TIME Media

The Other Pentagon Papers Secret: Few People Actually Read Them

Anti war activist Daniel Ellsberg, who leaked the
Steve Hansen—The LIFE Images Collection/Getty Daniel Ellsberg, who leaked the Pentagon Papers to the media, at a press conference in July of 1971

June 30, 1971: The Supreme Court rules to allow the publication of articles about the Vietnam War’s origins, based on the Pentagon Papers

As classified documents went, the Pentagon Papers were such dry reading that almost no one made it all the way through them — including Henry Kissinger, Nixon’s national security adviser and chief strategist on the Vietnam War.

When the 40-volume Pentagon report on America’s entanglement in the controversial war was delivered to reporters, however, it became the WikiLeaks of its day: “[t]he most massive leak of secret documents in U.S. history,” according to TIME’s 1971 account.

But even after the study’s revelations became front-page news in the New York Times, few lay readers could get excited about the story, which TIME described as “six pages of deliberately low-key prose and column after gray column of official cables, memorandums and position papers.” Most Americans only understood the scathing significance of the report when they saw how hard the Nixon administration fought to keep it under wraps.

What followed was a historic clash between the Executive Office and the Fourth Estate: For three weeks, the White House battled in court to keep the Times and the Washington Post from publishing stories based on the leaked documents, which revealed staggering incompetence and deception on the part of both the Johnson and Nixon administrations. The White House argued that publishing the information jeopardized national security; the newspapers argued that the public had a right to understand the machinations that had led the nation into its most unpopular and unsuccessful war.

In the end — on this day, June 30, in 1971 — the Supreme Court sided with the press and ruled that the newspapers could immediately resume publishing the classified reports. The 6-3 vote marked deep divisions within the court, however, prompting the justices to “[vent] their opinions in nine separate opinions,” as the Post put it the day after the ruling. TIME summarized the differences between their takes on the case:

Three of the Justices—Hugo L. Black, William O. Douglas and Thurgood Marshall—contended that there can be no exceptions to the First Amendment’s press freedom; no matter what the potential impact on the nation, prior restraints on news cannot be imposed by Government. Another trio composed of Justices Potter Stewart, William J. Brennan Jr. and Byron R. White took a middle position, contending that the First Amendment is not absolute and a potential danger to national security may be so grave as to justify censorship. However, they agreed that this had not been demonstrated in the Times and Post cases.

And while Daniel Ellsberg (who leaked the Pentagon Papers to the press by sneaking them out of his office safe, one volume at a time, to be Xeroxed by a colleague’s girlfriend in all-night copying sessions) initially faced felony charges for his role in the leak, there were many who commended him for his courage as a whistleblower.

The charges against Ellsberg were dropped in 1973, but the Pentagon Papers themselves were only declassified four years ago, in 2011. Ellsberg told the Times he believed they still held valuable lessons for the American populace — although he found it even more unlikely that anyone would wade through the 7,000-page report 40 years after it was leaked.

“The rerelease of the Pentagon Papers is very timely, if anyone were to read it,” he said.

Read TIME’s 1971 cover story on the Pentagon Papers, here in the TIME archives: The Secret War

TIME conflict

Report: 30,000 New Refugees Flee Syrian Conflict Zones

Syrian refugees
Uygar Onder — AFP/Getty Images Syrian refugees cross the Syria-Turkey border, as they return to the northern Syrian town of Tal Abyad, on June 22, 2015.

Thousands are fleeing fighting between the Islamic State group and Syrian army in the city of Hassakeh

(BEIRUT) — A member of an international aid group says fighting between the Islamic State group and Syrian army in the northeastern city of Hassakeh has displaced at least 30,000 people.

Iraq-based Sam Duerden of International Rescue Committee says people in the city need food, water, shelter and medical assistance.

The Islamic State group attacked and captured several government-held neighborhoods of Hassakeh on Thursday. The fighting has continued since then, leaving dozens dead, according to activists.

Duerden said via Skype on Monday that many people are fleeing to nearby villages and towns, adding that there are at least 10,000 who have nowhere to go and are staying in schools or community centers.

State news agency SANA said government air strikes killed large numbers of IS fighters in Hassakeh on Monday.

