Photographer Hilda Clayton was standing, camera at the ready. So, when a mortar explosion happened in front of her, she snapped the photo. She died one second later, alongside fellow soldiers, all of them training in live fire drills in Afghanistan. The mortar went off by accident, and the unwitting soldier/artist photographed her own death.
I am haunted by this story. A 22-year-old woman warrior from Augusta, Georgia, in the Combat Camera Company sees something most of us will never see. Did she experience a myriad of thoughts, in that second? Did she say I love you to a sweetheart? Did she call out her mother’s name?
Her family and the military have jointly released Hilda’s haunting image, four years after the incident. A soldier in front of her is flying up and away, hands over his ears. The scorching fire of the blast consumes his feet. Debris and flame and thick smoke fly straight at the camera. This was a training exercise. Are the deaths the worse for that?
All last night, I imagined Hilda Clayton’s final second on earth. All night, I lay awake and envisioned death hurling at me out of smoke and fire. Remember that old folk song, “Where Have All the Flowers Gone?” Judy Collins sang it to me, all night, in an endless loop. The cat kept waking and touching my face. I might have been singing.
That Hilda Clayton and all soldiers before her were brave, is unquestioned. But, from Upright Man 175,000 years ago, to now, the only thing that has changed are the weapons. We build museums honoring the millions of warriors of the thousands of wars. Is a museum merely a memorial, or is there a lesson to be learned as we ponder and remember our dead? The sum total of it all is not tragic in the classical sense. It is the way we are.
It is the way we are. Which explains Greek gods and Mayan chiefs and Hitler and our own terrorist George Rogers Clark.
Duty to whom? The main accomplishment of all wars is the massive deaths of those who fought in them. We wrap the coffins of our heroes in flags of all nations and call it patriotism. We sing praises and recite epic poems. We write memoirs and receive medals. To what end, other than the end of humanity?
The archaeologists of space/time, upon arriving on our barren planet, will unearth artifacts and enjoy whole careers figuring out the human race. They will come upon “Yossarian” and “Robert Jordan” and “Johnny” and “Candide,” and they might posit that we were mad. They will unearth Arlington and Antietam and Flanders fields and My Lai and the Vietnam Memorial, and they will judge us. They will see no difference between Huitzilopochtli the Sun God and the One True God. They will shake their heads in amusement at Western Civilization.
Hilda Clayton, soldier/artist, died for our sins. Flame engulfed her, and for a moment she was Our Sister of the Sun, and then her atoms rejoined the universe. We will never have the pleasure of doing business at Clayton Photography in Augusta.
“When will we ever learn?”
“We’d be disgraced forever. Mocked for generations if we cannot avenge our sons’ blood, and our brothers. Life would turn to ashes – at least for me; rather be dead and join the dead!” “The Odyssey”
The above might have been spoken by Henry Kissinger, but he’s still alive. He just killed our sons and daughters from his study chair.