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For the past decade photographer Peter van Agtmael has documented America’s wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. His journey began as a college student shortly after September 11th when his school paper sent him to Ground Zero. Four years later he found himself on the battlefield. Through his lens he witnessed the tragedy and heroism of war. More often, however, he tried to capture smaller moments of humor,love,unease,beauty,camaraderie and emptiness. His new book “Disco Night September 11” is filed with haunting images and diary-like entries. Peter van Agtmael joins us to talk about his images of war.
Peter van Agtmael captured American presence in Iraq and Afghanistan between 2006 and 2013 in his new book “Disco Night Sept. 11.”
He shares some images below. (Mouse over each image for a caption written by van Agtmael).
Excerpted from Disco Night Sept. 11 by Peter van Agtmael . Copyright © 2014 by Peter van Agtmael. Reprinted by permission of Red Hook Editions. All Rights Reserved.
MS. DIANE REHMThanks for joining us. I'm Diane Rehm. Peter van Agtmael has won awards for his humanistic portrayals of the conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan. As America's involvement in the war begins to fade, van Agtmael has a new book. It's titled, "Disco Night Sept 11." It's a compilation of a decade's worth of photographs of America at war. Through images and writing, van Agtmael brings readers with him on a journey through his memories, revealing a complex portrait of war and the men and women whose lives it touches.
MS. DIANE REHMPeter is here in the studio with me and throughout. We'll take your calls, questions, comments. 800-433-8850. Send us an email to email@example.com. Follow us on Facebook or Twitter. Peter, it's great to see you again.
MR. PETER VAN AGTMAELFantastic to be here. Thank you for having me.
REHMI'm so glad. Talk about the title of your book, Peter. When I first saw it, I thought, Disco Night? I don't quite get it.
AGTMAELYeah. It's a jarring title, at first, for a lot of people. And a little offensive, in some ways, some people could find it. But it was born out of something that had been gnawing at me and growing at me for quite a few years. I took that picture that the title stems from -- it's not my title, but rather, it was a sign in a place called Hopewell Junction, New York. And I was driving down this darkened road, and there was sort of this glowing orb appeared and as I got closer, I saw it was a road -- a sign that said "Disco Night Sept 11."
AGTMAELAnd I thought, what is that? I'd come back from Iraq, I think it was my third trip to Iraq, about two weeks before that, and as I was migrating in and out of the war and home, I found that as the years had passed, people had grown almost entirely disconnected from the war. And these wars. And that what was at first sort of a day that had a lot of sacredness connected to it, and the weight of memory and meaning for these initial years after September 11th was sort of spoken in hushed terms.
AGTMAELAnd by the time this picture was taken in 2010, people had sort of moved on in many ways. And meanwhile, the wars raged all around us. And so, the sign seemed a really fitting symbol of the disconnect. And I hesitated, at first, to title the book that certainly. But in the end, it seemed so much of the feeling of the book is about how we go to war and go to war in sometimes a very casual way, and we forget what's happening oceans away and cultures away and the people we send there.
REHMIt's an extraordinarily vivid picture. It almost looks, because of the coloring, it almost looks like a hopper. Because it is so desolate. It is so dark. And yet, with that glowing sign in the middle, "Disco Night September 11." Really extraordinary. In your introduction, Peter, you say you always knew you were going to experience war. What did you mean?
AGTMAELI had a -- I think the feeling was almost pre-consciousness. If there's anything this whole experience over these last years of working in war zones has taught me, is this complicated relationship between primal impulse and consciousness. What can we determine? Where is our self-determination and our free will? And where is something that is undefined and indescribable? Where does it take root and where does it take hold? And from my earliest memories, I was extremely interested in war for reasons I've never been able to define.
AGTMAELI come from a loving family and a good background, and I never wanted for anything. And yet -- and I never wanted to hurt someone certainly either. I wasn't fascinated in war in a way that I wanted to do violence onto someone. But something about the human act. I guess it troubled me so much, and in being disturbed by it, I was also extremely drawn to it. I guess I found that some of the secrets of the universe or something were somehow lying in that place?
REHMDid you play with war toys?
AGTMAELOh yeah. Yeah, very much so.
