Actor, writer, filmmaker, photographer and Marine, Benjamin Busch seems to have a hand in just about everything, yet one common theme seems to carry throughout his work: War.
“I was drawn to conflict,” said Busch. “I was drawn to confront that side of me, it was an urge I had since I was very little.”
While serving two tours in Iraq, which amounted to 14 months of living and working in harsh conditions on the front lines, Busch was able to turn that difficult reality into a work of art. Using his studio art degree from Vassar College, Busch took his photography to a new level in Iraq.
“I took about one or two images a day,” said Busch. “It wasn’t like I was running around taking pictures, I had a job to do.”
Busch served as an infantry officer in the United States Marine Corps, working to help rebuild Iraqi communities. A job he and his troops conducted with minimal training.
“The whole invasion was on-the-job training,” said Busch. “We knew how to attack things, we’re very good at that. But occupation is not what we do, and we were actually held there because they had so few troops, they needed the Marine Corps to stay.”
At times, Busch felt under-prepared for his duties.
“We didn’t receive any kind of training for post-hostilities,” said Busch. “No Arabic lessons, no cultural sensitivity. We had about four or five rules: don’t look at the women, don’t shake with the wrong hand, hello and thank you in Arabic, and the rest we figured was going to be fighting, and then leaving.”
Yet even in these less than desirable conditions, Busch still experienced many successes. “I formed town councils, I formed security forces,” said Busch. “It was interesting to try to recreate, essentially from scratch, an entire civic government, hand picking people.”
Busch also tried his best to improve the role of women in Iraq. “I wanted women to be part of the new Iraq in a way which was formally recognized and not punishable,” said Busch. “But I was very cautious in including them. What I did is on the council I placed women in the back and they remained quiet, but I gave them eyes into the men’s world.”
Yet, upon leaving Iraq, Busch still felt as if his job was not finished. “I felt tremendously responsible for that area when they pulled us out,” said Busch. “As much as I wasn’t interested in staying, I knew that the right thing to do would be to stay, probably for years, in that awful section of eastern Iraq.”
After serving overseas Busch has continued to pursue his acting career. Playing roles in television shows The Wire and Generation Kill. The latter has a plot line directly related to the Iraq war, following a reporter embedded with the U.S. Marine Corps.
“It was an interesting thing to be a part of because I’d only been back from Iraq on my second tour for two years and I ended up in Africa recreating the Iraq war invasion,” said Busch, of working on Generation Kill. “So that was interesting, kind of revisiting that world just two years after I’d been there, while the conflict was still going on.”
However, some of his best acting, Busch believes, is something he will never be able to put on a resume.
“I probably can consider the Marine Corps some very good acting too. I think all senior enlisted marines and officers have to be good actors,” said Busch. “In Iraq I probably did my best work, because I was so frustrated, so furious most of the time, because we had ridiculous orders, we had to do absurd things. The conditions were abysmal; the support was terrible; there was no plan. We were just stuck there; we couldn’t escape. So for me to not be airing that all the time was acting with great restraint.”
Compared to past wars, Busch believes that veterans of the Iraq war have had much more freedom to express themselves, to speak about their experiences. It is clear, through the variety of Busch’s work, that he has taken advantage of this freedom.
“There’s kind of a fascination with getting all of us to talk. The arts have embraced many of the Iraq-Afghanistan veterans immediately,” said Busch. “There’s more memoirs now about those two conflicts than there probably are about WWII and Korea and Vietnam combined, and we’re not even out of it yet, if you can ever get out of this kind of thing.”