New top story from Time: A Photographer’s Unflinching Gaze on The War on Terror’s Consequences

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.

Ali, a Syrian refugee who arrived that evening in Vienna after weeks on the refugee trail. It was a difficult journey for his parents, Sawsan and Mohammed, and his siblings Sedra and Ibrahim. The journey from Tur- key necessitated the hardships of a dangerous sea voyage, nights spent sleeping on the ground, and sporad- ic food and water as Western Europe adapted to deal with the magnitude of the crisis. Mohammed had owned a successful bakery in Syria, and the children were used to a comfortable middle-class existence. They’d always slept in a bed and used an indoor bathroom, and the spartan condi- tions and lack of sanitary facilities confused and upset them. The family was ecstatic when they could stay in a hotel again upon reaching Vienna. The next day they continued their journey to a new life in Sweden. Vienna. Austria. 2015.
Peter van Agtmael—Magnum PhotosAli, a Syrian refugee who arrived that evening in Vienna with his family after weeks on the refugee trail. The next day they continued their journey to a new life in Sweden. Vienna, 2015.
Sean Hannity, notorious conserva- tive commentator and confidant of Trump, with the owner of Carmela’s, an Italian restaurant Hannity used to frequent as a teenager. Hannity is one of the most popular and controver- sial TV hosts in the country. He has supported waterboarding and other forms of torture, equated the Qur’an with Mein Kampf, warned of sharia law coming to the United States, de- nied climate change as “phony sci- ence from the left,†claimed we won the Iraq War despite “the Democrats’ efforts and attempts at preventing vic- tory,†advocated that Trump “bomb the hell out of Iran,†and promoted conspiracy theories about Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama. In our photo shoot, he asked what kind of work I did, and I mentioned Palestine and Israel. He asked if I knew “Bibi†(the nickname of Benjamin Netanya- hu, the prime minister of Israel). I said no. He asked what I thought about Bibi’s policies. I said I didn’t agree with them and that it was way past due for good faith negotiations to establish a Palestinian state. He looked at me with amusement and pity and said, “Did you know the Pal- estinian Authority gives money to the families of dead terrorists? That’s state-sponsored terrorism. You don’t negotiate with terrorists.†Perplexed by what that point had to do with the conversation at hand, I tried to have a more analytical discussion of the history and conditions of violence in the region, but he stopped engaging. Franklin Square, New York.USA. 2017.
Peter van Agtmael—Magnum PhotosSean Hannity, conservative commentator, with the owner of Carmela’s, an Italian restaurant. Hannity is one of the most popular and controversial TV hosts in the country. He has supported waterboarding and other forms of torture, equated the Qur’an with Mein Kampf, and promoted conspiracy theories about Hillary Clinton, Barack Obama and the 2020 election. New York City, 2017.
The border had closed at midnight af- ter Hungarian officials hastily erected a barbed-wire fence, blocking thou- sands of Syrian, Iraqi, and Afghan refugees from entering. The refugees camped out, protested, and hoped the border would reopen. Hungarian po- lice lined the fence and beamed their flashlights at the cameras of photog- raphers attempting to document the scene. It quickly became clear that the crossing was unlikely to reopen and the next morning most of the ref- ugees pivoted towards Croatia, as the country announced they would facil- itate passage through. There were clashes the next day on the Hungar- ian border, as Hungarian riot police teargassed dozens of migrants who rushed the fence.Horgos. Serbia. 2015.
Peter van Agtmael—Magnum PhotosThe border had closed at midnight after Hungarian officials hastily erected a barbed-wire fence, blocking thousands of Syrian, Iraqi and Afghan refugees from entering. Horgos, Serbia, 2015.

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.

Mahmoud al-Haj Ali shops at Cer- mak in Aurora, Illinois. Al-Haj Ali and his family are part of a very small number of Syrian refugees ad- mitted to the United States during the Obama administration. Though the U.S. has played one of the most prominent roles in destabilizing the Middle East, the political or socie- tal desire to take responsibility for refugees has been negligible. Since 2011, there have been almost 5 mil- lion Syrian refugees globally, but during Obama’s presidency, the Unit- ed States accepted fewer than 19,000 of them. After Trump’s election, these numbers dipped dramatically, and in 2018, only 62 Syrians were admitted. Of the millions of refugees from Af- ghanistan, only 16,503 have been tak- en into the U.S. The figures from Iraq are somewhat better, with 143,729 entering since 2003, but under Trump, the number of Iraqi refugees fell, too, dwindling to just 91 in 2018. By con- trast, after the fall of South Vietnam, approximately 1.3 million Vietnam- ese, Laotians, and Cambodians were resettled in the United States. Aurora, Illinois. USA. 2015.
Peter van Agtmael—Magnum PhotosMahmoud al-Haj Ali shops at Cermak in Aurora, Illinois. Al-Haj Ali and his family are part of a very small number of Syrian refugees admitted to the United States during the Obama administration. Though the U.S. has played a prominent role in destabilizing the Middle East, the political or societal desire to take responsibility for refugees has been negligible. Since 2011, there have been almost 5 million Syrian refugees globally, but during Obama’s presidency, the U.S. accepted fewer than 19,000 of them. After Trump’s election, these numbers dipped dramatically, and in 2018, only 62 Syrians were admitted. Aurora, Illinois, 2015.
The Armed Services Ball at the Na- tional Building Museum on the eve- ning of Donald Trump’s inauguration. Washington, DC. USA. 2017.
Peter van Agtmael—Magnum Photos for TIMEThe Armed Services Ball at the National Building Museum on the eve of Donald Trump’s inauguration. Washington, D.C., 2017.
President George W. Bush announc- es “Mission Accomplished†regard- ing the war in Iraq on the aircraft carrier U.S.S. Abraham Lincoln on May 1, 2003. The vast majority of casualties and violence occurred af- ter the speech.
Peter van Agtmael—Magnum PhotosPresident George W. Bush announces “Mission Accomplished” regarding the war in Iraq on the aircraft carrier U.S.S. Abraham Lincoln on May 1, 2003. The vast majority of casualties and violence occurred after the speech.