AGTMAELYeah. I still have them sitting in my room, actually, in a box. Some of them anyhow. And I guess that was the connection I later drew to photography is that I wasn't necessarily interested, when I was playing with these toys, and having these big raging battles, necessarily. I was more interested in the aesthetics of the toys, actually. Actually the beauty that some of these objects that they represent have. And that's something that we find, you know, in this society as well. That these weapons of war, these objects become fetishized.
REHMSo, tell me about that first college assignment when you were asked to go out and take photographs.
AGTMAELMy first college assignment? Wow. I think it was to photograph a preacher that was on the -- I went to Yale and there was a preacher on the campus. And he had his son in one arm and a Bible in the other and he was trying to engage in a debate with some students who were walking back and forth between class. And wherever, at home, maybe, where they were coming from. But what I remember I found interesting about that, and why photography, specifically, has sort of lingered for me, is this sort of excuse to kind of linger somewhere and also to engage.
AGTMAELAnd -- but to linger and engage completely on my own terms. You know, and this is sort of what I love about photography in war zones and any other places. You know, there's this moments of incredible intimacy and then there are moments that allow you to step back and kind of try and look at it from things from a distance. And I think it's these combination of these things that makes photography so intriguing and mysterious and powerful.
REHMBut if you are face to face with someone, that camera is between you. Doesn't that sort of disrupt the intimacy?
AGTMAELIt really depends on the circumstances. I mean, actually, the cameras I use at this point are all the digital cameras with the screens on the back, so it's never actually in front of my face.
AGTMAELWhich I prefer. But beyond that, you know, it depends on how you're engaging with someone. Sometimes, I can be with a family or soldiers for hours, and, you know, we'll be chatting, or maybe hanging out or maybe just watching a movie or saying nothing at all. And then there's that moment, that 1/250th of a second where all these things kind of come together in a way that you can't quite define. But you recognize when you see it. Then you press the shutter, and then you go back to where you were. So, in the end, the camera can be a barrier. It can be a filter, as people call it. But for me, for the most part, it's just sort of an object. It's just a tool that's there, something that I use when it's necessary to express what I'm feeling or sensing.
REHMSo, how much time did you spend in Iraq and Afghanistan?
AGTMAELThe pictures in the book are -- take place over the course of six trips of a month to two months each. Three trips to Iraq and three trips to Afghanistan over five years. And then, there are a lot of pictures of the home front, and those were taken over about a five or six year period, as well, but not quite the same five or six year period. I started in Iraq in 2006 and then I started photographing the home front in 2008.
REHMSo, each time you went to Iraq or Afghanistan, you were encountering very different people, both Americans and Afghans.
AGTMAELRight. And what happened -- but I stress that the book is largely from the American perspective. In the end, I went there when I was 24 for the first time, and a lot -- and in a way, the core of the book is a young American man engaging with America and these wars America is waging. I mean, the Iraqis and the Afghans are oftentimes, in this book, there's not the same intimacy with them as there is with the American soldiers. That was by default of the embedding process, which only allowed you, really, to encounter Afghans and Iraqis under sort of harrowing circumstances, for the most part. Or at least very disconnected ones.
REHMAnd how did the American military receive you?
AGTMAELFor the most part, pretty warmly. There are always a few soldiers in every unit that weren't interested in the media and thought that the media was kind of putting the clamps on their ability to operate on the terms they thought would allow them to successfully engage in the conflict. But most people saw a representative of the media, a photographer from a publication as being the kind of only bridge they had to the world at home. And they wanted their loved ones to see what they were doing and how they were living.
AGTMAELAnd so, I felt, and over time, I made some very good friends in the military as well. For the most part, I felt really, really welcomed.
REHMAs an embedded individual, did you ever feel as though you were out of safety's way?
AGTMAELOh yeah. Sure. I mean, what is kind of amazing about the embed process, or at least the embed process I had the luxury to engage with -- there have certainly been horror stories about the embed process and I wouldn't want to sugar coat those, but I didn't have any major issues. But they allow you, essentially, to go out and interact with the soldiers on the way they would be living their daily life. So, I'd go on any patrol and, you know, there'd be explosions sometimes. Gun battles other times.
REHMPeter van Agtmael. He's an award winning photographer. A member of Magnum Photos. His new book is called "Disco Night Sept 11."
