The Truth About War

Photojournalists capture the brutal consequences of when America attacks


Photojournalists on War

"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.

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  1. Everyone thinks war is bloodless and pleasent. So say the voices in this guys head.

    1. Maybe he was only writing it for the benefit of our ruling elite, who do seem to think that.

    2. I think what happened is that he personally was shocked to discover that war is not what he thought it was and imagines that everyone is as naive as he was.

      1. Or maybe he is just trying to sell his book.

    3. Wow, I am so happy someone will be able to show me what I really went through!

      I sure don’t know how he is going to give me the sounds of someone who has had a leg off from a mine or the smell of an Afghan village on a hot and muggy day…

      1. Heh heh. Yeah, the smell. That is always missing from the movies and photos.

        1. Shitters and diesel fuel.

          1. I would have gladly traded the funk of a village full of sheep offal, human turds, rotting garbage and unwashed people for Eau d’ portacrappeur un JP8.

            The only thing that ever came close was post-Katrina New Orleans.


            1. Oiy! I feel for you then. I do remember a time riding 46s with Tunisian paratroopers who smelled like dead dog (and puke, since the badasses had never been in a helo apparently), but don’t think that is worse than what you describe.

              1. Next up on Powerful Smells….its

                “Panjshir Valley village in August”


                “Foul Tunisian paratroopers in close quarters”

                1. The smells are incredible but also the all encompassing sound of a firefight. You can feel it in your chest and be looking at someone feet away and hear only snippets of what you think they are saying. After a respectable engagement my ears rang for a day afterwards.

                  I’ll call your Tunisian paratroopers and raise you a Samarran meat market on a August afternoon.

      2. It’s possible the book isn’t for veterans, who are a small group and presumably don’t need it anyway.

        1. You’re right, of course. This book, I’m sure, is trying to reach a much wider audience. Memoirs and diaries of veterans, interviews, books that focus on small units, and pictorial histories are going to be very valuable to people looking back on this 10-20-30 years from now. Otherwise, the sources for future historians will be focused on policy makers and generals and not much else. I can’t imagine many of my fellow veterans would be keeping this around for a coffee table book.

          In the shorter term, I think people who somehow develop passionate, hawkish opinions based on the evening news might do well to consider images such as these when they mull over proposed military operations rather than talking tough about “going in there and taking these guys out!” What are we trying to achieve? And why? And are these objectives realistically attainable? Is it worth it?

          1. Totally agree, but like in economics, you still have to see what is unseen in war – what would happen if we don’t go to war – would things truly be better if we did not go to war?

            1. I’m not a pacifist. Personally, I’d just rather see people thinking a little more critically. If after some reasonable deliberation this is the best course of action, then so be it–use military force. I was encouraged recently by the “hold your horses” backlash from proposals to launch operations in Syria.

              As far as Iraq and Afghanistan, we’ll have to wait and see. I’m not optimistic about the long term results of nation-building efforts there. It was a mess before, it is a mess now, and it will be a mess 20 years from now.

              1. You mean “nation-building” in the United States image. That’s what most of this is about. In addition to coveting someone’s oil or whatever, we try to reshape them so they will enjoy being screwed more.

                1. I mean what I wrote.

                  1. What you wrote is not clear.

          2. Great point on the history of the recent wars being lost. There are clear laws and regulations concerning the archiving of daily journals, AAR’s and other records. It has gotten scarce notice (yet) that a huge percentage of the records of the wars since 9/11 are lost forever since there was no mechanism to capture electronic records. Even those records that were forwarded on hard copy are very very frequently lost since the mechanisms to save them were given scant attention. It is a sad state of affairs when in 50 years we will have better contemporaneous records of the American Civil War than the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq.

  2. How truly advanced is our civilization when we still believe that the only way to settle our differences is by killing one another?

    1st Cav

    1. There will always be some people who need killin’

    2. I told my son the same thing less than a week ago

      “Civilized people do not solve their problems with their fists.”

      1. The problem is uncivilized people do

          1. + one 11B

    3. Not very much “advanced” at all. However, don’t forget that in addition to all of our weaponry, we also have air conditioning, forced air heat, smart phones, and best of all, the bidet.

  3. Photos of the dead at Antietam shocked the North. But the war still went on for two and half more bloody years. Maybe we need an Amendment that requires every Congress critter who votes for war (or the President if he doesn’t ask Congress) to lead a combat patrol.
    “Yo, Private King, take the point.”

    1. I could get behind that in a big way.

    2. Did you ever read All Quiet on the Western Front? At one point, the soldiers are behind the line recuperating, and they have a pleasant discussion of how much more civilized the world would be if the kings and presidents beat each other with clubs to resolve disputes, instead of sending millions of peasants to die.

