Peter van Agtmael, Sorry for the War

JTF (just the facts): Published in 2020 by Mass Books (here). Hardcover, 9.75×7.5 inches, 200 pages, with 79 color reproductions. Essay and thumbnail captions by the artist in English and Arabic. Designed by Bonnie Briant Design. (Cover and spread shots below.)

Comments/Context: When President Biden recently announced his plan to bring home the last remaining troops from the war in Afghanistan by the fall of 2021, the fact that the conflict initiated by the September 11th attacks had stretched to fill twenty years was momentarily surprising – had it really been that long? Starting with the hunt for Osama bin Laden, and morphing into a wider war on terror which included regime change in Iraq and ongoing battles won and lost with both the Taliban and ISIS in various countries, the effort long ago eclipsed the length of America’s engagement in Vietnam, becoming the longest war ever fought by the United States. Two decades is a long time to be at war (spanning the terms of four separate Presidents), and both the war itself – including its venues, goals, outcomes, and consequences – and America as a nation continued to evolve and change during those years.

Peter van Agtmael has spent the better part of those same two decades photographically tracking this war, both as an embedded photojournalist on the ground and as an artist observing America at home. His new photobook Sorry for the War follows up two excellent photobooks – Disco Night Sept 11, from 2014 (reviewed here), and Buzzing at the Sill, from 2017 (reviewed here) – which tried to take stock of the conflict, and its broader personal and societal impacts, at various points along the way. That he is still exploring the nuances of this same subject says something about both his tenacity as an artist and the ever shifting range of realities and dissonances that the war has presented.

Sorry for the War is looser and more diffuse than van Agtmael’s previous projects, following several lines of thinking simultaneously and encouraging the overlaps and resonances between the subjects to intermingle. His pictures have never been rooted in immediate battlefield events, but as the years have passed, the exaggerations, amplifications, and distortions of how the war is translated back to America have increasingly captured his attention. Van Agtmael as always had an eye for the unexpected strangeness and irony of war hiding in plain sight, and that perspective now has him looking further afield, often at the downstream attitudes, behaviors, policies, and power structures that have permeated our way of life along the way.

As a body of work, Sorry for the War is more media saturated than van Agtmael’s previous books. While the war in Afghanistan has always been seen through the lens of television, van Agtmael has dug into that TV-as-entertainment world more deeply here, particularly with images shot directly (or sourced) from broadcasts. Like beads on a string, van Agtmael ties together footage of Bush’s 2003 “Mission Accomplished” speech, Obama’s 2011 sober troop withdrawal from Iraq, and a puffy flight jacketed Trump making pronouncements about winning. These are then interleaved with ISIS propaganda videos of burning captives alive, anti-terrorism commercials featuring suicide bombers, Toby Keith’s “American Soldier” music video, the Air Force Academy acapella group performing on America’s Got Talent, and a number of movie clips from Hollywood dramatizations of various events (including one with machine guns piled in a baby car seat). These images come together in a flood, their recurring presence overwhelming our ability to process their individual contradictions.

Van Agtmael then goes further down the rabbit hole of the manufactured patriotism surrounding the war effort, where appreciation for the service of our troops (and simultaneous attempts to inspire recruitment) are transformed into more polarizing displays. Again and again, van Agtmael finds the surreal underside of these staged events, from the Fleet Week marine with a black eye to the F-16 flying over a homeless encampment. The showmanship gets turned up a notch at the black tie Armed Services Ball during the Trump inauguration (complete with a multi-tiered cake reportedly copied from one made for Obama) and the NFL’s Salute to Service festivities, decorated with flags and skyrocketing flames. And van Agtmael then finds the edges of this reality, by shooting guns at the Battlefield Vegas attraction and noticing the camouflage colors of high heels at the Ms. Veteran America pageant.

How we remember and memorialize war is a larger theme for van Agtmael, who visits the Imperial War Museum in London and the Checkpoint Charlie museum in Berlin to think more deeply about who writes the history and how the truths get passed down. What he finds are displays of bombed cars and warped beams from the Twin Towers (in London), a giant flag being unfurled on the USS Intrepid, and a smiley face knit into the wiring above the USS Alabama. More disturbing perhaps were the opportunities to pose in front of an image of the burning towers at the 9/11 Memorial and the free muffins available at the Marriott timed to coincide with the moment when the first plane hit.

Another theme that repeats throughout Sorry for the War is the plight of refugees, both those indirectly involved in the conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan, and those migrating or fleeing from other horrors around the world. Van Agtmael documents them riding on busses, waiting behind barriers, sneaking through fields, and surging across borders, the mix of fear, exhaustion, and desperation visible on their faces. He balances these pictures with the surreal extravagance experienced by a refugee shopping in an Illinois grocery store, and the small moment of safety and joy felt by a refugee boy having a night in a clean hotel room, creating a rhythm of imagery that pulses through the book.

Van Agtmael knits all of these themes together with a parade of on the ground photographs of the war zone that gives the everyday traumas found there a more intimate feel. His images of bullet-ridden walls, desecrated churches, burned school rooms, and rubble piles that were once university buildings tell a story of deliberate destruction, as applied to places outside the usual theater of war. Other pictures find an edge of dark humor, from “Gimme Some Head Bin Laden’s Dead” scrawled on a dirty window to sunglassed Kurdish soldiers posing in holes blown through walls. Pictures of a checkpoint guard holding a puppy, a Christmas tree at the drone base, and children chasing the puff of smoke from an airstrike give these moments a strange sense of softness, but grim realities are never far from view – van Agtmael mixes in images of disfigured soldiers, a bloody operating room, bodies covered after the Paris terrorist attacks, a skeleton hung from a post, and a woman measuring a tombstone to prevent us from ever forgetting the severity of the situation.

Seen together, Sorry for the War has more of gathered feel than any of van Agtmael’s other photobooks, as if the photographer is still very much processing his own understanding of two decades of covering the war. In some ways, the pictures feel infused with emptiness and exhaustion, like van Agtmael has seen this all before too many times to count, and yet, he seems to still be wrestling with trying to find the connections between all the disconnected threads in the complex narrative. Since the story of the war in Afghanistan still isn’t over, the conclusions presented here feel provisional – newer threads of nationalism, the refugee crisis, and the ongoing repositioning of history that van Agtmael has identified have just gotten started, while others will inevitably find an ending. Sorry for the War brings us up to the present and actively and thoughtfully engages with some of the now apparent consequences of the war, but there is still at least one more chapter to write. Whether van Agtmael will hold on to see the war to some kind of conclusion (if one is possible) remains to be seen.

Collector’s POV: Peter van Agtmael is represented by Magnum Photos (here), where he became a full member in 2013. His work has not yet found its way to the secondary markets with any regularity, so gallery retail remains the best option for those collectors interested in following up.

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One comment

  1. Pete /

    Interesting book.
    A ‘war of terror’ routinely described as a ‘war on terror’.

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