Soldiers Sound Off with Latrine Graffiti

On assignment for Harper's magazine, Steve Featherstone began taking unusual pictures. The first snaps came while waiting with other journalists at Camp Ali Al Salem, an airbase in Kuwait not far from the border with Iraq. The images he took there and at other way stations in and around Iraq and Afghanistan, he says, are a rare and complicated glimpse into the minds of U.S. soldiers at war.

Featherstone says it was Chuck Norris jokes that first inspired the photo series. He describes them as sort of a "genre of jokes ... kind of like a Zen koan. They star Chuck Norris, and he's usually doing something outrageous or impossible." One of his favorites among the hundreds of lines he photographed is this:

Chuck Norris can slam a revolving door.

"I thought that was hilarious," Featherstone says. After that, he says, the hunt for bathroom graffiti was a contest to fill time. He and colleagues can be stranded at these transition bases, left to do what war reporters do best: waiting and watching. "A lot of it is sort of profane backtalk," he says.

But as he started to document seriously what he found in these military latrines, he began to pick up on themes. One emerging theme was that soldiers who are writing are exhausted. "Soldiers seem to be really, really tired, and enervated and upset and angry with the extension policy."

He didn't understand how unique a set of data he'd stumbled upon until he'd reached his final destination in Afghanistan, a forward operating base in Khost where the U.S. Army's 82nd Airborne unit was deployed. He says it was a more permanent place, a site that belonged to one unit where soldiers would be living — and using the bathroom — for months and years.

And at the base, where the waiting was over and the fighting was more than a concept? "I didn't see a single piece of graffiti," he says.

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