). Towards a Sociology of Photography. Visual Anthropology Review, 7(1), 129–133.

Bourdieu, P., with Boltanski, L.; Castel, R.; Chamboredon, J-C; & Schnapper, D. (1990). Photography: A Middle-Brow Art. Cambridge, UK: Polity Press.

Ortner, S. B. (1973). On Key Symbols. American Anthropologist, 75(5), 1338–1346.

US Army. (2009a). FM 6-02.40, Visual Information Operations. Washington, DC: Headquarters, Department of the Army.


Norms and Practices of Imperial Humanitarianism

Edited by Maximilian C. Forte

Montreal, QC: Alert Press, 2014

Hard Cover ISBN 978-0-9868021-5-7
Paperback ISBN 978-0-9868021-4-0