Peter van Agtmael Won’t Deny the Strange Allure of War
Thus far, photographer Peter van Agtmael’s career has primarily focused on documenting the effects of America’s post 9/11 wars both at home and abroad. Before traveling to Iraq in 2006, however, he covered certain issues surrounding HIV-positive refugees in South Africa, and the Asian tsunami in 2005. After starting work in Iraq, he went on to win numerous awards, work in Afghanistan—both embedded and unembedded—and documented injured servicemen and their families. Oh, and he also shot the photo in the table of contents for this month’s issue of our magazine. We spoke to him about the mysterious attraction of conflict, and the realities of censorship and care for a country’s wounded.
VICE: You graduated in history with honors from Yale. What specifically did you study?
Peter van Agtmael: I studied a pretty general curriculum, that being the expectation. By the time I wrote my thesis, I had decided to write it on how the iconography of WWII Yugoslavia, of opposing forces like the Chetniks and Ustaše, was renewed in the Balkan conflict of the 1990s. How it was used to stoke fear and exploited by the power brokers to wage a civil war.
Do you think that your education led to you working as a photographer in a warzone at the age of 24?
I grew up in the suburbs of Washington, DC. Those suburbs are like suburbs anywhere. It’s easy to want to dream about more exciting places. When I was a kid, I was always very into pictorial history books—especially ones about WWII. I found it all very exciting and romantic, in its own way.
Obviously, you get older and the reality of these things kicks in, but the romance doesn’t go away, even when you get caught in the midst of it; that’s the strange and scary thing. I have had depraved and scary experiences in the last decade, but I’ve had beautiful ones, too. The fact is that when you get caught in the middle of these things, in these places there’s an indescribable merit somehow to feeling involved, to be making a record for history, it is satisfying a certain natural curiosity—one with certain useful impulses, and certain dark impulses as well.
Do you think that built-in fascination with conflict applies to most soldiers, too?
I think it’s across the board. If you have read Michael Herr’s Dispatches, he puts it really well—though it may be a dated reference in some ways. He essentially said that you can’t take the romance out of war. It’s sort of innate. It’s a genetically hardwired part of the experience. We all objectively realize the awfulness and brutality of it, but also for a lot of young people —especially men—there is this draw to it, not at all based on logic or rational thought. There are a million ways to try to intellectualize it, rationalize it, and break it into its tiny component pieces, but at the end of the day there’s a pull that can’t really be described or explained away. At least not for me. I envy people who aren’t drawn to war in a lot of ways. I’ve had a good and interesting life so far, but at times I wish I had made different choices.
This Is What Winning Looks Like
Our new documentary about the end of the war in Afghanistan premieres Monday. Watch the trailer
What Was the South African Military Doing in the Central African Republic?
African politics is a weird mixture of ancient tribal mentalities and democratic ideals imported from the West. It’s proven to be a pretty volatile combination on the continent and one that spurs much of its political strife. One country that’s had to deal with the consequences of that unique approach to governance recently is the landlocked Central African Republic (CAR), home to a violent upheaval that’s been going on since late last year.
In January 2013, South Africa’s ruling ANC party sent 400 troops to the CAR. Ostensibly, they were there to help the country’s president, Francois Bozizé, fight Séléka, the coalition of rebel groups revolting against Bozizé and his government (they allege that Bozizé isn’t honoring peace agreements made after the 2004-2007Central African Republic Bush War). The thing is, the Central African Republic had been suspended from the African Union because of the uprising, which—in theory—should have disqualified them from receiving external military aid.
There is much speculation over why South African President Jacob Zuma deployed his forces to support the CAR’s clearly failing and dictatorial government. The theory picking up the most steam is that both the ANC and a number of its individual members have private mineral and natural resource interests in the CARthat they wish to protect. There are many South African companies exploiting the oil the CAR has to offer, with most of them linked to powerful political figures in South Africa and arguably fueling the coffers that drive the ANC’s political machine.
One such company is DIG Oil, a company prospecting in the southeast of the CAR. Zuma’s nephew sits on the board of DIG Oil—something that suggests Zuma might have more than a passing business interest in the company. It also suggests—if you’re a fan of linking pretty blatant points—that Zuma may well be using the South African military as a private security service to protect his and his cronies’ international business interests.
