Come September, the U.S. war on terror will be 20 years old. Many Americans enjoy the luxury of being detached from that fact, but for the hundreds of thousands of people who served in combat, or were maimed in combat, or lost loved one in combat, the war is inescapable. These are the subjects of Peter van Agtmael’s photography in his new book, “Sorry for the War.”
A former soldier disfigured by a roadside bomb standing shirtless alongside his teenage son. A young widow crouching to measure a headstone for her fallen husband. A father sitting at the foot of his 14-year-old daughter’s bed as she recuperates from injuries endured over months as a slave serving ISIS fighters.
Since January 2006, van Agtmael has traveled overseas on assignments to Iraq, Afghanistan and elsewhere, capturing images that reveal difficult but undeniable truths about America’s ongoing wars. His photography isn’t what readers typically anticipate when flipping through the pages of a newspaper or glossy magazine. The images are rarely framed or balanced. It’s the untidiness and grotesqueness of his work that sticks with you, like memories of a vivid nightmare.
The photographs are intermixed with still frames pulled from American movies, music videos and televised political events, each dripping with jingoism and faux patriotism. The juxtaposition is overt, and can even be funny at times. A picture taken in 2013 of a Marriott hotel’s breakfast display shows a platter of baked goods next to a small sign that says: “In remembrance of those we lost on 9/11 the hotel will provide complimentary coffee and mini muffins from 8:45 – 9:15am.”
Taken together, “Sorry for the War” conveys an absurdist’s gaze upon the wreckage of post 9/11-world. The book serves as a hallucinatory work of art on the most serious of subject matters, reminiscent of early Oliver Stone films. It is a follow-on to “Disco Night Sept 11,” which featured his work from 2006 to 2013. This book picks up where he left off, examining the newest chapters of the Global War on Terror, including the counter-ISIS battle in Iraq.
“For 15 years, I’ve been covering these wars and their rippling consequences,” van Agtmael says. “I started with a narrow idea and desire — to cover ‘the War in Iraq’ — but that opened up questions about empire, identity, history, militarism and nationalism, myth-making, politics, class, race and how I related and understood all these ideas. That has taken a long time to explore, and the story is so vast and so constantly in motion it can never really be over.”
Having worked with van Agtmael on assignments over the years at TIME, I’ve watched firsthand his patience and attention to detail in the field. His photographs, often capturing powerless people in the face of despair, are as awkward as they are powerful. “I want the pictures to reflect the unease with the act of photography itself. It’s strength and power but it’s also potential for manipulation and reductiveness,” he says. “I shy away from iconic imagery because it is so definitive, so open and shut, whereas the experiences I’ve had have been filled with uncertainty and ambivalence.”
While the wars may no longer be on front pages or nightly newscasts, van Agtmael shows the conflicts have reshaped the country’s culture in small and dramatic ways. For many, those changes are irreversible. Thousands of Americans, Iraqis and Afghans face down day-to-day challenges that endure long after the fighting ends.
Van Agtmael recognizes the impact of the war on his own life among the final pages of the book—the sole place words can be found—opening up about his personal struggles with mental health during the years he’s spent as a war photographer. “I think the integrity of the books is based on being honest with myself and about myself. The photographs may be factual, but if there’s any truth it’s my own,” he says. “I think part of being honest is being as vulnerable as possible about the cost of war on others but also on myself.”