Coming of Age in Combat: Peter van Agtmael’s Disco Night Sept 11

5 minute read

Text can only tell. Video blurs. To show war and its offspring clearly, you need to stare at photographs…ideally photographs that stare back at you.

That’s what Peter van Agtmael’s new book, Disco Night Sept 11 does. The incongruous title of this handsome volume of photography comes from a 2010 sign outside a banquet hall, just across the Hudson River from West Point. “Dress your retro best and boogie on down,” the venue urged. “Break out your bell-bottoms and polish your platforms!”

The sign sums up a nation’s bittersweet attitude toward the nation’s wars in Afghanistan and Iraq: too busy partying on the anniversary of a terror attack that killed nearly 3,000 to spend much time fretting over those sent off to fight.

The book is a photo diary of Agtmael’s coverage, for TIME and other publications, of the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq from 2006 to 2013, and their impact back home. It’s an intensely personal trip. Vivid pictures of wounded soldiers tumble across the pages like colored bits of glass inside a child’s kaleidoscope. But they’re tempered with photographs of young and eager recruits training for war at home, and the shards left behind when they return.

If you’re looking for bang-bang, this might not be your book. There are photographs of soldiers who later ended up KIA, and of Marines swimming in an Afghan canal while a member of the outfit next door is shredded by an IED. War, especially like those in Afghanistan and Iraq following the short initial “shock and awe” phase, is fleeting and random. It’s like relentlessly spinning a carnival wheel, and waiting for your number to turn up…and praying that it never does.

Literally snapshots in time, the pictures Agtmael makes highlight the courage and cost of war, along with the grace notes of absurdity and wonder that always accompany such bloody enterprises. He elaborates on 19 episodes with foldout pages that dig a little deeper. The $45 book, available now, is published by Red Hook Editions.

The photographs are small and intimate. None bleeds off the 276 8.5-by-10.5-inch pages. Most are on the right page, with Agtmael’s battlefield notes on the left. He knits the photographs together with tales about the photos, including what happened just before, and after, he pressed the shutter button. The captions go well beyond the norm. They include snippets of interviews with the subjects of the photographs, as well as Agtmael’s recollections and ruminations. It helps make the pictures stick.

The only photos spread across two pages are soldiers’ graffiti, rough-scratched reality-checked wishes to get home safely, or a crude sketch of a woman.

Agtmael was earning a degree in history at Yale on 9/11, and became a freelance photographer a year after his 2003 graduation. He’s now part of the Magnum Photos agency. “I was scared of war but also comfortable in it,” he says in the book’s opening passage. “I had felt it in me from the beginning of my consciousness. I didn’t know what form it would take, but I always knew I would go.”

This isn’t, strictly speaking, a chronological accounting of the two wars. It’s more like pixel-impressionism. Agtmael, and his camera, adjust their focus from war writ large, to combat up close, to those waging—and recovering from—it. It’s the post-adrenaline pictures that resonate most. The books weaves in and out of the lives of some of the troops Agtmael shared war with, including amputees and those who didn’t make it back.

Some of the most affecting images from the combat zones aren’t what you’d think of as “news” photos, but lingering photographs of the hours and days soldiers spend between moments of fear and valor (“The troops took turns riding the donkey”). He delights in the incongruity of America at war in the 21st Century: “The dining facilities offered dozens—sometimes hundreds—of food options. Crab legs, fried shrimp and steak were served every week at all but the most remote outposts.”

The wars’ echoes are the most poignant: veterans struggling to rejoin the civilians that so blithely sent them off to fight, families dealing with sudden loss, and society’s fumbling effort to embrace the returning troops. He highlights the gap between the 1% of Americans uniform and the other 99%. He witnesses an Ultimate Fighting Championship “Fight for the Troops” in Fayetteville. N.C., just outside Fort Bragg: “The bout raised money for a new research center on traumatic brain injury. The headline fight was decided by a knockout.”

Like the wars it covers, Agtmael’s book is unsettling. It doesn’t declare them won or lost—or even worth fighting. In that, it reflects the mindset of many of those who waged them. It’s even grimmer given the recent bad news from Iraq.