REHMAnd welcome back. Peter Van Agtmael is with me. We're talking about his new book of both photographs and diary entries he took over a period of what, eight years?
AGTMAELAbout eight years, yes.
REHM...eight years. And some of the photographs are here in this country, a great many taken in both Iraq and Afghanistan. Here's an email from Robert in Dallas, Texas who says, "Last night I watched Frontlines' 'Losing Iraq.' The thing that shook me most was the graphic video of war violence, including one lone man being shot apart in the middle of the street. It's imagery we rarely see in this country. Are the American people too shielded by our media?"
AGTMAELI think at least my sense is right now when it's someone else's war, the media can be pretty unsparing. When we're holding up a mirror essentially to ourselves, I think it's a lot more sugarcoated. Certainly I struggled enormously to get a lot of the pictures that I thought were amongst the most significant that I took, which in some cases were also amongst the most violent. I struggled enormously to get them published in this country.
AGTMAELThere were even moments when the foreign edition of a U.S. magazine would publish the more graphic image. And the U.S. edition would publish a more sedated image. So I would say that through the media we can have a real issue reckoning with our actions abroad.
REHMGive me an example of one of the photographs in your book about which you're speaking.
AGTMAELThere's a picture in there of a young soldier just after he was wounded. And he has these very vivid blue eyes and he's been turned onto his side and he's starting straight at the camera with burns and blood on this face. And that was published in a -- at the time it was the European edition of Newsweek. And then in the U.S. edition it was -- I don't even remember what they published. It wasn't I don't think even a picture of mine.
AGTMAELThere's another example of the aftermath of a suicide bombing that's also in the book. It's a blood-spattered wall and destruction littering the floor and a U.S. soldier holding up a shoe with a knife -- a bloody shoe with a knife. And that was published in Fortune in Europe. And then in the U.S. it was a few helicopters taking off, you know, an image that says nothing. It represents nothing.
REHMAnd why do you think that is?
AGTMAELI mean, this is kind of the eternal question, right? I mean, a lot of the blame that the photographers give is to advertisers who don't want to see their -- you know, a nice, you know, watch advertised next to an image of a dead child or something like that or a bloodied wall. And that's probably part of it. I mean, I'm -- you know, the -- in a very difficult media environment advertisers inevitably have leverage over editorial decisions, whether it's defined or not. I think it -- I assume it must exist in that way.
AGTMAELBut beyond that, I think part of it -- and that also fits in with the title this "Disco Night Sept 11," this strange title -- is that as a nation we have a real difficult time reckoning with a lot of the decisions we make abroad. With these wars there's not really a period of reckoning right now as they wind down, certainly not on a national level anyhow.
REHMBut surely there's got to be a period of reckoning for you personally. How did traveling with those troops, how did photographing those dying or wounded or dead soldiers or civilians, how did all that affect you?
AGTMAELI think I'm still trying to process some of that stuff certainly. I don't know who I would be if I hadn't made these choices in the first place. And a big part of the reckoning, in a way, was making this book. It was sort of a catharsis to put all the -- commit all my memories to the page. Otherwise they would just be bouncing around in my head and kind of poisoning the air. But I -- you know, I don't quite -- I think it's going to take a long time for me to understand myself what the effect of all this was on me and what my life could've been otherwise.
AGTMAELBut in a strange way -- and I talk about this in the book -- I feel content with my decisions, I mean, happy about it. There was something very fulfilling about doing this work. And I -- if given the opportunity to make other choices, I don't think I would make those other choices.
REHMWhat about the effects on your relationships with those closest to you?
AGTMAELWell, I scared the hell out of my folks certainly for a long time. And it became -- and I think I was -- but, you know, they're loving parents and they support me unconditionally even if they didn't like it. And interpersonal relationships, it became a little more strained because I think my emotional development was simply stunted for some time because I was so fixated on covering these wars that I wasn't investing in my private life in that way.
AGTMAELAnd so at the time when I finally realized that I needed to sort of ease out of this life and into a somewhat more normal one, you know, I realized that, you know, years had passed and my brain was kind of still the same. So that -- but, you know, I was able to recognize that through some smart women. And, you know, things are in better check now I think.
REHMWho helped you understand perhaps the distance you were experiencing from yourself?
