Photographs by: Inbal Abergil, Essay by: Maurice Emerson Decaul

Published on 08/29/ 2017

I was in a bookstore searching for staples. Staples and products of its ilk are merchandised on the second floor and in order reach the second floor, one has to walk past a television on which CNN is usually tuned. The all too common “Breaking News” was unfolding across the screen demanding my attention so I stopped. A book seller asked if everything was alright and I said yes but remarked to her that CNN was airing images from the first Gulf War. She said Oh. I said today is the 25th anniversary. We spoke briefly about our memories of January 17th 1991 then went our own ways.

I found the staples, paid for them and went back to working on an installation project. A thought stayed with me. I thought about how I had come to forget the war and felt shame. I know people who fought in the war. I have been to Kuwait and I fought in Iraq. I’ve walked on the highway of death and was moved by the knowledge.

Birdwell, 2015

The Defense Secretary at the time spoke with great prescience when he said “and while everybody was tremendously impressed with the low cost of the [1991] conflict, for the 146 Americans who were killed in action and for their families, it wasn’t a cheap war.”
Cortes, 2014
Domeij, 2015

Inbal Abergil has undertaken to show how expensive war is in her photo essay titled N. O. K. Abergil’s project has taken her into the homes of survivors. By survivors I mean people who are the surviving relatives of fallen service people, the Gold Star families as they are called. Light touches the corner of a greeting card in one photo showing its browned edges, revealing the secret of age. The cards owner died in Vietnam.

In another, a plastic box of wooden toy cars. This is the image that arrests me. It arrested me when Abergil first shared it with me at restaurant named Community a few blocks south of Columbia’s campus, where she teaches. It continues to arrest me as I look at it on computer. My nine-year-old, Ian loves his cars. Birthdays and Christmas’s and trips to the pharmacy are all times to restock and expand his collection.
Goetz, 2015
Hager, 2016

A few months ago I picked my boys up from school and as they do now, they walked ahead of me on the subway platform having a conversation I wasn’t privy to. My gaze fell on them and it was as if I was given a glimpse of the future or my own past. My imagination had clothed them in camouflage and because they had fallen inline one behind the other, it was as if they were patrolling. As quickly as it came the image disappeared.

The cars in the photos are still endowed with meaning. The cars still belong to Capt. Dale Goetz, the first chaplain to be killed since the Vietnam War but Abergil’s images inspired within me deeply personal moments of recognition.
Ortega 2016
Basilone, 2016

The punctum, I suppose, in these images is the thing not shown. By that I mean the referent is not and cannot be Goetz, but his things. The human cannot present. He is memorialized in part by his things. The images capture a kind of near annihilation. Near since the object is still endowed with personal meaning but there is a recognition that the loss becomes total once meaning is removed from the object.

And therein is the affect of N. O. K. Abergil’s photos transcend academic interpretation of images. Her images make the viewer feel. For me, I was left thinking in hypotheticals about my sons and about my family. What if I had died over there, what objects of mine would my family have kept. As a parent the thought frightens me.
Lake, 2014
Moinester, 2017

I look at my son’s playing war with nerf guns in our apartment, learning the lingo of weaponry: magazines, rounds, optics etc.… knowing that restricting their access to these toys won’t likely forestall their curiosity, that by doing so I might inadvertently drive it.

Cheney was right about the cost of war not being cheap. The photos in Abergil’s photos remind us of wars expense. The photos remind us that behind every KIA, many many people are left to sort through and make meaning from objects.

The survivors are compelled to see their departed. Taking time to see the expense of war is an act we all need to make a habit of, especially as these long wars inch close to the midpoint of another decade with no end in sight.

Pickett, 2015