This isn’t a coffee table book, meant for flipping through while awaiting the other dinner guests to show up. Rather, it commands a reader’s attention, equal parts accounting ledger and scrapbook, distilling time and place into one man’s view of the fortitude and folly of war.

Peter van Agtmael is a member of Magnum Photos. In 2012, he was awarded the W. Eugene Smith Grant in Humanistic Photography. Disco Night Sept 11 is out now.

Mark Thompson is a Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist who has covered national security in Washington since 1979, and for TIME since 1994.

Scenes from medevacs, helicopters that pick up wounded soldiers in Iraq
A flight medic rests and watches TV while waiting for a mission in the medevac section of FOB Falcon. The medevacs are usually off the ground within ten minutes of an emergency call coming in. Their quick reaction time to injuries is a large part of the reason the 95% of American soldiers that make it to the hospital end up surviving their wounds.Peter van Agtmael—Magnum
A mannequin used in an Army combat lifesaving course. The military constantly improves the realism of its medical training to ensure more instinctual reactions in combat. The mannequin pumps fake blood which only stops when enough pressure is applied from a tourniquet. Realistic training has also changed the act of fighting. In World War II, an estimated 25 percent of soldiers fired their weapons at the enemy. The remainder felt an insurmountable resistance toward killing. More vivid and true-to-combat training has now brought the number close to 90 percent. Fort Jackson, South Carolina, USA. 2011Peter van Agtmael—Magnum
Graffiti written by soldiers on the walls of bathroom stalls. Kuwait, Ali Al Salem. 2006Peter van Agtmael—Magnum
A Marine after a firefight with the Taliban. Mian Poshteh, Helmand. Afghanistan. 2009Peter van Agtmael—Magnum
A Marine with a village elder from Mian Poshteh, a rural village in southern Helmand Province. Mian Poshteh, Helmand, Afghanistan. 2009Peter van Agtmael—Magnum
Marines on patrol minutes before an IED was triggered. Although the patrol had cautiously swept the road with metal detectors, they’d failed to find the device. Many of the improvised bombs in Afghanistan contained no metal. They were made of ammonium nitrate and fuel oil, both impossible to detect. Sometimes insurgents would bury screws and other small piece of metal to confuse and exhaust the advancing Marines, while masking the true location of the bombs. Mian Poshteh, Helmand, Afghanistan. 2009Peter van Agtmael—Magnum
A soldier surveys the damage after shooting a target with a sawed-off shotgun. Frequent trips to the range helped battle boredom as the Iraq war wound down. Baghdad, Iraq. 2010Peter van Agtmael—Magnum
Marines swim in an irrigation canal at their outpost in Helmand Province. South of Garmsir, Helmand. Afghanistan. 2009Peter van Agtmael—Magnum
I was sleeping in a nearby Army base when the echo of an explosion from Mosul startled me awake. I walked over to the motor pool as a column of Stryker armored vehicles rolled in. A few men hurried past me, their faces tightly drawn. I joined the next patrol heading into town and was told there had been a suicide bombing. Nine people had been killed and twenty-three wounded in a crowded café during the breakfast hour. The Strykers stopped down the street from the blast site, and we walked to the gaping hole in the block of buildings. The soldiers had stopped by the Abu-Ali restaurant many times for sugary tea or a chat with the friendly owner. Now bits of flesh and scorched food, splinters of furniture and crockery choked the floor. The streets were empty except for a few curious bystanders. The patrol moved to the hospital to check on the victims. Ali, the owner, lay on one of the beds. Only his nose and lips were visible beneath the bandages, and they were caked in dried blood. He did not survive the day. Mosul, Iraq. 2006Peter van Agtmael—Magnum
Sergeant Jeff Reffner, minutes after being wounded in an explosion. He had been on a convoy sweeping for IEDs when his commander ordered the driver to speed up. They were moving too fast to see the bomb on the road. When he recovered consciousness moments after the blast, Reffner tried to lift his leg and it just “folded in half.” He spent several years at Walter Reed Hospital and has had thirty-one surgeries on the leg. Although he is in good spirits and able to walk, doctors have told him that he may suffer from chronic pain for the rest of his life. He has no regrets, saying, “I’d rather me get hurt than one of my friends.” Baghdad, Iraq. 2006Peter van Agtmael—Magnum