TIME conflict

How the Korean War Started

UN forces' transport vehicles recrossing
Time Life Pictures—The LIFE Picture Collection/Getty UN forces' transport vehicles recrossing the 38th Parallel as they withdraw from Pyongyang in 1950

The line between North and South was crossed on June 25, 1950

Though the Korean War started on this day 65 years ago—June 25, 1950—when North Korean tanks crossed the 38th parallel, the boundary with South Korea, TIME’s reporting from the following week reveals it took several days for the United States to realize the scope of what had happened.

It was early Sunday morning in Korea, the middle of Saturday afternoon in Independence, Mo. In the former, TIME reported, “North Korean radio broadcast war whoops” as “past terraced hills, green with newly transplanted rice, rumbled tanks.” In the latter, U.S. President Harry Truman was visiting with friends and supporters in his home state when he received a telephone call from Secretary of State Dean Acheson.

About a day passed. In Korea, American civilians were evacuated as the Southern army rallied to try to hold the line. The 38th parallel was, one State Department official admitted, an entirely arbitrary line, chosen by the World War II victors in Potsdam with no consideration for the geographical, economic or political realities of the country—but it was the border, nonetheless, and it had been crossed. In the U.S., Truman returned to the capital to meet with advisers. The nation had already taken a side and promised help, but the question of how to help was unresolved. “As the tense White House conferences stretched through Sunday night and Monday,” TIME reported, “that question merged with another: Would the rapidly retreating South Koreans be able to hold out long enough for the U.S. to act?”

South Korean President Syngman Rhee said publicly that he was disappointed with the American response: “Our soldiers are very brave. They sacrifice themselves against the tanks . . . Korea is very hard up because aid was so slow. It is too little and too late.” Via North Korean radio, the South was urged to surrender.

Then, on Tuesday, June 27, President Truman and his advisers came to a decision. “Shortly after 11 a.m., the U.S.’s political and military policymakers began to arrive at the White House from the State Department, the Pentagon and Capitol Hill,” TIME reported. “By 11:30 they had closed the high doors of the Cabinet Room behind them. Outside 100 reporters thronged the executive lobby or stood by telephones in the adjacent press room. Exactly at noon, Presidential Secretary Charles Ross stirred them into a whirlwind as he passed out the text of the gravest, hardest-hitting answer to aggression that the U.S. has ever made in its peacetime history.”

The President’s statement, as reprinted in the magazine, began:

In Korea the government forces, which were armed to prevent border raids and to preserve internal security, were attacked by invading forces from North Korea. The Security Council of the United Nations called upon the invading troops to cease hostilities and to withdraw to the 38th parallel. This they have not done, but on the contrary have pressed the attack. The Security Council called upon all members of the United Nations to render every assistance to the United Nations in the execution of this resolution.

In these circumstances I have ordered United States Air and Sea forces to give the Korean government troops cover and support.

The attack upon Korea makes it plain beyond all doubt that Communism has passed beyond the use of subversion to conquer independent nations and will now use armed invasion and war.

It has defied the orders of the Security Council of the United Nations issued to preserve international peace and security. In these circumstances the occupation of Formosa by Communist forces would be a direct threat to the security of the Pacific area and to United States forces performing their lawful and necessary functions in that area.

After the statement was read in Congress, though some (like Missouri Senator James Kem) questioned whether the President was in effect declaring war without the proper congressional path to action. Those in Congress who supported the President’s actions carried the day, and the House quickly approved an appropriation bill to fund the military action, which would officially continue for about three more years.

Read more about Truman’s response, here in the TIME Vault: Challenge Accepted

TIME Yemen

Yemen Crisis: 21 Million People Now in Urgent Need of Food, Humanitarian Aid

A Saudi-led blockade on maritime traffic has limited commercial goods from entering Yemen, forcing prices of food and fuel to skyrocket

The U.N. envoy to Yemen said Wednesday that the conflict-torn nation was “one step away from famine,” with nearly 80% of its population — 21 million people — in need of humanitarian aid.

Following a briefing of the bloc’s Security Council in New York, Ismail Ould Cheikh Ahmed said a cease-fire was a priority and called on all parties involved to broker a truce before the end of the Islamic holiday of Ramadan on July 17, reports Agence France-Presse. Peace talks between Yemen’s political parties, mediated by Ahmed, collapsed last week in the Swiss city of Geneva.

