Jennie Taylor measures a potential gravestone for her husband Brent on Sept. 17, the day before her first wedding anniversary without him. Brent was an Army National Guard officer who was killed while serving in Afghanistan. North Ogden, Utah, 2019.
Peter van Agtmael—Magnum Photos for TIME
March 22, 2021 3:48 PM EDT

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 a 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 with his family after weeks on the refugee trail. The next day they continued their journey to a new life in Sweden. Vienna, 2015.
Peter van Agtmael—Magnum Photos
Sean 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.
Peter van Agtmael—Magnum Photos
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. Horgos, Serbia, 2015.
Peter van Agtmael—Magnum Photos

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 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.
Peter van Agtmael—Magnum Photos
The Armed Services Ball at the National Building Museum on the eve of Donald Trump’s inauguration. Washington, D.C., 2017.
Peter van Agtmael—Magnum Photos for TIME
President 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.
Peter van Agtmael—Magnum Photos

“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 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.
Peter van Agtmael—Magnum Photos
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 “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.
Peter van Agtmael—Magnum Photos

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.”

Children in the Idomeni refugee camp on the Greece-Macedonia border after Macedonia sealed its border. Idomeni. Greece, 2016.
Peter van Agtmael—Magnum Photos
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. San Antonio, Texas, 2014.
Peter van Agtmael—Magnum Photos
A 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.
Peter van Agtmael—Magnum Photos
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 Photos
Adnan Thanon Younis, 53, was blinded by an exploding shell in Mosul and permanently lost his vision. It is estimated that 9,000–11,000 Iraqi civilians were killed in the battle of Mosul. Erbil, Iraq, 2017.
Peter van Agtmael—Magnum Photos
A display at the 9/11 Museum in New York. The museum walks a difficult line, trying to make a “neutral accounting” out of one of the most politicized events in history. New York City, 2014.
Peter van Agtmael—Magnum Photos
President Donald Trump on his first visit to Iraq in 2018.
Peter van Agtmael—Magnum Photos
Administrators 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.
Peter van Agtmael—Magnum Photos
A portrait of a young Yazidi girl in a town recently liberated from ISIS. Bashiqa, Iraq, 2017.
Peter van Agtmael—Magnum Photos
Refugees crash through police lines in Tovarnik, Croatia, during the height of the refugee crisis. Tovarnik, Croatia, 2015.
Peter van Agtmael—Magnum Photos
On 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.
Peter van Agtmael—Magnum Photos

 

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Write to W.J. Hennigan at william.hennigan@time.com.

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