Santa Cruz photojournalist James Clark speaks on his decision to join the Marines, his two deployments to Afghanistan and how he managed to discover the most fascinating understanding of life—through his camera lens
James Clark is only 25 years old. But if you sit and talk with the young local writer and photojournalist you can immediately spot a rare wisdom etched into his face and soulful hazel eyes; wisdom that, for most of us, might typically take a lifetime to absorb or comprehend. For it’s on Clark’s face, and in his expressions, that the ideas of life, death, survival, courage and brotherhood all seem to gather together in one place to create a rare composite of inner knowing that can only come from having served two tours of duty as a Marine in the War in Afghanistan, now into its 11th year.
Clark, who was born in Massachusetts, grew up in Alameda, Calif., and attended UC Santa Cruz from 2006-’08—writing for City on a Hill Press to boot—enlisted in the Marine Corps after realizing he wanted to do more than just complain about the state of U.S. affairs. The decision generated a wild if not unforgettable ripple effect in his life, one that found him receiving training as a print and photojournalist through the Basic Writers Course at the Defense Information School, Fort Meade, Md., in the winter of 2008. (Between deployments he received education in photography and multimedia creation during the Intermediate Photojournalism Course, in the summer of 2010.)
But the fact that Clark so willingly wanted to serve as a combat correspondent, when the many young men his age were busy, say, gaming and Tweeting, might offer hope to a growing number of people who fear that the days where such retro gems like honor and authenticity have been permanently trampled over by the likes of social media and celebrity adoration.
Clark’s first deployment (1st Battalion, 6th Marine Regiment) in Afghanistan was from December 2009 to July 2010. His second tour of duty was from July 2011 to February 2012. He returned from that last endeavor on February of this year. During both tours he participated in a variety of heated operations, the most notable being Operation Moshtarak and Operation Eastern Storm. Here, in a revealing Q&A and photo essay, Clark’s words and photographs tell a powerful story—not just of combat and soldiers, but also of the Afghans—both young and old—who illuminate the surrealness of war and the resilience of the human spirit to survive against all odds.
What prompted your decision to join the Marines?
Threat was the biggest deciding factor. I wanted to do it. And looking back at the time, it was very naïve, but I wanted that experience. And I knew that the whole point of the Marine Corps is to be on the front, and go out as far as possible. I wanted those experiences. And, also, it was a very small, tight-knit group. That was something that interested me and being part of that camaraderie and being part of that brotherhood; having that shared experience.
But what really led me was that I found myself talking and having these strong emotions about it when I was a kid. And at one point I realized that I was just talking and hadn’t done anything. That didn’t sit right with me. am a firm believer that you have to put your money where your mouth is and do something about it. That was the biggest part—just getting involved.
Tell us about your role there …
My duties were in print and photojournalism, to cover the day-to-day operations—everything from the grit and the grain to the VIPs to the very real stuff that happens there, you know, if you are on patrol and you get ambushed. You get involved. In the Marine Corps you have the infantry and then you have those supporting the infantry. I fell into the latter. I wasn’t a grunt, but that’s what I wanted to do—go out with the grunts. They are all piss and vinegar. All badass. So, I went out and got really close to the guys that I was with and when I heard they were going out a second time, I went up through their chain of command and mine, and got orders to go out with them again. I told them, ‘Hey, my friends are going out there again.’
How conscious were you that you were putting your life in danger?
It felt like you were not quite afraid in the moment—the adrenaline is always going through your body. People are reacting and you follow them. It’s only afterward that it starts to hit you. You have time to think about it and then it comes crashing down. It has passed, and you are safe, but suddenly you are thinking about it. That’s when it became very real— toward the end of my first deployment, and then on the second. The other reasons weren’t just the naïve, guts-and-glory mentality. I just wanted to be with my friends. But you can’t not be aware of it—[that you are at war]. Everybody that says otherwise is either full of shit or crazy.
What were some of the moments that really stood out for you in each deployment?
There were a number of them. That first firefight [in January of 2010]. It was a really violent act, obviously—people are trying to kill each other—but we were all able to leave. In some ways, it felt like a big game and a joke. I am not saying that war is. But you kind of had that feeling after it didn’t quite hit you. And the first time you are in combat, you see that a friend is hit or injured or killed, that’s when it all become terrifyingly real.