A soldier waking up after an unsuccessful search for an insurgent leader in a village in eastern Afghanistan. Nangalam, Kunar. Afghanistan. 2007Peter van Agtmael—Magnum
Soldiers from the 1st Cavalry Division arrive home from Iraq. Fort Hood, Texas. 2011Peter van Agtmael—Magnum
Raymond Hubbard at home in Darien, Wisconsin. He was injured in Baghdad on July 4, 2006, when a Russian-made 122mm rocket crashed twenty feet from the guard post where he was stationed. Shrapnel tore into his body. One fragment entered below his left knee, severing the leg. Another cartwheeled through his neck, cutting through the carotid artery. He was still conscious as he hit the ground. He remembers staring in confusion at the horrified faces of his comrades gathering above him. A medic arrived on the scene moments after the blast. He plunged his hands into Raymond’s neck and clamped the artery hard to stop the hemorrhage. His intervention saved Raymond’s life, but he had already lost fourteen pints of blood, and suffered a massive stroke. He was evacuated to Landstuhl, a huge American military hospital in Germany. Darien, Wisconsin. USA. 2007Peter van Agtmael—Magnum
A soldier visits Section 60, the burial site of the dead from Iraq and Afghanistan at Arlington National Cemetery. Arlington, Virgina. USA. 2010Peter van Agtmael—Magnum
Rosie Ricketts wakes up her son Aiden before the viewing of her husband Seth, killed in Afghanistan the previous week. Glen, Mississippi. USA. 2010Peter van Agtmael—Magnum
The funeral for Sergeant Seth Ricketts, a week after he was killed in Afghanistan. Ricketts died in an ambush on February 27, 2010, in Badghis. Corinth, Mississippi. USA. 2010Peter van Agtmael—Magnum
Specialist Scott Jones at Fort Drum in upstate New York, a month after returning from Afghanistan. Watertown, New York. USA. 2007Peter van Agtmael—Magnum
A memorial next to the light rail station in Lafayette, California, marks the American dead from Iraq and Afghanistan. A cross represents each casualty. At the time this picture was taken in April of 2011, more than six thousand American soldiers had been killed in the wars. Lafayette. California. USA. 2011Peter van Agtmael—Magnum
A sign outside Arbor Ridge Catering and Banquet Hall advertising a 1970s-style Disco Night. An ad for the event promised: "Dress your retro best and boogie on down!" Break out your bell-bottoms and polish your platforms!" There will be prizes for Best Dressed and Best Dancer." Hopewell Junction, New York. 2010Peter van Agtmael—Magnum
Simone Ferrara before her brother Matthew’s funeral. Lieutenant Matthew Ferrera was killed by insurgents while commanding a platoon in the remote Waigul Valley on the Af-Pak border. Torrance, California. USA. 2007Peter van Agtmael—Magnum
An Afghan security guard in his quarters at the Ranch House in Nuristan. Waigul Valley, Nuristan. Afghanistan. 2007Peter van Agtmael—Magnum
A young Marine at FOB Delhi. One of his friends asked if I wanted to see a picture he’d drawn. It was of an angry pig with a giant, engorged phallus, dressed like a Marine, holding a machine gun. A dream bubble coming out of the pig’s head showed a reclining naked female pig. Garmsir, Helmand. Afghanistan. 2009.Peter van Agtmael—Magnum
A gardener of a small health clinic. American Marines were visiting to check if medical supplies were needed. The Captain and a doctor had a conversation about okra. The Marine praised the Afghan way of preparing the vegetable in a stew with tomatoes and caramelized onions. He told the doctor that at home in South Carolina he just deep-fried it. Garmsir, Helmand. Afghanistan. 2009Peter van Agtmael—Magnum
The wary inhabitants of this isolated village in Nineveh had never seen an American patrol, and asked what country they were from. They had heard of America, and served sugary tea to the soldiers but otherwise kept their distance. The troops took turns riding the donkey and posed for pictures holding lambs. In the Bible, Nineveh is described as a wicked city. God sent the prophet Jonah to preach there, and its inhabitants repented. God decided to spare the city. Nineveh, Iraq. 2006Peter van Agtmael—Magnum

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