“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.”

A battered Marine instructs children on the use of a .50 caliber machine gun during Fleet Week, an annual celebration of the Navy and Marines in New York City. Ships and displays in heavily trafficked areas of Man- hattan and Brooklyn showcase mil- itary hardware to an adoring public. New York, New York. USA. 2013.
Peter van Agtmael—Magnum PhotosA Marine instructs children on the use of a .50 caliber machine gun during Fleet Week, an annual celebration of the Navy and Marines in New York City. Ships and displays in heavily trafficked areas of Manhattan and Brooklyn showcase military hardware to an adoring public. New York City, 2013.
A former Iraqi general volunteers to help a group of Assyrian Christian militia members being trained by the Sons of Liberty International, an organization dedicated to “rais- ing a Christian army to fight†ISIS. As ISIS rampaged through northern Iraq, Iraqi Christians were particu- larly at risk, and many fled and were killed as ISIS desecrated their an- cient towns.Duhok. Iraq. 2015.
Peter van Agtmael—Magnum PhotosA former Iraqi general volunteers to help a group of Assyrian Christian militia members being trained by the Sons of Liberty International, an organization dedicated to “raising a Christian army to fight” ISIS. As ISIS rampaged through northern Iraq, Iraqi Christians were particularly at risk, and many fled and were killed as ISIS desecrated their ancient towns. Duhok, Iraq, 2015.

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.”

