Amherst Magazine

The Pain of War

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Robert Capa, Death of a Loyalist Soldier, Spain, 1936 (The Falling Soldier) (1936)

Man in mid-fall, having been shot. Death of a Loyalist Soldier, Spain, 1936 (The Falling Soldier), 1936 estate print, gelatin silver print, by Robert Capa. Mead Art Museum.

This is not a war photograph that forces you to look away. On the contrary, you keep looking and reflecting.

The dead soldier Capa caught in mid-fall seems alone here, but he isn’t really, because there’s obviously a photographer on hand. Why was Capa there? He said that if your pictures aren’t good enough, you aren’t close enough; this picture proves it. It’s said that he was trusted, even loved, by his wartime subjects, in Spain, at Normandy, in the European theater, in Indochina where he was killed. The soldier in this picture, named Federico Borrell García—an unprofessional militiaman in a civilian-looking uniform, with an old rifle and a home-crafted cartridge case—had been fooling around, feeling good, running down the slope, with Capa snapping playfully before him in exactly and amazingly the right place when real shooting came on suddenly. “I didn’t hear the firing, not at first,” Capa said.

So the militiaman was taken in the random, ruthless wantonness of death. It’s hard to think his death had meaning. The offensive would fail; the war, after great suffering, would be lost, and so many others would be killed in the middle of the last century that one wonders why Borrell’s death should matter especially. The answer is: only if everyone’s does, which we sort of know but need the artist, the photographer, to show us. The picture, a kind of asymmetrical, beautiful, blurry crucifixion caught by accident late in the afternoon on a wide and spacious hillside in Andalusia, would evince a feeling or a hope in the world, if only for that short time, autumn 1936, when the Spanish Republic and its ordinary citizens stood alone against a mercenary army and its German and Italian fascist patrons, that if enough people cared enough, as Robert Capa did, then death could be defeated.

—James E. Maraniss, professor of Spanish

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