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Marine captures Iraq in pictures

- The Washington Times - Sunday, January 2, 2005

When Maj. Benjamin Busch prepared for patrols in a region near the Iraq-Iran border, he strapped body armor across his chest, donned a Kevlar helmet and slung a gun over his shoulder. The Marine reservist usually also carried another key piece of gear -- his camera.

Using a 35mm Canon that he took with him whenever he could, Maj. Busch took about 1,000 photos of daily life in Iraq and the people he met during his tour of duty as commander of a Marine company in 2003.

He photographed children on the streets, an abandoned Iraqi military base, the manager of an ice plant who slept on a creaky cot in the building to defend it from looters. In one picture, bones and a skull dug up from a mass grave are cradled in a holy shroud, ready for reburial.

Maj. Busch, 36, has plenty of the tourist photos that many troops take, pictures of himself standing with a gun with other Marines. But he also tried to portray lives of ordinary people -- rarely seen in daily news photos of car bombings and fighting. It's an Iraq that he knows will be changed as American influence grows in the country, and it's one he wanted to record before it is lost.

"What I really wanted was evidence of the place and the people that wasn't obvious," Maj. Busch said. "I wanted to capture life and the environment as it really was in the infancy of our presence there."

About 40 of Maj. Busch's photos form the core of an exhibit starting Friday at the University of Maryland University College (UMUC) in Adelphi. Titled "Art in War," the show runs through April 10 at the university's conference center and hotel.

Maj. Busch, a College Park resident, is scheduled to return to Iraq soon after the exhibit opens.

The university contacted Maj. Busch after it learned about his photos, which were displayed earlier this year at Vassar College in New York. UMUC has strong military ties -- the university enrolls about 58,000 troops at 120 overseas bases in online and other types of classes through a contract with the Pentagon, said spokeswoman Andrea Martino.

"It was just a natural fit for us," she said of the exhibit.

Maj. Busch served four years in the Marines during the early 1990s, then pursued a career in acting and directing after he left active duty. He has taken photos as a hobby for the past six years, experimenting with different artistic methods.

In 2003, his reserve unit took part in the invasion and occupation of Iraq. He returned home in October that year.

His unit of 150 men was posted to the border with Iran after the fighting, and as the commanding officer, Maj. Busch found himself responsible for nine small towns in the region. Acting as de facto mayor, he had to appoint a local government, rebuild a damaged infrastructure and gain the trust of a wary people. It was not an easy task.

"I was suddenly in the position to tell them what was going to happen next," he said. "I was inventing it as I went along. There was no layout as to how it would come together."

But his new position also brought him into close contact with Iraqis. He formed local councils, picking doctors for the leadership posts because many spoke English and had a general neutrality that came with helping people.

He worked with the ice plant manager to restore power and water to the facility, scouring power lines and pipes to determine where they had been cut and looted. Maj. Busch later heard that the manager was killed in a dispute over ice prices after his unit left the area.

Once, while inspecting a local police station, a group of men urged Maj. Busch to follow them to an area behind an earthen berm. There Maj. Busch found men digging up bones, all that was left of their relatives who were shot and buried in a mass grave in 1991. The families had known about the grave, but didn't dare retrieve the remains while Saddam Hussein was in power.

Many clutched photographs of relatives, sifting through dirt and lime with shovels for shreds of clothes they recognized that could distinguish the bones of a brother from the heap. All the families hoped for was a proper burial.

"I think they wanted us to bear witness to what happened," Maj. Busch said.

Maj. Busch will return to Iraq with a new civil-affairs unit working in the Anbar province, which includes the former insurgent stronghold Fallujah. He expects to work on rebuilding the city, which was heavily damaged during fighting in the fall. This time, he leaves behind his wife and a 13-week-old daughter.

Maj. Busch plans to bring his 35mm camera, but also will bring a digital camera because Iraq's soaring temperatures make it hard to preserve rolls of film. He hopes to explore the tribal connections that are important in Iraqi society, both in his daily work and with his camera.

His main goal is to simply create a record, without editorializing, of what happened.

"My photos are not pro-war, they're not anti-war," he said. "They don't say the war is a mistake or it is the best thing we have done. What they do say is, 'It was war, it was Iraq, and we were there.'"