“While we pursue a sustainable long-term cessation of violence, I called on all the relevant parties to agree without delay to a humanitarian truce,” said Ahmed.

Yemen descended further into chaos in March when a Saudi-led coalition began bombing sorties to stop an advance by local Shi‘ite Houthi rebels. They want to restore the former President Ali Abdullah Saleh to power, having driven incumbent President Abedrabbo Mansour Hadi into exile.

Over the past three months alone, thousands of people have been killed or injured by air strikes and ground fighting, and 1 million more have been displaced, according to the U.N. Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs.

Due to a coalition blockade of maritime traffic, commercial goods including food and medical supplies are only trickling into the country. Fuel and food prices have therefore skyrocketed, escalating the humanitarian disaster for Yemen’s citizens.

According to a joint survey by the U.N. Food and Agriculture Organization and the World Food Programme, 6 million people in the country are slipping toward severe hunger and desperately need emergency food and lifesaving assistance. A further 6.5 million people are facing a food security “crisis.”

Yemen officials in the southern port city of Aden have called on international aid organizations to deliver more medical supplies as more than 4,000 people have contracted the mosquito-borne and sometimes fatal disease dengue fever, reports al-Jazeera.

TIME Iraq

More Than 3 Million Iraqis Displaced Due to ISIS Violence, Says U.N.

More than 276,000 people were displaced between April and June

(BAGHDAD) — The United Nations says the number of displaced within Iraq due to Islamic State group violence and fighting has exceeded 3 million — a grim milestone for the war-battered country.

Tuesday’s statement by the International Organization for Migration, or IOM, says at least 3.09 million people have been displaced between January 2014 and June 4 within 18 Iraqi provinces.

It says the majority of the displaced are from Anbar province. More than 276,000 people were displaced over a two-month period between April and June alone amid fighting in Anbar’s provincial capital, Ramadi, which eventually saw the city slip out of Iraqi government’s control.

IOM also says that over 2 million displaced are housed in private homes while more than 638,000 people have been accommodated in shelters.

TIME conflict

See the Emotional Return of Vietnam Prisoners of War in 1973

Watch an exclusive clip from CNN's documentary series 'The Seventies'

It was early 1973, many years into the War in Vietnam but two more before the conflict fully ended, that President Richard Nixon announced that ‘peace with honor’ had been achieved. Soon after, the prisoners of war began to come home.

As seen in this exclusive clip from the upcoming episode of CNN’s The Seventies, airing Thursday at 9:00 p.m., it was an emotional homecoming. As TIME reported that February in an issue focused on the return, rather than subject the former prisoners to immediate grilling by officers, doctors and journalists, they were given escorts to guide them through the process of evaluation and acclimation. The men would be slowly reintroduced to a variety of food and brought up to speed on the cultural and social changes they had missed. (They were also issued back pay, which for some long-held prisoners came out to over $100,000.)

But that doesn’t mean the return was easy. As Stefan Kanfer put it in an essay in that issue of TIME, the prisoners were like modern Rip Wan Vinkles: the world to which they returned was the same one they had left, but so much had changed in their absence. Here’s how Kanfer summed-up the new landscape:

Jesus freaks are gathered at the corner, mixing freely with other louder groups. They carry the perennial banners of militancy, each inscribed with the device, Liberation. Over it are the words Gay, Black, Women’s, Chicano and People’s. These are the remnants of a great tidal wave of protest that broke in Rip’s absence, still sporadically coursing through the streets and campuses. The year 1968 was at once its crest and ebb. Rip was gone when Martin Luther King was assassinated in Memphis and when 172 cities went up in smoke, when 3,500 were injured and 27,000 arrested. He was gone when Bobby Kennedy was murdered two months later, and when two months afterward, the city of Chicago seemed to become the epicenter for every disaffected demonstrator in America.

Perhaps there was something in the global ionosphere that year, something that still clings like smoke in an empty room. Without benefit of an unpopular war to trigger protest, Paris also was torn by civil disturbances; so were Mexico City and Tokyo. Even in Prague, the people rose up —only to be pushed into submission by armored tanks. Today all protest seems, somehow, to be an echo of that hopeful, dreadful time; but to the new listener there is no resonance, only the flat remnants of unassimilated rage.

