Leaving scarred earth: War has ravaged once-beautiful cities such as Beirut and Dubrovnik, and left its mark on the deserts of the Middle East like seaside patterns in the sand. Some of the most powerful photographs of war come from its aftermath

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OUT OF THE aircraft window I saw the long white line of the coast meet the sea. A few hundred yards from the sands the ground was relentlessly black. Miles of charred earth spread all the way to the muddy waters of the Mekong delta, then, beyond Saigon, I saw puffs of smoke. The plane was empty except for a Buddhist priest and a hostesss in a slit skirt serving cocktails. It was the summer of 1972.

From the plane the landscape of the war was a margin of blue, a strip of white, a mass of black turning to an edge of mud-brown until we reached the green of the Cambodian jungle. With such aerial abstractions, punctuated only by the smoke or a passing cloud, came a contradiction of obscene dimensions. From the air, with no enemy on one's tail and no fire from below, the devastation of war possessed an aesthetic. Perverse beauty marked my only distant experience of war and contradicted my imagination, which had been stained by pictures of the wounded in the mud, or of a burning child, or of the moment of execution.

It was frequently argued that the Vietnam War was lost because the photographs demonstrated that the war was morally untenable. The argument was no doubt acknowledged by those who kept photographers away from the Falklands and the Gulf. Over Vietnam that day, the detachment of flight permitted a glorious view of the pyrotechnics and the abstraction of death - an abstraction that drove the pilot of the Enola Gay, that day over Hiroshima in August 1945, to madness and to his grave.

Long before the truth was known, allied aerial surveillance over Eastern Europe during the Second World War observed what was thought to be the construction of industrial sites: long, rectilinear buildings laid out parallel to the railway tracks. Later examination of the snowbound photographs show a thin line stretching from the tracks to the adjacent buildings and another single line passing into a factory shed. No other line emerges. A black line on a background of grey is all that marks the tragedy. The line records the event of the Holocaust from which our collective imagination reels. Some photographers on the ground later abandoned their cameras rather than compose pictures amid the evidence. From the air, it has an aesthetic not too remote from, say, a reproduction of an Anselm Kiefer painting. Photography, a medium once championed as a vehicle of objective truth, provides both terrible and deceptive evidence.

THE WITNESS to war carries an unparalleled responsibility. First there is the urgency of the report, the filing of the facts. Then comes the establishment of a language in which to describe events. Some events defy description. During the testing of the atomic bomb at Los Alamos, New Mexico, J Robert Oppenheimer could only quote from the Bhagavad Gita in his inability to express the bomb's awesome destructive power - the vocabulary was found in mythic symbolism. Until the First World War, photographers, encumbered with the sheer weight of their equipment and the slowness of the process, recorded the aftermath, not battle itself.

During the Crimean War, while the Times correspondent William Russell sent back harrowing descriptions to his readers, the official photographer, Roger Fenton, photographed only a barren landsape scattered with cannon balls. But from the symbolic language of the empty valley, and the title - 'The Valley of the Shadow of Death' - Fenton conjured hell.

With the invention of the compact camera, the photographer entered the battle. Robert Capa photographed the falling soldier at the moment he was hit on the Cordoba Front in Spain in 1936. The camera was as fast as the instant of death. Photography became dependent on proximity, as Eugene Smith and Don McCullin were later to demonstrate so heroically. In the midst of battle, when faces and bodies were transfixed by pain, adrenalin and fear, a few single images transcended the form of the picture story to become icons. In Vietnam in 1968, at Hue during the Tet offensive, McCullin photographed a marine being carried from the fire in the form of a deposition from the Cross. Symbols pervaded the picture.

A handful of indelible images from Vietnam have inspired photographers to believe they could affect the course of history and the search has driven them closer to the action. That proximity to the front may be possible no longer. The aftermath, like Fenton's deserted valley, may be all one will see. The evidence will move from action to abstraction.

IN 1991, the French photographer Sophie Ristelhueber photographed the Kuwait desert in the aftermath of the Gulf war. Her pictures, published in a tiny book about the size of a paperback novel, have gigantic resonance. The aerial photographs, in colour and black and white, are combined with scaleless ground views of debris. Armies moving across that terrain leave wonderful patterns in the sand. Itis not that the lines, spirals and geometry of tanks and gun batteries divorce us from the horrors that their machinery inflicts, or that they simply satisfy abstract aesthetics, but that the view from the sky, gliding over the war zone, dropping a bomb down a chimney in Bagdhad, is the cumulative view of the war. Ever since Vietnam, control of the image has been the first requirement in a successful campaign strategy. Wars are won through international and domestic opinion as well as by armies on the field. Exclusion of the photographer on the ground is the logical conclusion. The photographer is left with the residual evidence: fragments, melted metal and blasted terrain.

