For as long as photographer Peter Van Agtmael can remember, he has been fascinated by war. While he was in fifth grade, the first Gulf War started. He followed it obsessively. When it ended just weeks later, he was secretly disappointed — he had hoped to go.
Ten years later, Van Agtmael was sleeping in his dorm room at Yale when the first plane hit the World Trade Center. In the coming weeks, he traveled to Ground Zero and photographed the aftermath for his college newspaper. When he graduated a few years later, America was in the thick of wars in Afghanistan and Iraq; Van Agtmael decided that he had to document the “wars of [his] generation.”
He spent three years preparing himself for the task, documenting conflict and dangerous situations around the world for various photo agencies. In 2006, he applied and was accepted to be embedded with the Army in Iraq.
Since that first tour, Van Agtmael has returned countless times to both Iraq and Afghanistan, where he has forged friendships, witnessed tragedy, and been woken up to the rude, brutal reality of American wars.
Van Agtmael has collected his work, covering the war abroad and soldiers’ homecoming, in the book “Disco Night Sept. 11.” He has shared a selection with us here, but you can check out the rest in the book, which can be purchased he
Van Agtmael says that when he first decided to go to Iraq, he believed in photography's transformative power on public opinion. 'That's a compelling narrative when you are young,' says Van Agtmael. Unlike previous wars, the only way to document the war was to be embedded with the military. This photo was taken just minutes before an IED was triggered.
Van Agtmael began his first tour documenting the army at 24, the same age as many of the soldiers. A friend of this young Marine at FOB Delhi asked Van Agtmael if he wanted to see a picture that he'd drawn. It was of an angry pig with a giant penis dressed as a Marine, holding a machine gun.
Van Agtmael says Iraq and Afghanistan were similar wars. 'When you step into the American military reality, it is pretty unchanging. The uniforms change, the equipment changes, the tactics change, but the feeling is the same,' he says. Here, a Blackhawk helicopter lands at a small American outpost in eastern Afghanistan.
Van Agtmael says that the main difference between the two wars was that soldiers in Iraq stayed on mega-bases of 10-40,000 men, while in Afghanistan, soldiers were usually stationed at outposts of 10-150 men.
While most photos of war are of fighting, the majority of time is spent waiting around. This helicopter medic waits for a call from a radio channel dedicated to casualty reports. His girlfriend gave him the teddy bear.
Van Agtmael was fascinated by the fighting when he first arrived, but he quickly became more interested in the quiet moments of war, like an American patrol that visited an isolated village outside of Mosul. The villagers were not even sure a war was going on. The soldiers took turns riding the donkeys.
The war was often full of monotony. Soldiers frequented the gun range to stave off boredom. Here, a soldier surveys the damage after shooting a target with a sawed-off shotgun.
Moments of leisure are prized. Marines swim in an irrigation canal at their outpost in Helmand Province, Afghanistan. The same day, a patrol from another base was hit by an IED.
Danger was one constant. As troops walked down this road in Helmand Province, soldiers spotted passerby eyeing them suspiciously. Moments later, an IED exploded. Luckily, no one was killed or badly hurt.
In Iraq, the army drove through cities during 'presence patrols,' which Van Agtmael says soldiers called 'waiting to get blown up.' Raids for insurgents were also common. Unfortunately, most raids, like the one pictured here, were unsuccessful.
American soldiers stormed this house after seeing two young men eyeing them and fidgeting. Though nothing was found in the house, the soldiers detained the boys after explosive residue was found on their hands. Explosives tests are notoriously unreliable.
Shortly after he arrived, Van Agtmael witnessed the aftermath of this suicide bombing at a cafe that soldiers frequented in Mosul. Nine people died and 23 were wounded.
One of the biggest struggles in the war was getting spooked locals to help the U.S. army. Here, a soldier wakes up after an unsuccessful search for an insurgent leader in an Afghan village. The lieutenant yelled at the village elders for not aiding the search. They told him they would help if the Americans could provide security, but they hadn't seen an American patrol in months.
'War encapsulates the whole range of human experience. That's what is so seductive about it. It makes you feel alive,' says Van Agtmael. Here, a Marine rests after a firefight with the Taliban in Helmand, one of the most dangerous provinces of Afghanistan.
A soldier is treated after being shot in the chest during an ambush. Another soldier was killed during the same ambush. In the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, army medics and doctors saved an unprecedented 90% of wounded soldiers.
Specialist James Worster (left) and Sergeant Brandon Benjamin take a cigarette break while in the Baghdad ER. Two months after this photo was taken, Worster died of an overdose of a sedative, propofol. Drug abuse was widespread in the hospital unit.
The military is constantly improving the realism of its training courses. This mannequin, used in a lifesaving course, pumps fake blood that only stops when you apply enough pressure from a tourniquet.
This is a combat life-saving course. Soldiers mimic serious injuries while recruits attempt to bandage them and get them out of the kill zone.
Upon returning home, Van Agtmael realised that the war doesn't end when you get off the plane. He soon resolved to follow the 'long tail' of the war -- what happens when soldiers return to civilian life.
Here, families catch their first glimpse of loved ones returning home from Iraq in 2011. These soldiers, from the 1st Cavalry unit, were some of the last to return from the war.
Lieutenant Erik Malmstrom looks at photos of three fallen soldiers from his brigade. His brigade lost more men than any single unit in Afghanistan. 'To have a hope of succeeding (in Afghanistan) you have to be part warrior, part anthropologist, part diplomat, part development worker,' Malmstrom told Van Agtmael.
Many didn't make it home. This is the funeral for Sergeant Seth Ricketts in 2010. Ricketts was killed in a remote area of western Afghanistan that had been mostly peaceful. It was his fifth tour of duty.
Seth's wife Rosie wakes up her son Aiden before her husband's viewing. He had been killed in Afghanistan the previous week.
Ricketts was buried near his hometown at the Corinth National Cemetery. After his coffin was lowered in the ground, a small crew shoveled dirt over the grave, pounding it with a mechanical dirt-packer.
This is Ricketts' grave. His 3-year-old son Aiden poses like a ninja while his grandmother takes photos.
Many soldiers had difficulty coping with what they experienced. On the night before a memorial service for Army Private Andrew Small, members of his platoon got wasted at the hotel bar. A brutal fight between two of the soldiers ensued and they had to be forced into bed.
This is Specialist Scott Jones of New York, a month after returning from Afghanistan. His unit was going through a tough transition home -- several had been arrested for drunk driving and another was committed to a psychiatric hospital after beating a civilian.
Raymond Hubbard was shredded with shrapnel in Baghdad in July, 2006. After being hit, Hubbard was in a coma for a month. He recalls a recurring hallucination of a old man with long white hair whose left leg was replaced by a wagon wheel.
Hubbard plays with his kids, Riley and Brady, in 2007. Both sons got straight A's on their first report card after Hubbard returned. They didn't want him to worry about their schoolwork.
This is outside Hubbard's room in Mologne House, an outpatient ward at Walter Reed Hospital. The ward was like a comfortable motel, furnished with flat-screen TVs and Apple computers. The soldiers gathered every night on the breezeway to get drunk and swap war stories.
Hubbard at a medical appointment to determine the benefits he would receive for his injuries in 2008.
Van Agtmael took this photo after a night of drinking with Raymond Hubbard and his friend Alvin. In 2008, Hubbard was granted 100% disability for the rest of his life. Four years later, Social Security revoked his benefits after it declared he could function adequately without a leg.
Van Agtmael saw this sign in 2010. He was struck that, just 9 years after 9/11, it could be written on a sign with no thought to what was behind the date. He thought it was a fitting name for the book.
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