Read the full essay, here in the TIME Vault: The Returned: A New Rip Van Winkle

 

TIME conflict

The Gory Way Japanese Generals Ended Their Battle on Okinawa

Landing On Okinawa
J. R. Eyerman—The LIFE Picture Collection/Getty Images Soldiers of US 10th Army march inland after securing beachheads following the last amphibious assault landings of WWII as vessels from the Allied fleet patrol the waters off of Okinawa, Japan, April 1945.

'The Generals opened their blouses, unbuckled their belts'

When the World War II battle over the Japanese island of Okinawa officially ended 70 years ago today, on June 22, 1945, it had secured its place as the bloodiest clash in the Central and Western Pacific fronts. TIME’s initial estimate a few days later was that more than 98,000 Japanese people had been killed and nearly 7,000 Americans were dead or missing.

Two men were not among that haunting count. It wasn’t until weeks later, in its July 9 issue, that TIME reported on what happened to Lieut. Gen. Mitsuru Ushijima and Lieut. Gen. Isamu Cho, based on the tale told by the soldier who cooked their last meal:

On a narrow ledge overlooking the sea at the southern end of Okinawa the two Generals whispered to each other. They knelt side by side on a patchwork quilt covered by a white sheet (the color of death). Ushijima’s aide stepped forward, bowed, handed each General a gleaming knife. The knives had been half covered with white cloth, so that the aide did not touch the sacred metal.

The Generals opened their blouses, unbuckled their belts. Ushijima leaned forward and with both hands pressed the blade against his belly. One of his adjutants did not wait for the knife to plunge deep. With his razor-sharp saber he lopped off his superior’s head. General Cho leaned forward against his blade. The adjutant swung again. Orderlies took the bodies away.

General Cho had left his own epitaph: “Twenty-second day, sixth month, 20th year of Showa era. I depart without regret, fear, shame or obligation. Age on departure 51 years.”

As for the American forces, the battle closed in a much gentler fashion: to symbolize that the U.S. had conquered the island all the way to its farthest tip, Corporal John C. Corbett of the 8th Marines stood on a cliff and tossed a stone into the ocean.

Read more, from 1945, here in the TIME Vault: End on Okinawa

TIME United Nations

There Have Never Been More Displaced People Across the World Than Now

If the number of displaced persons formed a nation, it would be the 24th largest country in the world

The total number of people forcibly displaced by war, conflict and persecution rose to a record 59.5 million at the end of 2014, the U.N. refugee agency (UNHCR) has said.

The agency’s annual Global Trends Report: World at War, released Thursday, found forced displacement worldwide has reached unprecedented levels, with a record annual rise of 8.3 million more displaced people since 2013. Some 38.2 million of the total were internally displaced in their own countries.

If the number of displaced persons formed a nation, the report said, it would be the 24th largest country in the world.

Speaking in Turkey on Thursday, the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees António Guterres confirmed worldwide displacement was at the highest ever recorded.

“When you see the news in any global network, we clearly get the impression that the world is at war,” he said. “Indeed many areas of the world are today in a completely chaotic situation and the result is this staggering escalation of displacement, the staggering escalation of suffering, because each displaced person is a tragic story,” he said.

Syria overtook Afghanistan to become the biggest source of refugees last year, with 1.77 million Syrians having fled the nation’s ongoing civil war.

Just over half of all refugees under UNHCR’s responsibility worldwide came from just three countries: Syria, Afghanistan and Somalia. The report also pointed to new and continuing conflicts in South Sudan, Ukraine and Iraq, among others, which have caused suffering and widespread displacement.

Guterres warned that humanitarian organizations were “no longer able to clean up the mess.”

“U.N. agencies, NGOs, the Red Cross — we no longer have the capacities and the resources to respond to such a dramatic increase in humanitarian needs,” he said.

Turkey overtook Pakistan to become the nation hosting the most refugees in the world with 1.59 million people currently displaced within its borders. Guterres praised Turkey’s willingness to keep its frontiers open and called on richer countries to do more.

