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A Poignant Reminder of the Incalculable Cost of War

A Poignant Reminder of the Incalculable Cost of War

Magnum Photos member Peter van Agtmael offers a deeply disconcerting look at the dissonance between violence, spectacle, and perception in his latest book, Sorry for the War.
The border had closed at midnight after Hungarian officials hastily erected a barbed-wire fence, blocking thousands of Syrian, Iraqi, and Afghan refugees from entering. The refugees camped out, protested, and hoped the border would reopen. Hungarian police 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 refugees pivoted towards Croatia, as the country announced they would facilitate passage through. There were clashes the next day on the Hungarian border, as Hungarian riot police teargassed dozens of migrants who rushed the fence. Horgos. Serbia. 2015. © Peter van Agtmael / Magnum Photos

This year, the United States will mourn the twentieth anniversary of the September 11 attacks, a historic event that precipitated U.S.-led invasions of Iraq and Afghanistan, both of which barely register in the American public’s consciousness. No longer the cause célèbre driven by a desire to destroy Osama Bin Laden and Saddam Hussein, few may be aware that a May 21 deadline for complete U.S. military withdrawal from Afghanistan will symbolically mark the end of the nation’s longest war. All but discarded as yesterday’s news, these wars have become an afterthought to the American mind, their consequences on foreign and domestic policy largely ignored. 

Yet their impact continues to resonate and inform the world in ways in a myriad of ways deeply and inextricably intertwined, a hallucinatory labyrinth of events and implications Magnum Photos member Peter van Agtmael seeks to explore in his latest book, Sorry for the War (Mass Books). “Sorry for the War is dedicated to the anonymous lives caught in the middle of America’s wars. Twenty years later, we hardly know a face or a name,” van Agtmael writes in the acknowledgments, a poignant reminder of the incalculable cost of war. 

A checkpoint at the entrance of an Assyrian militia base on the front line with ISIS. Baqofa. Iraq. 2015. © Peter van Agtmael / Magnum Photos 
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 university was one of the largest and most important educational and research institutions in the Middle East. During ISIS’s reign, it is estimated that 8,000 books and over 100,000 manuscripts in the library were destroyed. Mosul. Iraq. 2017. © Peter van Agtmael / Magnum Photos

Since 2006, van Agtmael has documented America at war at home and abroad, creating a hallucinatory picture of a nation willfully giving itself over to the numbing powers of cognitive dissonance. In Sorry for the War, van Agtmael takes us inside the belly of the beast, drawing damning parallels between the horrors of war and the fetid bliss of ignorance. Combing documentary photographs with images of mainstream media, van Agtmael explores the vertigo-inducing disconnect between reality and spectacle through a series of surreal images accompanied by annotated captions that provide at times deeply disconcerting context. 

“A picture is a very slender document, maybe 1/250 of a second of a narrow frame of something in a time when so much was happening all around it,” van Agtmael says. “As insightful and probing as it is, it’s as much about what’s not there as it is about what’s there. Words are important in the work I do to somehow describe all the things you can’t see in the photograph.” 

Military appreciation day at the Houston Rodeo. The rodeo is a mix of tradition and aggressive capitalism, where the cattle auction is ringed with hundreds of vendors selling mattresses, vibrating massage chairs, shrimp-on-a-stick covered in Fruity Pebbles sugar cereal, camel rides (“Ships of the Desert”), and endless rows of cowboy gear. Houston, Texas. USA. 2019. © Peter van Agtmael / Magnum Photos
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 Manhattan and Brooklyn showcase military hardware to an adoring public. New York, New York. USA. 2013. © Peter van Agtmael / Magnum Photos

The Message and the Messenger

Sorry for the War is more than a portrait of conflict, it is a long, lingering look at a crime scene replete with the attendant emotions of shock, denial, rage, sadness, and black humor. There’s not so much acceptance as there is numbing despair that one will never be able to fully reckon with the 15 years of war, destruction, dislocation, militarism, terrorism, nationalism or the propaganda that engulfs us like a cloud of poisonous gas. Van Agtmael includes numerous photographs made of television broadcasts as well as behind-the-scenes shots on Hollywood film sets, making it abundantly clear that in the twenty-first century, ideological battles are paramount. 

The Senate Armed Services Committee, tasked with legislative oversight of the military, is one of the most powerful entities in government. According to a study released by the Watson Institute for International and Public Affairs at Brown University, the wars since 9/11 have cost approximately $5.9 trillion, caused 480,000 deaths, and created more than 10.1 million refugees. Funding for Iraq, Afghanistan, and 76 other global counter-terrorism missions comes from deficit spending and borrowing, not new taxes. According to Neta Crawford, a political science professor at the institute, “The U.S. continues to fund the wars by borrowing, so this is a conservative estimate of the consequences of funding the war as if on a credit card, in which we are only paying interest even as we continue to spend.” The interest alone could be trillions of dollars. Washington, DC. USA. 2018. © Peter van Agtmael / Magnum Photos
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 Photos

In one photograph, van Agtmael shows white girls standing in front of a large image of the World Trade Center ablaze on view at the 9/11 Museum in New York. They appear too young to have been alive when the attack occurred, reminding us that secondhand knowledge is only as good as the source itself. It’s an important point, one that reverberates throughout van Agtmael’s book. We who bear witness must not accept the message without also considering the motives of the messenger.

“I started thinking of where I come from and what I represent created complicated feelings of having the ambition to see this vision through and receive recognition,” van Agtmael says, acknowledging the role he plays as a conflict photographer. “That’s where the conventional aspects of working for the New York Times and bring a Magnum photographer, all those things are very status quo markers of legitimacy and power [comes into play]. Obviously, I sought them out. I crave these opportunities to tell a story but I’m also wary of the power I have in that.”

The ruins of Mosul University in East Mosul as the battle continues to rage on the west side of the Tigris River. Before ISIS-occupied Mosul, the university was one of the largest and most important educational and research institutions in the Middle East. During ISIS’s reign, it is estimated that 8,000 books and over 100,000 manuscripts in the library were destroyed. Mosul. Iraq. 2017. © Peter van Agtmael / Magnum Photos

By Miss Rosen

Miss Rosen is a New York-based writer focusing on art, photography, and culture. Her work has been published in books, magazines, and websites including Time, Vogue, Artsy, Aperture, Dazed, and Vice, among others.

Sorry for the War
Mass Books

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