Boxer Rebellion

It’s rare that heartwarming stories come out of the war zone in Afghanistan. But serendipity, and a quick-reacting AP photographer named David Guttenfelder, provided one—via a now-iconic photo of a soldier, Specialist Zachary Boyd, fighting the Taliban…in flip-flops and a pair of cotton-candy-pink, “I ♥ NY” boxer shorts.

The New York Times’s new visual-journalism blog, The Lens, tells the story of the genesis of the widely circulated photo, which graced the print paper’s front page—and the Web site’s home page—on May 12. Specialist Boyd “had rushed from his sleeping quarters” to join the fight against Taliban forces, the blog notes, and so “was wearing nothing more under his armor than a red T-shirt and pink boxer shorts emblazoned ‘I Love NY.’” And Guttenfelder was there to capture the moment.

Mr. Guttenfelder, 40, is based in Tokyo and has worked for The Associated Press since 1994. He was among the A.P. photographers covering the 2008 earthquake in China who were finalists this year for the Pulitzer Prize in breaking news photography. At first, he didn’t know just how much comment his “pink boxers” shot had elicited stateside.

In an e-mail message to Michele McNally, an assistant manager editor of The Times, Mr. Guttenfelder said it is “very hard to gauge the impact of the photos while I’m out here in the bush.”

Well, that impact was large. The photo quickly caused a sensation—largely because, as the best in war photography does, it so poignantly humanizes a conflict that most people (most Americans, anyway) know only through abstractions. “Your first reaction is: ‘What? What’s going on?,’” the Times’s assistant managing editor, Michele McNally, told The Lens. “Because you are smiling—and then you realize its meaning. War never stops, look how intense it could get. You understand then that he is fighting out of uniform, in underwear which reads ‘I Love NY,’ in the midst of really rough terrain in a remote region so very far from home. And New York.”

The image has become so widespread, in fact, that, last night, the Defense Secretary commented on it. In a speech he delivered at New York City’s Intrepid Museum to commemorate Fleet Week, Secretary Gates gave a special shout-out to Specialist Boyd and his very special undergarments:

“Sometimes the public recognition isn’t always expected – or necessarily welcomed. Specialist Zachary Boyd recently was enjoying a well-deserved sleep when his post in eastern Afghanistan came under enemy attack. He immediately grabbed his rifle and rushed into a defensive position clad in his helmet, body armor, and pink boxer shorts that said ‘I Love New York.’

“Unfortunately – or fortunately, depending on your perspective – an AP photographer was there for a candid shot, a photo which ran shortly thereafter on the front page of the New York Times. Boyd later told his parents that: ‘I may not have a job anymore after the president has seen me out of uniform.’

“Well, let me tell you, the next time I visit Afghanistan I want to meet Specialist Boyd and shake his hand. Any soldier who goes into battle against the Taliban in pink boxers and flip-flops has a special kind of courage. And I can only wonder about the impact on the Taliban. Just imagine seeing that – a guy in pink boxers and flip-flops has you in his crosshairs – what an incredible innovation in psychological warfare. I can assure you that Specialist Boyd’s job is very safe indeed.”

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Megan Garber is an assistant editor at the Nieman Journalism Lab at Harvard University. She was formerly a CJR staff writer.