“That has a special meaning in a world where so many borders are closed or restricted,” he said. “And where new walls are being built or announced.”

TIME conflict

We’re Remembering Napoleon’s Failure at Waterloo this Week. Here’s Another

Napoleon Bonaparte, French general and Emperor.Artist: Paul Delaroche
Print Collector/Getty Images Napoleon Bonaparte, French general and Emperor. Napoleon (1769-1821) From Harmsworth, History of the World, published in London, 1909.

Unable to defeat Great Britain on the high seas, new research shows that he tried and failed to win by sabotaging Britain’s economy

History News Network

This post is in partnership with the History News Network, the website that puts the news into historical perspective. The article below was originally published at HNN.

Two hundred years ago British, German, and Dutch troops decisively defeated Napoleon Bonaparte at the Battle of Waterloo. Historians have since studied and written about the great general and the Empire he established and lost. The majority of these studies explored military campaigns to explain Napoleon’s success and failure. In the last twenty years, an international community of historians has explored the nature and structure of the Napoleonic Empire to reveal nuanced perspectives on its supporters and its opponents. This approach helps us better understand why Europeans ultimately united against Bonaparte between 1813 and 1815, and why his Empire began to falter and to disintegrate even before the final military showdown took place at Waterloo.

Examining Napoleon’s Empire, in particular his Continental System, provides insights into the economic warfare that followed in the wake of French conquest and expansion. When Britain and Revolutionary France entered into military conflict in 1793, both states embraced economic warfare, including restricting the trade of neutral states. One year after the failure of the short-lived Peace of Amiens (1802-1803), Britain seized French and Dutch vessels in British ports, proclaimed a blockade of the Elbe and Weser rivers, and extended it to French ports a year later, as France undertook a range of policies to restrict British commerce on the continent. France and Britain alike targeted neutral shipping, which sought to continue trade with both belligerents.

Following the expansion of the Napoleonic Empire economic, warfare spread to the high seas, harbors and marketplaces across Europe and the Atlantic. In 1806 following the defeat of Prussia, the Berlin Decrees formalized Napoleon’s Continental System and generated a new level and intensity of trade disruption, when Bonaparte criminalized trade with Britain and British subjects in French-occupied areas. The British retaliated with their own Orders in Council in January and November 1807 that sought to tighten the blockade of France and its allies, deny French trade with neutrals and prevent Britain’s enemies from trading with their colonies.

As Napoleon gained more territory on the continent, and Britain exerted its muscle on the high seas, the Continental Blockade expanded: Russia, Prussia, Norway-Denmark (following a British invasion and bombardment of Copenhagen), and Portugal (following a French invasion) joined in 1807. Napoleon retaliated to the British Orders in Council with the 1807 Milan Decrees and expanded the blockade of continental ports to include neutral shipping that complied with the British directives. The economic disruption, hardships and declining standard of living caused by the dual blockade engendered widespread hatred of France and Britain. Merchants everywhere condemned their common practice of privateering and disregard of neutrality.

Too weak to win at sea, Napoleon sought to defeat Britain by attacking the vast capital and credit that made possible its sustained mobilization of financial assets for use in the war. Foreign trade financed Britain’s power, and Napoleon sought to damage British financial stability and balance of trade. He tried to reduce the British supply of gold and specie and weaken its credit, so Britain could not subsidize continental warfare against the French. Napoleon’s Continental Blockade was not a conventional naval blockade that endeavored to deprive its enemy of weapons, food and commodities; rather, it sought to deny Britain the financial ability to wage war.

In addition to subduing Britain, the restructuring of the continental trade attempted to establish French industrial and commercial hegemony on the continent. Far from a constructive program for European industrial development and trade under French guidance, the Blockade represented an act of aggression against the continent. Intensified economic warfare altered the character of the Napoleonic conflict since both France and Britain pursed victory at the expense of the continent as both states targeted neutral, conquered, satellite and allied states alike.

The Continental Blockade and System are often used interchangeably, but they are distinct if related in origin. The Blockade was Napoleon’s economic weapon against Britain, whereas the Continental System encompassed the political organization necessary to enforce this Blockade on the continent. For example, Napoleon reorganized the political boundaries on the Italian peninsula to better implement the Blockade, ultimately annexing Tuscany, Parma and Piacenza in 1808 and Rome, Umbria and Lazio in 1809 directly into the Empire. Within a few years, commerce in Mediterranean ports was reduced to short-term coastal shipping.

