I always thought that if I were to make a war story about these conflicts, it would be about a unit that goes on patrol. Their vehicle gets blown to pieces by an improvised explosive hidden in the road, burning to death several soldiers and taking the limbs off of others, who barely survive. The rest of the unit searches desperately for something to shoot. They fail and return to base, where they go to the dining hall and decide which of the ten varieties of pie they’d like to eat.Van Agtmael, Peter. Sorry for the War. Mass Books, MA. Unpaged, in the discussion of an image titled “Atlanta, Georgia. USA. 2016.”
If I wasn’t fairly sure of Peter Van Agtmael‘s view of the various wars and interventions in Iraq and Afghanistan after his excellent Disco Night Sept 11, the quote above, from Sorry for the War, makes it absolutely clear.
Van Agtmael’s Sorry for the War was the Charcoal Book of the Month for February 2021. I felt frustrated by it on the first (and subsequent) viewings and still don’t know why reasonably seasoned, professional photographers allow publishers to print photographs across the gutter through an entire book. This sort of presentation chops out the middle 1/5th of each image and makes viewing the book an exercise in repeated deferring of satisfaction. Van Agtmael was nice enough to only defer satisfaction—at the end of the book, each image is presented in full, albeit at roughly 35mm frame size, with Van Agtmael’s notes underneath—but still.
Somehow, Jörg Colberg managed to find some close-to-flat spreads, and, on my third viewing, I too was able to get a few nearly-complete pictures together, though most continue to miss a central stripe. It bothers me somewhat less now that I’ve figured it out: the full bleed-across the gutter images come in clumps, and are photographs of television screens, featuring the various US Presidents that oversaw the wars, Toby Keith, screen grabs from recruitment films from both sides, and from American and Afghani and Iraqi popular television.
In between these clumps, the across-the-gutter spreads still predominate, but they’re often easier to open fully without destroying the binding, and there are also single images and pairs of images. None of these appear full bleed, and all are photographs out in the world: individual and group portraits, landscapes and vignettes, the things Van Agtmael photographed directly, rather than things he saw on TV.
Together, and once again, Van Agtmael presents the schizophrenia that is our collective war effort. I haven’t seen Buzzing at the Sill (his third book), but Sorry for the War fits together with Disco Night Sept 11 to form a rather unified examination of the United States at war: 0.01% of us, engaged in various activities around the war effort, while the rest of us carry on doing whatever we do, the war and its consequences barely a blip.
Highly Recommended, and despite the across-the-gutter shenanigans, which actually do add something, even if only frustration.
Sorry for the War remains available new direct from Mass Books, Van Agtmael’s imprint with Ben Brody (photographer and author of Attention Servicemember), and some of the work is available on his website. It’s all well worth a look.
And for a bit of color, Magnum has a conversation between Van Agtmael and Tanya Habjouqa, who work together at the Arab Documentary Photography Program. Van Agtmael speaks somewhat more clearly, if academically, about the work, than I have above (than I did in the many paragraphs I deleted: some of my language got quite callous), though he more or less says the same thing.
Looking at Van Agtmael’s first book, Disco Night Sept 11, and most recent (as of 2021), Sorry for the War, over the same couple of day period has left me wound up, disgusted, a little bit angry. And what will I do about it? Not much.
I’ll schedule this blog post to publish, say my sunset prayer, eat some dinner, stare blankly at some television, maybe eat a bit of ice cream, and go to bed peacefully in this big, well insulated, largely quiet and safe home. To say that I’m privileged is an understatement, and I fear Allah’s questions about this luxury on the last day.
It strikes me now that I’m privileged in another way: I actually know (sorta) some refugees and veterans of the recent wars. I pray next to them on the rare occasions I go to the mosque. I’ve eaten at some of their homes; some have eaten at mine. Muslims are not strangers to or other than me. I’m doubly privileged in this regard, even if I don’t always recognize it.
If you watch the video for a bit, you’ll notice a change in format. I spent much of March 2021 redoing my unboxing video format, and this one was one of the early attempts. New unboxing videos in the old format will continue through June 2021, and other early attempts will go live throughout July, with the newer (still unfinished, but close) format going constant in August. Apologies to all who have long asked for a different format for all the years. (That said, they are “unboxing” videos, not publisher previews… I think I’ve found a reasonable solution, though it still needs work.)
If you have any suggestions for improvement, please reach out here or on YouTube. I respond to most helpful comments and emails that don’t look like spam, and appreciate advice.