We have never been closer to, nor further away from, the reality of war. Since Vietnam became the first conflict to be televised, technology has shrunk the gap between those fighting and dying and the rest of us, in whose name they do so. Images and videos from the battlefield reach smartphones at the same time as situation rooms. And yet most of the images that find their way into our living rooms only hint at the brutality. We saw the “shock and awe” of the bombardment of Iraq from a distance. When cameras venture closer, networks are careful to screen out the gruesome and the all too real.
In this context, George Butler’s drawings from Afghanistan – seen for the first time here – appear like a throwback to a time when our understanding of war was based on dispatches that arrived in newspapers weeks after a battle. His inspiration was the work of artists such as Feliks Topolski, who painted scenes from the Battle of Britain, and Paul Hogarth, who drew during the Spanish Civil War. “I thought, ‘Is it still possible?’ Presumably it still holds value, this proven formula to visualise the news.”
Butler drew in Africa, Syria and Lebanon before making his first trip to Afghanistan in 2006, embedded with British troops. Returning to Afghanistan at the end of 2014, he hoped to portray life outside the bases to which he had been largely confined the first time around. “I was always aware that over the walls there were millions of people getting on with their lives. That was something I always wanted to go back for, to try to describe. As it happened those three weeks were particularly difficult in terms of security because the Americans and the British were moving out. So it was a good month to make as much trouble as possible for whoever wanted to do that.
“But even so, under those circumstances it was still perfectly possible to spend some sensible amount of time in [safely] thought-through places and describe these Afghans, who are amazingly friendly and resilient people, just carrying on.”
From the girls taking their exams outdoors in the shadow of a mountain range to the close, cramped Bird Street in the heart of Kabul, Butler’s drawings focus on those slices of Afghan life that often pass us by. Some of them are unfinished, a consequence of Butler having too little time to stay standing in one spot: Kabul is still a city of checkpoints and roadside bombs. Police officers and westerners are both targets, making the drawing of one by the other a “nerve-wracking” task. “After about half an hour I just thought, ‘I don’t want to stand around here for too long.’” Butler says the resulting picture has an “essence of what was happening”, and it is a far more interesting representation than a photograph would be.
Butler appreciates the importance of photography but finds drawing a more intimate process. “A camera is so brilliant at capturing the moment and is quite difficult to compete with,” he says. “But it’s drawings that are on our museum walls, that we put above our mantle pieces. I think you get an emotional connection with a drawing or with a painting: that you knew that someone was there, that they did it. And that it’s as much about their experience and their opinion as it is about just recording the scene.”
The most startling images of war – the ones that freeze you as you turn the page of a newspaper, that plant your feet to the ground in a gallery – are not always the most gruesome or the most violent. Butler’s images of Afghan men with prosthetic limbs are more effective than a photograph of the moment the original limb was lost. Similarly, few of the photographs on display in the Conflict, Time, Photography exhibition at London’s Tate Modern capture fighting. Yet an hour spent wandering the rooms filled with images from Hiroshima, Nagasaki, Berlin, Dresden, Baghdad and Belgrade delivers a quite different impact compared with Butler’s work.
Some of the most striking are modern images of places where all evidence of evil or horror has disappeared: the harp room in a university of performing arts where Adolf Hitler once took breakfast; the mist-covered field in Belgium where 20-year-old Private George Collins was shot at dawn for desertion during the First World War.
For the curators it was crucial that the pictures worked as art, not simply reportage. “It’s a more poetic, reflective use of images,” says Simon Baker, Tate’s photography curator. The exhibition begins with a quote from Kurt Vonnegut’s Slaughterhouse Five, arguably the greatest anti-war novel, though one that also asks whether anything can be anti-war: “Why don’t you write an anti-glacier novel?” a friend asks the author. “What he meant,” writes Vonnegut, “was that there would always be wars, that they were as easy to stop as glaciers. I believe that, too.”
“It’s impossible not to feel like we’ve been at war forever,” says Baker. Yet the wars since 11 September have felt distant: there is no conscription and, despite rare terrorist intrusions (11 March 2004 in Madrid, 7 July 2005 in London and 7 and 9 January in Paris this year), war happens elsewhere – in “far away countries between people of whom we know nothing”. Reminders of the wars we’re fighting – and the price people have paid – are precious.