In 1810 Imperial economic warfare reached a new level following the annexation of the Papal States, Illyrian Provinces, Holland and the north German coast into the Empire and the issue of three new decrees: Saint Cloud, Trianon and Fontainebleau Decrees. Napoleon sought to turn privateering to the advantage of the French Treasury, strengthen the already privileged position of French industry and commerce by raising imperial tariffs, increase the number of customs officials and imperial troops to enforce the Blockade, punish smugglers, and confiscate British goods. Imperial officials burned seized goods with ceremonial pomp in hundreds of towns and cities in the last months of 1810 and first months of 1811, creating a customs terror.

An overview of continental Europe reveals that Britain’s opponents and France’s satellites–Holland for example–suffered the most economic disruption. Relentless commercial warfare with virtually no recognition of neutral commercial rights meant that neutral states saw their peoples and economies become pawns in the great power conflict. Blocked from legitimate trade with Britain and colonial markets, such entrepôts as Amsterdam and Hamburg faced commercial, industrial and financial decline. The full impact of the Continental System, therefore, included the costs of imperial occupation, which ultimately discredited the French regime. By 1813 impoverishment brought on by economic warfare and exploitation generated an ever-growing anti-French sentiment that erupted in a range of riots, desertions from the Grand Armée, and even revolt in northern German states and across destitute western Holland. Burning custom houses and targeting toll collectors underscored the source of local grievances and popular hostility toward the Empire. The impoverishment attributed to Continental System provided anti-Napoleonic propaganda with examples of Gallic oppression and exploitation that resonated throughout Europe.

New research on daily life under French rule illustrates the hardships associated with economic warfare, the growth of illegal trade and new merchant networks, and tensions with neutral states generated by the Anglo-French conflict to reveal the contradictions inherent in the Napoleonic Empire–at once rational and progressive, but also coercive and exploitative. Transnational, regional and urban examples underscore the vulnerability and ingenuity of Europeans as they faced transformative social and economic challenges. The difficult years of economic warfare and new commercial networks and practices predisposed Europeans to openly associate peace with trade and prosperity and offered contemporary experience to support Adam Smith’s moral vision of free trade that emphasized a benign spirit of commerce and the interdependency between peace and prosperity that would reduce conflict. In the end, however, the British Empire emerged as the winner of the Anglo-French contest, positioning Britain as the preeminent global power throughout the nineteenth century. For this reason alone, it is not surprising that the British celebrate Waterloo as their own hard-won victory: one that resonated and ultimately marked new towns and city squares across its growing Empire.

Katherine B. Aaslestad is Professor of History at West Virgnia University and has published widely on the Napoleonic era, in particular its ramifications in German Central Europe. She recently co-edited Revisiting Napoleon’s Continental System: Local, Regional, and European Experiences with Johan Joor, released by Palgrave in November 2014. Just published: “Serious Work for a New Europe: The Congress of Vienna after Two Hundred Years” in ​Central European History (Vol. 48 Issue 02, June 2015), pp. 225-237.

TIME On Our Radar

A Photographer Turns Real-Life Soldiers Into Toys

Simon Brann Thorpe chose a different approach to document a 40-year-long conflict

For 40 years, a little-known conflict has opposed a group of separatists, called the Polisario Front, to the government of Morocco in Western Sahara. Generations of refugees have been forced out of the region, and yet, the world has taken little notice. For photographer Simon Brann Thorpe, this had to change. But he didn’t want to take usual photographs of conflicts. Instead, he collaborated with one of the Polisario Front’s military commanders to create a body of work that goes beyond documentary. He transformed real life soldiers into toy soldiers to examine the true impact of the war’s stalemate. He speaks to TIME LightBox.

Olivier Laurent: Why did you want to do something about the conflict in Western Sahara?