Were a lot of your friends injured?
I only had to see one … he died in front of all of us. A couple of guys got hurt but whether or not you are there [when somebody dies], it’s pretty terrible—whether you are all in the same area, in a tent, or you hear fire and the patrol comes back and there is one less guy because he got injured and medevaced.
So now, after two deployments, what are your thoughts about war, especially one that has lingered on for quite some time, and one that is surrounded by many contentious issues?
Over the years, the idea of war has changed for me a lot. As a kid, I dressed up and played soldier. And then, when the War in Afghanistan started, I was in middle school at the time and just going into high school. An then the War in Iraq started. And I was very outspoken and against it; protesting with signs and all that stuff. I always said, ‘pick up a rifle or picket sign.’ Doesn’t matter which, as long as you do something. But over time, because of this experience, I’ve realized certain things for myself. First of all, I am the type of person that can believe in a necessary type of evil. I think that has a lot to do with war. It’s a terrible thing. It’s organized mass murder. That’s really what it is. It’s used to achieve a certain end. But you can’t get away from what it is. If you try to paint it as something that is glorious and noble, that’s a farce. That’s a bold-faced lie.
That said, I think we can all acknowledge that there are times when we need to resort to it. But as a last resort. It’s a tool that you shouldn’t go to that readily.
What do you think is the biggest misconception about this war?
It’s almost like we’ve just accepted that we clearly don’t know why we are there, and we’ve just glossed over it. It’s something you really don’t talk about when you are there. It usually began with individual conversations about why we were there as individuals. And except for a few, I really didn’t hear guys talk about the War on Terror, or WMDs or things like that. Maybe some New Yorkers who were directly impacted by it …
But in general …
Oftentimes, what people don’t know is that [over there], you could have a Marine going down the road and then there are two old local guys sitting along the road enjoying tea. It’s not Saving Private Ryan or The Thin Red Line. It’s not this massive war with things blowing up all the time. The majority of the time, it’s just this little village we are moving through and trying to get them up on their feet to the best of our efforts—with the language barriers and all that. And occasionally, amidst all that, you have these moments of intensity where things break out and you have these ambushes. Things like that.
Tell us about the people there.
The U.S. has been there a long time, but even in areas that hadn’t seen Marines, the local people were aware that their country was taking part in a war; that a war was taking place on their soil the last 10 years. It wasn’t so shocking to them. It was terrible and I don’t want to say that they had gotten used to it but they wanted to get on with their lives as best as possible in Afghanistan. They didn’t care who was in charge so long as they can tend to their crops, care for their family and not have people interfere in their business—the Taliban, the Afghan government, Russia. It doesn’t matter.
Is there anything that still haunts you?
One thing I will say is that there is an enormous amount of children—on the street, running around—who grew up in this environment. That’s their childhood. There’s a photo [of a child] on the front page of my website—that kid’s town was blown up in a firefight. And that’s not an uncommon occurrence. The immediate world in which they live could rock and change in an instant by the war going on. It’s something that strikes me.
Do you see yourself as being brave?
Reactionary? You mean, like something you have a strong conviction to do?
I wouldn’t call it bravery. [Pauses] Foolishness?
But you’re not calling it foolishness, are you? You’re not saying you’re foolish? Other people would look at you and most would say, ‘You are one brave human being.’ I’m sure you have gotten that before?
Yeah, but there are people you meet, and I have been fortunate enough to meet them and see it … I mean, there’s a difference between being in harm’s way and doing what you need to do to keep you and those around you safe. And I think bravery is another thing entirely. And I have had the good fortune of actually seeing guys who are truly courageous doing remarkable things—like willingly sacrificing themselves, and, just by chance, they didn’t happen to die. But they were ready to, just to keep others safe. That’s bravery. That’s courage.
Being in a firefight and being shot at and shooting back … that’s reactionary. Doing what your instincts tell you to door what your training has taught you … I would draw the line and say there is difference.
So, what’s next for you?
[Smiles] This is nice—being back in this community. I’m really enjoying ‘right now.
James Clark studies modern literature at UCSC. Learn more about him and his work at jclarkjournalism.com.
Photo Essay: James Clark jclarkjournalism.com.