AGTMAELYeah, exactly. I mean, it's very hard to recognize sometimes that something is wrong, at least that's what I found. And it's very easy to tell yourself that everything is okay. And -- but it's a lot harder to deny when people who know you say things forcefully and with a lot of evidence.
REHMNow, many of the men that you photograph in the book have suffered from post traumatic stress disorder. Do you think in any way you have experienced some of that, maybe not quite so sharply but having seen and indeed created the images you have, that I can only wonder whether some of that gets imbedded into your own soul.
AGTMAELYeah, I think I've had probably a sort of lighter version of that. I mean, from my experience, you know, at the end of the day I really believe in what I did and why I was doing it. Journalism is something that can be very abstract but nonetheless, the sum weight of all of it, I think, provides an enormous public service, even if it can't necessarily change humanity or change society. Sometimes it...
REHMPublic service because...
AGTMAELBy providing information, by showing -- otherwise -- and this comes back to why the soldiers would welcome me. Otherwise what happens there is anonymous and it's like it didn't even happen at all. And I can only see a small shred of these wars through these pictures, but they can be symbols of so much more.
AGTMAELAnd is that enough? Well, you know, there's a conceit, and I'm maybe getting a little off check here, but there's sort of a conceit in photography that it can end conflicts and have ended conflicts. But what they more often do, especially like with the Vietnam War, is act as representatives of where society is at as well. So they can both shape the message along with all the other mediums and then provide the kind of final reflection of where society's kind of head is at. And so -- please.
REHMYou talk about a man named Raymond Hubbard throughout the book in bits and pieces. Tell us about Raymond Hubbard.
AGTMAELRaymond was a -- is a soldier at the time -- or is an ex-soldier but he was a soldier in the National Guard. And he was on a base in Baghdad on July 4, 2006 when a rocket hit -- randomly fired at the base. It hit him, cut through his leg, cut the carotid artery and plunged him into a coma for a few weeks. And I met him about a year after his injury when he was still recovering at Walter Reed. And we struck up a friendship. And his experience I found was one that kind of educated me about what badly injured veterans are going through at different times in this country. So...
AGTMAELWell, there are a few things that have -- that I've carried with me a lot. One is -- and I guess I keep coming back to this theme of disconnection, but one is this strange notion, kind of a consumer therapy for veterans where they're given all -- you know, they're given trips to Vegas and free laptops and free iPods and, you know, grip and grins with politicians or celebrities who want to see themselves doing their part for the soldiers. But in the ends it's all very shallow.
AGTMAELAnd the intimacy of processing through these experiences that have changed people's lives profoundly doesn't come from these circumstances. And for long term care a lot of them, as opposed to getting, you know, deep sort of psychiatric help are prescribed at the litany of pills to take care of their sort of physical and psychological pain. And maybe it's simplifying things to a certain extent, but I also saw this time and time again with many soldiers. So he's a symbol in some ways of all that for me and...
REHMHow did he react to the so-called commercialization?
AGTMAELI mean, he really liked it on some level. I think a lot of people did. They like -- you know, there's something very rewarding about feeling like people care and that you did something for a reason. But I think that at first it -- something that was very powerful kind of faded away overtime, the thrill of it. And what people wanted was more empathy then sympathy. And that was very hard to come by by a society that's very disconnected from these wars.
REHMSo that meeting of politicians or getting the iPod or the laptop, that pleased him to a certain extent but then he had to deal with himself in the end.
AGTMAELYeah, precisely. I mean, ultimately you have to go back to your life. You know, that stuff doesn't last forever. And then there's this long period of reckoning with these life-changing events, one that can go on for decades. I mean, we still see it from Vietnam. I remember being a kid certainly and seeing all the Vietnam veterans on the streets in D.C.
REHMAnd you're listening to "The Diane Rehm Show." We've got some callers. I want to open the phones and then want to talk to you about a few of the photographs in your book. Let's go to Nathan in Jackson, Mo. Hi there, you're on the air.
NATHANHi. Thank you for taking my call.
NATHANOne thing that I really wanted to comment on when it comes to the usage of, like, photographs and videos of stuff that is going on in the world when it comes to the violence and the killing and all that kind of stuff. One thing that I've noticed about our society is we have become extremely desensitized when it comes to what's going on in the world to the point that we're taking these pictures and these videos that are just horrible of people dying, of these mass killings and stuff. And we're turning them into entertainment.