      1. Kings used to lead their soldiers into battle (or were at least at the scene), and I’m not sure it made much of a difference. Sparta exemplified this ideal, and they were essentially a slave empire. At least that attribute of their society made it hard for them to go abroad for very long. Leading the army personally didn’t stop Alexander, Octavian, William, Henry V, &c. from making trouble in foreign lands.

        All this leads me to believe that war is a human problem and won’t be overcome; the best we can do is try for the least bad.

        1. If anything it’s worse – Kings who lead their own troops often make war just because they like to – like Alexander.

          Octavian, by the way, was not much for leading troops (just some historical nit-picking). He did it symbolically to show that he would and could, but he disliked it, was really bad at it, and his soldiers didn’t really like him. He was 100% politician.

          1. Fair enough. I started with Gaius Julius but it’s hard to say how much of a head of state he was when he was a soldier.

        2. Not to mention in the days when the officer corps was made up of aristocrats that didn’t stop war…

  4. Sad kitty warning

    In the summer of 2012, an image of a cat, apparently wounded by shrapnel, dragging its hind legs, went viral. Hundreds of people commented on the picture in blogs and on Facebook, saddened, outraged, demanding that something be done to help the creature. Days later, the messages were still coming. The photographers ? a group of young people in Syria ? managed to locate the cat again and have it treated in a field hospital, publishing a photo as proof. Later they posted another photo of an FSA rebel with a gun in one hand, petting the now-healed cat.

    1. Seems common today – stories of an abused animal gets much more attention and cash than some kid blown apart in some far off war.

      First world problems come to Syria, I guess.

      1. ^This times a billion

  5. “Shock and awe would quickly cripple the resistance. Iraqi citizens would welcome American troops as liberators.”

    To a large extend this did happen…

    At first…

    Everyone ignores the fact that there were essentially 2 different Iraq wars. The first ended shortly after the capture of Baghdad, at that point the government of Saddam Hussein no longer existed and US forces had effective control of the entire country.

    Within days however a civil war started up. Some of it was based on resisting American invaders but the majority of it was long suppressed factions taking advantage of the chaos to fight amongst each other Sunni vs Shia vs Kurds. This is when the government and the world began to learn that nation building is very much harder than nation taking over.

    1. And a lot of the fighters were Iraqi Army vets who were disbanded by Bremer. They had no way to feed their families and were being paid piece meal for each act of violence against coalition troops. There was an actual price list for each act. I’m not pretending to be an expert but I firmly believe that had Bremer not disbanded the Iraqi army the uprising would have never taken hold the way it did. These veterans had to eat and so did their families.

      We could have had the Iraqi Army on our side for about $20 per month per troop.

      1. I would agree with you for the most part. In 2003 that is what I saw and was warning the CoC about. By mid 2004 the war devolved into four wars. The nationalists fighting the US, the Sunni/Shia civil war, the AQI fighting for their caliphate and the Iranian backed militias fighting as part of the CW and advancing, indirectly, Iran’s goals. By the time “the surge” was in full force the nationalists largely were supporting the US against AQI, both sides were turning away from CW and the Iranian backed militias (JAM being the largest) were fighting the Iraqi state and US. After multiple tours there my experience shows the only clear winner has been Iran.

  6. Think of it this way. During the Spanish American War around 1898, our then glorious leaders decided that the United States of America was going to have an Empire. Why not. The British, The Dutch, The French, The Belgians, The Spanish, and the Portuguese had empires so why not us? Right? Sound reasonable? So we beat up on the Spanish and took what was left of their empire which was The Philippines, and some other things like Cuba, and that was the beginning of the United States of America Empire. Then after World War 2 the United States continued to add real estate to our empire, however not as colonies, but as client states. And the beat goes on. Want to read how the U.S. has bungled the job in creating world peace, read “Endless Enemies, The Making of an Unfriendly World” by the late Jonathan Kwitny. The United States of America is no different than any other country in the history of the world in that in needs to create some sort of a f—ing empire.

    1. In 1898 the general intent, at least in the public imagination, was not to create an empire – it was to aid Cuba in its struggle for independence from Spain with the idea that Cuba may eventually become a state.

      The Philippines was an accident – capturing the harbor there was a strategic move during the war that resulted in the Philippines becoming a sort of US possession that the US was then somewhat unsure what to do with.

      A certain amount of US imperialism has been opportunistic leveraging of the results of naivety and idealism in the American public.

      1. Yep. I think our imperialism was a combo of idealism and business interests, so at least a little different than Europe’s.

        We did give PI independence in ’46, so much sooner than other colonial powers (should have done the same with PR then).

