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The War Game That Came in From the Cold

Hector Rene embeds with the U.S. Army to photograph Anakonda-16, a massive, ten-day military exercise in Poland.

Hector Rene

This month, more than 30,000 soldiers from over 20 countries, including the United States, converged in Poland for Anakonda-16, a massive, ten-day military exercise, and the largest of its kind since the end of the Cold War. To some, the display of force and combat readiness, staged on Russia’s doorsteps at a time of escalating international tension, was yet another worrisome example of creeping Soviet-era recidivism. In the weeks leading up to Anakonda, NATO deployed 4,000 permanent troops to the Baltic states and Poland—which will also host the NATO summit in July—a move Russia countered with further militarization along its own western border.

Hector Rene appreciates the contrast of high-stakes geopolitics with the essential tedium of war. “I can’t speak on behalf of all soldiers,” said Rene, who embedded with the Army to photograph Anakonda. “But most of the ones I’ve met are just there to do a job.” An Iraq War veteran, and a graduate in photography from the School of the Visual Arts, which he attended on the G.I. Bill, Rene avoids the sensationalized pop-culture tropes of war narratives, preferring instead to search out everyday experiences common to all soldiers.

During Anakonda, Rene served as the official photographer for the Army, and had to operate within “certain tight parameters” to convey a “specific perspective.” But there remains a space, he explains “between what the Army wants me to photograph and what I myself find interesting.”

This week, Hector Rene will take over the New Republic’s Instagram with scenes from Anakonda-16, as he joined ground troops, followed tanks, rode in helicopters ferrying the “wounded,” and discovered moments of quiet in the controlled chaos of a fictional war.