Ten years earlier - two months after the massacre in the Palestinian refugee camps of Sabra and Shatila, in the summer of 1982 - Ristelhueber worked among the ruins of Beirut, and her first modest book, Beirut, was produced in France in 1984 (in Britain by Thames & Hudson) in the same small format. Terrifying accounts and photographs from the city at the time were published in books by Selim Nassib, Caroline Tisdall, Chris Steele-Perkins and Don McCullin; images of madness and murder abounded. But the subject of Ristelhueber's book was the fabric of the city, not the flesh. A broken statue on the cover was the only human form.

It opened optimistically with a quote from Lucretius: 'The earth buckles and recovers, and having toppled regains its balance.' Within the ruins of the city lay the seed of its eventual reconstruction. In the twisted iron and the battered concrete was a disconcerting beauty. The Sports Stadium, the Holiday Inn and the Souks were shattered like the vestiges of ancient culture. The book ends on an image of the classical ruins of Baalbek, summoning a long historical view.

Ristelhueber was working outside the conventions of photo-journalism and the demands for immediacy. Her perspective was based on distance, and her vision of this fragmented city demands the viewers' imagination. The fragility of its structures and the absence of its inhabitants suggests the impossibility of human survival.

Her work in Beirut has been succeeded by a recent project aiming to convey 'the fractioned reality of the place'. Six photographers, including such legendary figures as Robert Frank and Josef Koudelka, together with the Lebanese photographer Fouad Elkhoury, have photographed the rubble of the city. There is a common subject but the methods vary. Rene Burri photographs in colour, weeds sprout in greens against pock-marked yellow walls and the red of rust melts into gorgeous purples, blues oranges and Mediterranean turquoise of the smashed interiors. Koudelka uses a panoramic camera and the photographs create a calligraphy of twisted metal.

Frank collages his photographs together - soft, blurred and dreamy; a figure in an empty street, a hand across the frame, two coffee cups on a table, and a written note, like a postcard from Frank himself which speaks of the 'Memory of destruction . . . War is over . . A foot is resting on a pile of rocks . . A hand plays an old game with stones'.

Frank's work is sad, beautiful and elegaic. Just as Kerouac described him, he is a poet. He suffers no constrictions from the narratives of photo-journalism. He is evocative. The knowledge that the inhabitants survived the destruction of Beirut and drank coffee amid the rubble is evidence of the spirit. Those who conceived the book may have been optimistic that the city would be a monument to that spirit. The project was developed after the Berlin Wall was down and a new era had supposedly been born. But now the geography of destruction has shifted. Dubrovnik is in ruins. We live with the shelling of Sarajevo.

RUINS form a motif at the heart of 19th-century Romanticism, echoing the aesthetics of classical ideals, but in our time the symbols have changed. The Japanese architect, Arata Isozaki, described how, at the age of 14, he saw the cities of Japan ablaze. Ruins, not Utopia, was the inspiration for his architecture. His generation of creative figures entered their adult lives in Japan, nurtured of images of destruction. Czeslaw Milosz, in an astonishing Harvard lecture on Ruins and Poetry in 1983, spoke of the correspondence between the distruction of the city, citing Warsaw, and the disintegration of language itself in Polish literature by 1945. Our speech, music, even our architecture are shaped in a relentless stream of images of destruction.

From the Gulf war, Werner Herzog produced the film Lessons of Darkness broadcast on British television last year. The film glided over Kuwait. The music from the soundtrack served as a requiem. The destruction, seen from above, was inconceivable and also sublime. On the ground, Herzog displayed the household appliances which had been used as implements of torture, the image was all the more terrible because of their domestic function. The victims of the torture were so traumatised they could no longer speak. There was no vocabulary capable of description. Adjectives were redundant. Moments of silence were emphasised by the epic religiosity of the soundtrack, which lifted the film back to a language of sacrifice and sacrament.

Despite television, video replay and the map in the studio, few pictures exist of bodies or even blood in the sand of the Gulf war. Ristelhueber's photographs range from the aerial, abstracted view, down to the details of the debris on the ground. As at Hiroshima or Nagasaki, or even in the wake of a natural catastrophe like Pompeii, details of daily life are elevated to symbols of human loss. A pair of boots in the desert become a monumental image beside the pattern of tracks across the sand.

'Aftermath' by Sophie Ristelhueber is published by Thames & Hudson and an exhibition of her Kuwait photographs is at the Imperial War Museum, Lambeth Road, SE1, from 11 March to 25 April. 'Beirut, City Centre', is published by Editions du Cypres, Paris, available through Zwemmer's, 80 Charing Cross Road, WC2.

(Photographs omitted)