NATHANI know that you can go to a movie theater and you can watch "Faces of Death" on the late night showing and eat popcorn and just sit back and watch all these innocent men, women and children being killed. And it's become entertainment to us in our society. And I think that's a major issue when it comes to where our stance is as a society in the world. We don't necessarily care what's going on in the world because to us it's become entertainment. It's not looking at this picture and feeling how horrible it is to lose a child or lose a brother and sister. We look at it and we almost get joy out of the gore.
AGTMAELI see that point to a certain extent. I think a lot depends on context. I think that sometimes violent images can be used and some people can respond to them as something almost titillating. But I don't think -- I think I've never seen two of the same reaction kind of to the same picture too. I mean, everyone reacts to these images in different ways.
AGTMAELFor myself, the main reason for doing a book like this, the content of violent images is actually quite low, especially in regards to what I saw, partly out of concern for this reason. How many times do you need to keep banging people over the head with the same thing? It's the core of war, violence and death of course. But war is so much more complex than that that it can only be -- it's the starting point rather than the ending point.
REHMLet's go to Lewistown, Pa. Redd, you're on the air.
REDDHi, Diane. And thanks for taking my call.
REDDHello to your guest and I thank you very much for the work that you have done in these warzones, in areas. As your previous caller said that so many of us just want to observe from afar, stay away from but kind of watch, I think that we need to see more and more and more of the images. We need to hear the (word?) voices that are involved in that -- in the event that is going on.
REDDWe as American people are not -- are so insulated, as your other caller referred to, from the actual pain and the suffering of it that I think that it may move us as a country, the American -- you know, this society towards more protests. As this world gets more and more crowded in the struggle for resources, the competition just gets more and more intense. Either we need to decide that, yes, we want to fight and we want to kill others so that we can have it or we're going to make the conscious choice to be more cooperative.
REHMAll right, sir. Thank you so much for your call. Short break here. We'll be right back.
REHMAnd Peter van Agtmael is with me. His new book of photograph and diary entries is titled, "Disco Night Sept. 11." And here is a tweet from Chris, who says, it is important for the public to see the personal costs of war. We've become removed and take for granted the reality of war. You and I were talking, Peter, during the break, about that iconic photograph taken by Malcolm Brown during Vietnam of that child screaming, running, on fire away from the conflict at the time. And I'm sure, out of these wars, have come iconic photographs, but you say, perhaps not from professional photographers.
AGTMAELYeah, my feeling -- well, in Vietnam, I think pictures could galvanize public support in a different way, because all of society was involved. There was a draft and there was great fears.
REHMProtests. Huge protests.
AGTMAELYeah. So everyone felt like they could potentially be a part of it. So it made them look deeply into it, and when they realized the realities of what was going on over there, they rebelled against those. And now, it's someone else's problem, because we have an all volunteer army. And pictures, they can galvanize support, but there are so many amazing pictures that don't become icons. So the question becomes, why does a picture become an icon? And it's usually because the society, in some way, is ready for an image to become an icon. It represents that moment in time for them.
AGTMAELAnd that picture is one of them, for example. You know, for...
REHMAnd the other one of the man who self-immolated. That too was one of those icons.
AGTMAELRight. And the execution on the streets of Saigon in the Tet Offensive. And now, we have sort of stranger icons from this war. I mean, none of my pictures, certainly, to the public, could be considered iconic, which is too bad. But, you know...
REHMWell, I am looking -- I am looking at, and this has got to be so stunning. Talk about Bobby Henline. (sp?)
AGTMAELBobby -- Bobby was a soldier on his fourth tour when his Humvee was blown up in 2007 by a roadside bomb. And the other four passengers in the Humvee with him were killed and he received burns over about 40 percent of his body. And...
REHMIncluding most of his face.
AGTMAELYeah. Most of his face and chest and he lost his left arm as well. Had to be -- later had to be amputated. And recovering from burns is an extremely long and painful process. And while he was going through this, he would -- he naturally has a very bubbly personality and he started cracking jokes. And the other soldiers liked it. I mean, they were going -- they were in this gloomy, gloomy place. Isolated in some ways from society and they -- his sense of humor made them feel good. And so, an occupational therapist suggested that he try stand up. Standup comedy.