The Idomeni refugee camp on the Greece-Macedonia border. In 2015 and early 2016, the EU allowed in more than a million refugees, mostly from Syria, Iraq, and Afghanistan, and then brokered a deal with Turkey to stem the flow across the Aegean Sea. Those who decided to leave their war-torn countries too late found themselves with few options, and many refugees got stuck in Idomeni, as Macedonia sealed its border with a barbed-wire fence.Idomeni. Greece. 2016.
Peter van Agtmael—Magnum PhotosChildren in the Idomeni refugee camp on the Greece-Macedonia border after Macedonia sealed its border. Idomeni. Greece, 2016.
Bobby Henline and his son. Henline served four tours in Iraq, and over 40% of his body was burned when his Humvee was hit by an IED. He was the only survivor of the five-person crew. His son is the spitting image of Bobby at his age. This photo is based on a picture made by Bobby that he posted on Instagram. It’s challenging to photograph some- one with disfiguring injuries in a way that is both revealing and respect- ful. Bobby gets his share of gawking stares, yet he’s eager to share his story. Basing the image off an image he had endorsed seemed like a good solution. But did I need to use the flash? His images often seek to min- imize the disfigurement, while the flash fills in every detail and crevice. San Antonio, Texas. USA. 2014.
Peter van Agtmael—Magnum PhotosBobby Henline and his son. Henline served four tours in Iraq, and over 40% of his body was burned when his Humvee was hit by an IED. He was the only survivor of the five-person crew. His son is the spitting image of Bobby at his age. San Antonio, Texas, 2014.
A rehabilitation facility for civilians and soldiers injured in Mosul. It was an idyllic escape from the battle rag- ing a few dozen miles away. Decimat- ed men, women, and children, many of them missing limbs, sat around a garden of perfectly manicured rose- bushes. One soldier lying on a bed was just a torso, his legs and arms both amputated above the joints. He chain-smoked cigarettes, and when I offered him one he grasped it in his bandage-swaddled stumps, puffing it a few times before lying back on the sweat-soaked gurney. Sometimes children visiting other patients would hide in corridors and stare at him, or move a bit closer before running off. After photographing the soldier I went to the children’s ward, where an Italian nurse was giving physi- cal rehabilitation to a nine-year-old amputee. As she stretched the girl’s limbs, her screams stabbed through the hospital.Erbil. Iraq. 2017.
Peter van Agtmael—Magnum PhotosA rehabilitation facility for civilians and soldiers injured in Mosul as the battle raged a few dozen miles away. I went to the children’s ward, where an Italian nurse was giving physical rehabilitation to a nine-year-old amputee. As she stretched the girl’s limbs, her screams stabbed through the hospital. Erbil, Iraq, 2017.
President Obama announces the withdrawal of American troops from Iraq in 2011. Within three years much of northern and western Iraq would be taken over by ISIS.
Peter van Agtmael—Magnum PhotosPresident Obama announces the withdrawal of American troops from Iraq in 2011. Within three years much of northern and western Iraq would be taken over by ISIS.
President Donald Trump on his first visit to Iraq.
Peter van Agtmael—Magnum PhotosPresident Donald Trump on his first visit to Iraq in 2018.
Administrators survey the ruins of Mosul University in East Mosul as the battle continues to rage on the west side of the Tigris River. They grudgingly evacuated as a mortar barrage crept closer. Despite the nearby danger, hundreds of student and faculty volunteers rallied to clean and restore the damaged buildings. Before ISIS occupied Mosul, the uni- versity was one of the largest and most important educational and research institutions in the Middle East. During ISIS’s reign, it is esti- mated that 8,000 books and over 100,000 manuscripts in the library were destroyed.Mosul. Iraq. 2017.
Peter van Agtmael—Magnum PhotosAdministrators survey the ruins of Mosul University as the battle continues to rage on the west side of the Tigris River. Despite the nearby danger, hundreds of student and faculty volunteers rallied to clean and restore the damaged buildings. Before ISIS occupied Mosul, the university was one of the largest and most important educational and research institutions in the Middle East. Mosul, Iraq, 2017.
A portrait of a young Yazidi girl in a town recently liberated from ISIS. Bashiqa. Iraq. 2017.
Peter van Agtmael—Magnum PhotosA portrait of a young Yazidi girl in a town recently liberated from ISIS. Bashiqa, Iraq, 2017.
Refugees crash through police lines in Tovarnik, Croatia, during the height of the refugee crisis. They had arrived en masse during the pre- vious days when Hungary shut its borders. The Croatian authorities, unsure how to deal with the sud- den influx, kept them penned up in a train station in the sweltering late summer heat. Lacking food and wa- ter, the refugees protested, ultimately pushing through police lines. The Croatian authorities set up another cordon, but eventually relented and arranged for a fleet of buses to carry them to Zagreb so they could contin- ue their journey to Western Europe. Some Croatian police seemed indif- ferent to the refugees’ desperation, but others mentioned being refugees themselves as children during the Balkan wars of the early ’90s and extended acts of kindness when they could. The refugees were exhausted and many annoyed with the constant media presence. As the police lines imploded, I was admonished in En- glish several times that the media should stop portraying them as a de- fenseless, dehumanized horde. Owing to decades of anti-Islam propagan- da, many townspeople on the border seemed to regard the refugees with deep suspicion.Tovarnik. Croatia. 2015.
Peter van Agtmael—Magnum PhotosRefugees crash through police lines in Tovarnik, Croatia, during the height of the refugee crisis. Tovarnik, Croatia, 2015.
On the set of the film The Outpost, based on the Battle of Kamdesh in Eastern Afghanistan. Eight Ameri- can soldiers died in the battle, and it’s estimated that hundreds of in- surgents were killed. Two American soldiers won the Medal of Honor, the nation’s highest award for valor. In the aftermath, the military tried to maintain a heroic narrative, de- scribing the battle as a small platoon of American soldiers fighting back against overwhelming odds. How- ever, in many ways, the battle was a prime example of strategic incompe- tence. The outpost, COP Keating, was poorly placed in Nuristan, one of the most remote and isolated parts of Af- ghanistan. The base was surrounded on all sides by tall mountains from which to fire down into it, and the terrain made the mission of disrupt- ing weapons and supplies coming to local insurgents from Pakistan near- ly impossible. Additionally, the base was so undermanned that it was difficult to patrol and defend at the same time, and the local Nuristanis were unlikely to be helpful; they speak a language unlike the other main languages of Afghanistan and are traditionally hostile to outsiders.I was briefly at the base not long after it was established. I flew in on a medevac helicopter to pick up a sol- dier who had been shot in the arm, his brachial artery severed by the bul- let. The helicopter spiraled quickly into the landing zone, knowing it was an easy target. A few soldiers man- ning the outpost rushed the casualty to the helicopter, as others scanned the mountains through the scopes of their rifles. We were out of there mo- ments later, the helicopter weaving through the mountains at full speed to escape the badly exposed position. I’d seen some poorly placed outposts before, but Keating was the most shocking in its vulnerability.Sofia. Bulgaria. 2018.
Peter van Agtmael—Magnum PhotosOn the set of the film The Outpost, based on the Battle of Kamdesh in eastern Afghanistan. Eight American soldiers died in the battle, and it’s estimated that hundreds of insurgents were killed. Sofia, Bulgaria, 2018.

 

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