Coming of Age in Combat: Peter van Agtmael’s Disco Night Sept 11

Peter van Agtmael—Magnum
Peter van Agtmael—Magnum
A mannequin used in an Army combat lifesaving course. The military constantly improves the realism of its medical training to ensure more instinctual reactions in combat. The mannequin pumps fake blood which only stops when enough pressure is applied from a tourniquet. Realistic training has also changed the act of fighting. In World War II, an estimated 25 percent of soldiers fired their weapons at the enemy. The remainder felt an insurmountable resistance toward killing. More vivid and true-to-combat training has now brought the number close to 90 percent. Fort Jackson, South Carolina, USA. 2011

Text can only tell. Video blurs. To show war and its offspring clearly, you need to stare at photographs…ideally photographs that stare back at you.

That’s what Peter van Agtmael’s new book, Disco Night Sept 11 does. The incongruous title of this handsome volume of photography comes from a 2010 sign outside a banquet hall, just across the Hudson River from West Point. “Dress your retro best and boogie on down,” the venue urged. “Break out your bell-bottoms and polish your platforms!”

The sign sums up a nation’s bittersweet attitude toward the nation’s wars in Afghanistan and Iraq: too busy partying on the anniversary of a terror attack that killed nearly 3,000 to spend much time fretting over those sent off to fight.

The book is a photo diary of Agtmael’s coverage, for TIME and other publications, of the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq from 2006 to 2013, and their impact back home. It’s an intensely personal trip. Vivid pictures of wounded soldiers tumble across the pages like colored bits of glass inside a child’s kaleidoscope. But they’re tempered with photographs of young and eager recruits training for war at home, and the shards left behind when they return.

If you’re looking for bang-bang, this might not be your book. There are photographs of soldiers who later ended up KIA, and of Marines swimming in an Afghan canal while a member of the outfit next door is shredded by an IED. War, especially like those in Afghanistan and Iraq following the short initial “shock and awe” phase, is fleeting and random. It’s like relentlessly spinning a carnival wheel, and waiting for your number to turn up…and praying that it never does.

Literally snapshots in time, the pictures Agtmael makes highlight the courage and cost of war, along with the grace notes of absurdity and wonder that always accompany such bloody enterprises. He elaborates on 19 episodes with foldout pages that dig a little deeper. The $45 book, available now, is published by Red Hook Editions.

The photographs are small and intimate. None bleeds off the 276 8.5-by-10.5-inch pages. Most are on the right page, with Agtmael’s battlefield notes on the left. He knits the photographs together with tales about the photos, including what happened just before, and after, he pressed the shutter button. The captions go well beyond the norm. They include snippets of interviews with the subjects of the photographs, as well as Agtmael’s recollections and ruminations. It helps make the pictures stick.

The only photos spread across two pages are soldiers’ graffiti, rough-scratched reality-checked wishes to get home safely, or a crude sketch of a woman.

Agtmael was earning a degree in history at Yale on 9/11, and became a freelance photographer a year after his 2003 graduation. He’s now part of the Magnum Photos agency. “I was scared of war but also comfortable in it,” he says in the book’s opening passage. “I had felt it in me from the beginning of my consciousness. I didn’t know what form it would take, but I always knew I would go.”

This isn’t, strictly speaking, a chronological accounting of the two wars. It’s more like pixel-impressionism. Agtmael, and his camera, adjust their focus from war writ large, to combat up close, to those waging—and recovering from—it. It’s the post-adrenaline pictures that resonate most. The books weaves in and out of the lives of some of the troops Agtmael shared war with, including amputees and those who didn’t make it back.

Some of the most affecting images from the combat zones aren’t what you’d think of as “news” photos, but lingering photographs of the hours and days soldiers spend between moments of fear and valor (“The troops took turns riding the donkey”). He delights in the incongruity of America at war in the 21st Century: “The dining facilities offered dozens—sometimes hundreds—of food options. Crab legs, fried shrimp and steak were served every week at all but the most remote outposts.”

The wars’ echoes are the most poignant: veterans struggling to rejoin the civilians that so blithely sent them off to fight, families dealing with sudden loss, and society’s fumbling effort to embrace the returning troops. He highlights the gap between the 1% of Americans uniform and the other 99%. He witnesses an Ultimate Fighting Championship “Fight for the Troops” in Fayetteville. N.C., just outside Fort Bragg: “The bout raised money for a new research center on traumatic brain injury. The headline fight was decided by a knockout.”

Like the wars it covers, Agtmael’s book is unsettling. It doesn’t declare them won or lost—or even worth fighting. In that, it reflects the mindset of many of those who waged them. It’s even grimmer given the recent bad news from Iraq.

This isn’t a coffee table book, meant for flipping through while awaiting the other dinner guests to show up. Rather, it commands a reader’s attention, equal parts accounting ledger and scrapbook, distilling time and place into one man’s view of the fortitude and folly of war.


Peter van Agtmael is a member of Magnum Photos. In 2012, he was awarded the W. Eugene Smith Grant in Humanistic Photography. Disco Night Sept 11 is out now.

Mark Thompson is a Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist who has covered national security in Washington since 1979, and for TIME since 1994. 


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