AGTMAELAnd he did, and as he said, the first time it bombed. But he got hooked on it. And now he goes all around, both doing stand up in bars, about his injuries, and as well for other veterans. And for him, it gave, because he -- because the burns are disfiguring, it gave him a space to engage with people in a way. So they didn't just stare and gawk at him, but if he broke the ice with a joke or something like that, it would enable a more human interaction. And so, and so, he's become very successful at it, as well.
REHMThere's a photograph of him lying on his back, in bed, reaching, or trying to reach for a light switch. But his right eye has been affected, because of the burns. So he cannot quite see what he's reaching for.
AGTMAELWell, he had to put -- he has to put in these drops because his eyelid doesn't close fully when he sleeps. He puts in these -- this kind of ointment and drops and when he has that in at night, he can't see. So he was brushing his hand against the wall looking for the switch.
REHMAnd then there is a photograph of him lying in a swimming pool on his back with only his face showing. And you say Bobby Henline didn't realize how badly he was injured until he returned home. When that sank in, he prayed for God to take him in his sleep. He did not want to be a burden to his family.
AGTMAELYeah. I think these early stages, when you're trying to reckon with what's happened can be very difficult for a lot of soldiers. And that's -- I mean, but in a way, the picture also came from these halluc -- I became very intrigued by hallucinations that people had when they were in comas, after their injuries. Raymond Hubbard also had one. And they generally -- and these guys are both kind of atheists or unreligious to begin with. And had these, what they considered spiritual, kind of interactions with a God-like figure in these comas.
AGTMAELAnd that picture kind of represents that a little bit too. Bobby, for example, had a dream about, or a vision, of being on an iceberg at night, but it wasn't cold. And he was communicating with a spirit that was telling him to keep on with his life, to keep going. And he's carried that with him, and it carried him out of some dark times, I think, as well.
REHMHere's an email from Randall, who says during my tour in Vietnam, serving with the Third Marine Division, I took many photos. The US government censored all the pictures developed in country. We called the pictures that were censored kill pictures.
AGTMAELYou know, what I think is interesting -- I mean, the picture's probably one of the most interesting records of the war, of these wars, are whatever pictures a lot of these soldiers have sitting on a dusty hard drive in a closet somewhere. I mean, coming back to this question of the icon, and I sort of made this joke -- not much of a joke, maybe. But about how professional photographers haven't captured these iconic moments. And, in fact, I think the pictures we'll remember, not because the pictures aren't great, incidentally.
AGTMAELI can think of a million pictures that would qualify as icons, but the ones that we are truly remembering from these wars are the Abu Ghraib photos. And I think time will continue to validate that. So, I'd be very curious to see, over time, what filters out from the soldier's perspective, because everyone had a camera. And a tiny little camera at that. And at this point, and because the war in Afghanistan, of course, continues, everyone's got a high quality camera on their cell phone.
REHMOf course. All right, let's go to Farmland, Indiana. Hi Jeff. You're on the air.
JEFFThank you, Diane. This really goes in line with the show you had on yesterday about the VA. As I told your screener, we lost our son in 2009 to suicide.
REHMOh, I'm so sorry.
JEFFAnd, you know, you know, and the way the media sugar coats everything, you kind of sit around and wonder why, you know, they don't show it as bad as it really is. You know, thankfully, some of his buddies, after they found out, took his laptop and hid it and sent it to us before anybody could go through it or anything. And so we were actually able to see the pictures he took while he was there.
REHMAnd what did those pictures say to you, Jeff?
JEFFIt said a world of difference from what we seen on the nightly news and what the military, you know, what, you know, everybody said. It, oh, wasn't that bad over there, and they were sugar coating it and everything. And, you know, it just proved to me, you know, gave me more reason why he took his own life and everything. And, you know, it just, you know, and I felt if they didn't sugar coat it so much, people would have a better understanding about the military suicides and the PTSD that our soldiers and our veterans are going through and be able to get better help for them.
REHMIndeed. And as you heard yesterday, even now, some 22 members of the military, each day, are committing suicide. Again, I'm so sorry for your loss. And let's go now to Matthew, who's in Raleigh, North Carolina. You're on the air.