Simon Brann Thorpe: In 2004, I did a project about landmine victims there. It was my first project to try to bring awareness to the issue of landmines, which are as invisible in the area as the conflict itself–both physically and metaphorically. That was what introduced me to the bizarre, absurd nature of the conflict and how and why it’s remained invisible for so long. Fairly soon after that, I knew I wanted to go back. But I didn’t want to cover the conflict with traditional reportage, as that’s not my background or genre. The overriding question was why has this conflict in Western Sahara remained so utterly invisible for 40 years? I then attempted to imagine the emotional and physical manifestations of being trapped, powerless, in a perpetually unresolved cycle of postcolonial conflict. The concept of Toy Soldiers came to me out of this cycle of thought and it just seemed to fit perfectly with the situation on the ground as well as allowing for people in the West to have an emotional, physical and nostalgic response to a completely foreign reality, triggered by a familiar symbol of their own childhood and culture.

Olivier Laurent: Doesn’t this particular approach, where soldiers become toy soldiers, create an uniformity and a loss of identity of the individual soldiers?

Simon Brann Thorpe: War creates loss of identity (not just of the individual but also, in this case, of nation) and therefore it was one of the key narratives I wanted to communicate through the project’s concept: a reality reconstructed, placed onto a conflict that is almost utterly invisible.

Olivier Laurent: How did you find this commander and convince him to collaborate on this project?

Simon Brann Thorpe: I met the commander through the Polisario representatives in London and through contacts in the refugee camps made during my first visit there in 2004. He’s a refugee like all the other Sahrawis divided by the conflict, and the commander of a particular region known as “Liberated Western Sahara”. I think the most important thing for him was my credibility as an artist and in what the project was trying to achieve, and then on a secondary note, that he completely related to the concept through his own experience. As custodians of this little stretch of land, their existence within this conflict without end and at the mercy of other people’s decision-making is something that resonated through the concept that is a narrative on a powerless state of being.

Olivier Laurent: How did the collaboration work? Were the soldiers happy to take part in this? What was their state of mind?

Simon Brann Thorpe: The collaboration was set a long time before the image production began and took many forms, the first of which was the location scout which took place over a year ahead of the main production. Then we had to produce the bases [for the soldiers] to stand on. I wanted to have the soldiers physically act out that stance on the base rather than to add it in post-production because that enactment was an essential part of the project and concept. So we made them out of old oil drums, which we covered in paint and in sand until they were ready to be carted around to each location. The soldiers would carry them in the heat and cut their fingers on them. It was an interesting experience and one that I’ll never forget in terms of the willing participation of the soldiers in this project. It was amazing and very humbling.

Olivier Laurent: How important was that collaboration for you?

Simon Brann Thorpe: The collaboration was everything to the project! Without it, it would not have happened or it would have had a completely different feeling, resonance and credibility.

Olivier Laurent: There are three different sets of images in your work – two that focus on the toy nature of these soldiers, and one that are close-up portraits of them. Why that last set?

Simon Brann Thorpe: The portraits were an essential element to the project because at the center of this conflict — like all conflicts — you have the humanity, the vulnerability that is the human flesh. It also personified the project and added an essential human element that negates the objectification that is the association to plastic toy soldiers. A key element in the narrative of the project is around our objectification and desensitization to war through entertainment. To counter that, the portraits show the human at the centre of war and conflict, their eyes closed emphasizing their human vulnerability and loss of identity.

Olivier Laurent: In the end, the book brings together fact and fiction. Do you think this approach is helpful in bringing attention to stories that might not, otherwise, interest the public? Is it an approach you would like to see used more widely in documentary photography?

Simon Brann Thorpe: Toy Soldiers is an attempt at a new dialogue on war and conflict, a dialogue whose narrative asks many questions of how images of war are digested and consumed. Especially now in the digital age, which is ravenous for content but short on attention spans. What are the consequences of ubiquitous images of suffering? Do they desensitize an audience? And what makes one conflict more “newsworthy” than another? What the reaction to Toy Soldiers has shown me is that actually a conflict that mainstream media has overlooked or ignored, for whatever reason, actually can have huge resonance with people all over the world when looked at from a different angle.

Simon Brann Thorpe‘s photobook Toy Soldiers is published by Dewi Lewis and available now.

Olivier Laurent is the editor of TIME LightBox. Follow him on Twitter and Instagram @olivierclaurent

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