"We were supposed to go into Iraq, hold elections, turn over the keys, and get out," says photographer Michael Kamber, editor of the new book, Photojournalists on War: The Untold Stories from Iraq (University of Texas Press). "That's not how it works, and we need to think about that next time we get involved in a military adventure."
Lots of marvelous things were supposed to happen in Iraq. Shock and awe would quickly cripple the resistance. Iraqi citizens would welcome American troops as liberators. Weapons of mass destruction would be found. It would all be over by 2003. Mission accomplished.
The 39 photographers featured in Photojournalists on War have a different story to tell. In one shot, the burned bodies of slaughtered American contractors hang from a bridge over the Euphrates. In an image that conveys how violence became integrated into the daily lives of Iraqi children, a boy hopscotches over corpses exhumed from a mass gravesite. Some of the book's 160 photographs have been widely distributed already, their impact indelibly marked in the American mind. Others are being published for the first time.
"The first rule of war is chaos," Kamber told Reason TV. "The first rule of war is you make a plan, and it goes right out the window."
A harrowing work of anti-mythology, the images in Photojournalists on War look nothing like the understated, bloodless snapshots provided by daily newspapers. As the war deteriorated, American and British forces started requiring prior written consent from the military to capture images of wounded soldiers, and they placed an outright ban on photographing dead soldiers. These rules, which were strictly enforced, furthered the hawkish narrative of a remote conflict punctuated by "surgical strikes" and the inevitable march to victory.
It is almost impossible to read Kamber's new book without reflecting on how many of its images were captured by photographers who were later killed, severely injured, or taken captive during the conflict. Kamber, who photographed the war over an eight-year period, is one of the survivors.
While Photojournalists on War mostly features the work of establishment professionals working for major publications, enterprising and unaffiliated individuals have captured some of the most powerful images of America's armed conflicts. In 2006, photojournalist Louie Palu quit his job and traveled to Afghanistan at his own risk and on his own dime. He had never covered a war before. Working without an editor's support and the constraints that come with it, he was able to take pictures with total artistic freedom.
Palu's gamble paid off. His images are unconventionally stunning. It's no surprise that his portrait series of Marines and panoramic black-and-white landscapes reveal an Afghan war that looks very different from anything in the mainstream press. His photographs reveal a physical texture to the war-scorched land, weathered human skin, mud brick huts, soft grapes.
Both Palu and Kamber say that broken promises, neglect, and official censorship have led to a public that remains poorly informed about war's devastating effects on civilians. "There are these important moments when the dialogue needs to be had," says Palu. "Where it's such an integral part of our understanding of what's gone wrong, we need to publish these photos."
It's often said that the truth is always the first casualty of war. The images of Kamber and Palu help correct the record.
Todd Krainin is a producer at Reason TV. To see a video version of this story, go to reason.com or view it above.