MATTHEWHey, good morning, ma'am. I'm just calling in as a two tour Iraq veteran. I was wounded in Iraq when I was 19. I was infantry the whole time over there, so I think I've been there, done that, got the tee shirt. And I would just like to comment about a previous commenter that stated that having so many photos and videos of violence has desensitized us, and I would say the opposite. Violence has always been part of society, but unless you are actually there and see it firsthand, I don't think you can really compare it to a photograph. Specifically, the sounds and the smells of violence, you can never convey through a photo.
MATTHEWTo me, the combination of blood, diesel and gunpowder -- that's what reminds me of Iraq. The other veterans -- I've got photographs that I've kept from overseas, many of which I don't think would survive Vietnam sort of checks before they were sent home. And they never do the situation quite justice. And I think if I showed them to my friends or family here, which I have, they don't get the full picture. When you're there in 120 degrees and bodies are stinking and diesel fuel's all over, and gunpowder's in the air, it's a completely surreal experience that you really cannot get stateside or in a home environment.
MATTHEWIt's really, I think, deeply touching to those of us who were there at such a young age.
REHMMatthew, thank you so much for your extraordinarily vivid comments, but most of all, for your service.
AGTMAELI think he brings up an important point, too. I mean, when I first came back from Iraq, when I was 24, it had been, I knew, already a transformative experience. And I'd seen quite a lot of violence myself. And I went to show the pictures to my family and friends, pictures that I thought very highly of in a lot of ways. I felt like I set out -- I'd accomplished what I'd set out to do with that first trip. And the response was a lot more tempered than my hopes were, and it's precisely for that reason. I mean, photographs can be amazing renderings, the way they stop time. They can be ghosts of something. They can be very powerful. But they can't replicate experience.
AGTMAELAnd it was one of the frustrating things, in some ways, of making this book. No matter how vivid I tried to make it in words and pictures, in the end, the experience counts the most.
REHMAnd you're listening to "The Diane Rehm Show." Let's see to Christina Colleyville, Texas. Hi, you're on the air.
CHRISTINAThank you, Diane. I was calling -- my father is a former Vietnam vet. He was in the Marine Corps, served three tours and has three purple hearts. There weren't very many tanks in Vietnam. He was in the siege of Khe Sanh. And he just so happened to have had a camera with him and a moving camera. And now that it's been, what, some 40 odd years since he's been home, he's started tracking some of his friends from Vietnam and sharing some of these pictures.
CHRISTINABecause as you were talking about earlier, now pictures are seen regularly. Back then, not every guy had a camera. Not everybody had the information that my father now is digging through and finding. And he just happened, a couple of months ago, to show us these pictures and all of our lives, we've heard about my father digging a cave in the side of Khe Sanh and, you know, nothing's as bad in your life if you don't leave a cave in the side of Khe Sanh. In the side of a mountain in Khe Sanh. And it was very -- I'm not desensitized. I'm 43 years old. I've seen horror movies and news and, but when you actually see your father as an 18-year-old boy in these graphic pictures that he took, I just can't explain the feelings.
CHRISTINAAnd my father has had a nervous breakdown since Vietnam.
REHMI'm sorry. I think that war does unimaginable things, not only to the people who serve there, who are forced to be there, but also, you have photographs of some of the civilians who are in Iraq and Afghanistan, who experienced it without guns in their hands, who were the victims.
AGTMAELRight. Well, and that's, that's the strange thing when our culture, I think, does take these rare opportunities to reflect on these wars. We mostly reflect on ourselves. And the fact of the matter is, US casualties in Iraq and Afghanistan pale in comparison to the number of civilian casualties caused by these invasions. But they remain sort of very anonymous and shadowy figures. Both in the stories we know them, the images that represent them. I mean, these things, these wars have taken on a scale that is so incomprehensible in some ways that I don't think we know quite where to begin.
AGTMAELAnd I think for the next few decades, there is increasingly, in the various forms of journalism and the arts, going to be an exploration of quite what those -- what these years have meant to us.
REHMPeter van Agtmael. His new book is titled, "Disco Night Sept. 11." I congratulate you.
AGTMAELThank you very much.
REHMAnd thanks for listening all. I'm Diane Rehm.
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