        Either way, we did use most of the post-war period to build our Empire/Sphere of Influence. If the world hates us for us, they should think of conditions in the Communist run half (not an excuse for our imperialism, just comparing and contrasting).

        1. However, what a shame that the United States had to start meddling in the affairs of other countries. Also, the United States of America has been dragged in to the s–t of Europe since World War 1, all because the European a–holes had to keep slaughtering each other. I’m sure Hitler needed to be defeated without any doubt, so I’m sure we were correct in going there, as well as to clean up the crap the Japanese Imperialists had created in China and elsewhere in the Far East. The pity of it, is that the U.S. has had to clean up messes morons created.

      2. I’m sure glad the British colonized the 13 Colonies and not Spain. Take a look at South America, Central America, and Mexico and compare the former Spanish colonies to the former British colonies today.

      3. Clinton tried twice to get Puerto Rico to vote for statehood. He was rejected twice. His last offer was outrageous because he wanted it included in his legacy so badly.

        They feel they have a better deal now than being a state. All the benefits plus some, with none of the responsibilities.

  7. The photography exhibition referenced in the video, came to Houston awhile back. It was outstanding, with many 1st prints of iconic war images such as the Suribachi raising, Robert Capa’s ‘dead Republican soldier’, and some of Matthew Brady’s Civil War stuff. I highly recommend it.

    1. What part of Houston are you in ? I’m on the water in the Clear Lake area.

      Do you listen to the Michael Berry Show ?

      1. The Galleria. Michael Berry is a little too fake-folksy, and demagogue-ry for me to listen to much of. Although his “I was just having a beer” story to explain his hit and run leaving South Beach was absolutely hilarious. Did he ever mention it on his show?

        Clear Lake’s pretty. Even if Hakeem tarted up that classic old mansion on NASA Rt 1. His money, I guess. Great seafood markets in the Seabrook area.

  8. Ahh, the irony! I live in a Middle Eastern city with over 150,000 Syrian refugees living in and on the outskirts of its limits. I just got home after going shopping, where I ran into the first refugee I befriended here about a year and a half ago. Him, his wife and oldest boy are all fucked up from what they experienced in Homs, to the point that his wife lost all of her hair and still can’t sleep without nightmares where she sees the mutilated bodies on her street.

    Of course, their huge supporters of the rebel groups and blame every bad thing that happens to innocent people in Syria on the regime, which is complete bullshit; there is more than enough atrocities to go around all over the country, especially in Homs, Aleppo and Damascus. A good, daily reminder.

    Although I never served in the military, my attitude about war turned dramatically when I was in College when my step-grandfather told us about his experience in one of those small boats that landed during the invasion of Normandy; he was one of 4 (out of 40+…I forget the number he gave) from his boat that survived the initial wave. About 4 years later Saving Private Ryan came out, and I had to fight back the tears as I imagined a 19 year kid going through that, and it was exactly the way he described it. By this time I was already a member of the LP, and my skepticism of war-mongering politicians increased even more.

  9. Adam


    What would politicians in any country do if they did not have enemies or create enemies (real and imagined) so they could feel more patriotic and secure. I also believe that most people on this earth somehow really love war deep down inside. That’s a hell of a thing to say, but I believe it to be true. There will always be wars!!! Take our Civil War from 1861-1865. Even after the slaughter at Gettysburg, Lee and others kept the slaughter going for two more years. Statues commemorating this war are still all over the place and the whole slaughter is glorified today in books and movies. The entire world seems to be a “culture of death”.

    1. I agree with the basic idea you just spelled out, and the “love” of war bothers me to no end, and your example of Gettysburg is wonderful example.

      To answer the question you asked about politicians, I’d say, not much. And my understanding of the writing of (most) of the founding fathers leads me to think they understood this better, or at least as well, as any of us.

      And as a side note, and an addition to what I wrote above, I still remember, 15 years later, exactly what went through my head as I watched the opening scene to Saving Private Ryan, and it was a question: “Why in the hell are we tossing tens of thousands of young men into the slaughter like this? For France? Put a fence around it and let them have it.” And I still agree with that thought today, 100%.

      1. Hitler still needed to be defeated.

        1. I hesitate to agree with the wording, and I’d say he needed to be stopped and brought to trial for crimes against humanity. That could mean defeat or surrender, and it would certainly mean the German Army would return to Germany. I don’t know if that means “defeat”, but if it does then I’m fine with it.

          The question is how to do this. It’s certainly possible that from a military point of view D-Day was a fantastic option; I don’t know since I’ve never served and know very little about military strategy. But that doesn’t make it the best option, and given the sacrifices that were made by so many people someone would be very hard pressed to convince me that it was our best choice.

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  11. Iraqi citizens would welcome American troops as liberators.

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