Cops’ Military Tools Aren’t Just for Catching Terrorists
above: A SWAT tank parked in the Boston Commons on April 16, 2013. Photo via Flickr user Vjeran Pavic
On April 19, a million Bostonians stayed locked down in their homes while 9,000 cops combed the metro area for Dzhokhar Tsarnaev, the surviving suspect in the marathon bombing. In Watertown, cops went door-to-door and removed homeowners at gunpoint before searching their houses. Tsarnaev was found in that town around 8 PM by the owner of the boat sitting in his backyard that the 19-year-old suspected terrorist had chosen as his hiding place.
The lockdown was something new. Not serial killers, not cop-killing cop Christopher Dorner’s LA rampage, not even 9/11 shut down a city like this. Still, Bostonians seemed fine with staying inside for the most part. Cops found their guy relatively quickly, and the city partied in the streets afterwards. During the manhunt, a tough-looking officer even brought two gallons of milk to a family with young children, serving as a perfect meme to refute any accusations of jackbooted thuggery. Even some normally anti-police libertarians urged restraint in reacting to the manhunt.
What shouldn’t go unmentioned, however, is that while the circumstances were unique, the military muscle displayed by law enforcement is hardly reserved for responding to rare acts of terrorism. Videos from the lockdown—particularly this piece of paranoia-porn, in which a SWAT team orders a family out of their home at gunpoint and one of the officers screams “get away from the window!” at the videographer—either look frightening or grimly necessary, according to your views. But haven’t we seen displays like this before?
I Refused to join the Israeli Defense Forces
Moriel Rothman doesn’t sound bitter when he reflects on the contradictions that formed his childhood identity and eventual political outlook. In fact, he sounds more saddened, if anything. “On the one hand, my heroes were Israeli commandos, and on the other they were the young Jewish American Freedom Riders [Jewish civil rights activists in 1960s America]. I held these two together without fully coming to terms with the fact that there might be a contradiction.”
That contradiction, if you hadn’t picked up on it, stems from the fact that while the Freedom Riders were fighting for the rights of America’s persecuted minorities, Israeli commandos were systematically crushing the rights of their persecuted Palestinian neighbors.
Moriel is a 23-year-old American-Israeli who was born in Jerusalem, spent most of his life in the US, and is now back in the city of his birth. “I think we’re brought up to talk on a universal level about values of justice, standing up to inequality, breaking the law when the law is unjust, and standing up for the oppressed,” he continued. “But not when it comes to our own context—not when it comes to Israel and not when it comes to standing up for Palestine.”
Late last year, Moriel spent time in a military prison for refusing to live out the first part of his childhood dream: the military commando. Military service in Israel is mandatory by law for Jewish youth and young people from the Druze religious minority, however, only around half of those eligible enlist and many more leave during their service.
One Young Druz vs. the Israeli Military
Every able-bodied Israeli has to serve in the military when they turn 18. Exceptions are made for Arab citizens and ultra–Orthodox Jews, but not for the country’s 125,000 Druze, an Arabic-speaking ethnic and religious minority that is primarily based in the north of the country. Last October, a 17-year-old Druze from Galilee named Omar Saad took a stand against Israel’s mandatory military service when he refused to appear at the recruitment office for a medical examination. In Omar’s widely circulated open letter to the government, he wrote, “Many of our Druze men served in the Israeli army… But what did we get out of this? We are discriminated against on all levels. Our villages are the poorest, our land has been confiscated, there is no urban planning or industrial areas…” Omar hasn’t backed down in the months since his letter went public, and with his graduation approaching I thought I’d call him up and see how things were going.
VICE: What’s your situation right now? Are you getting a lot of heat for the letter?
Omar Saad: I was sent three messages to go and do the required medical tests before enlisting in the army. The last letter they sent me said that if I didn’t go by this specific date, a police officer could arrest me and take me over to the station to do the medical exam. This isn’t usually sent to 17-year-olds who don’t have an enlisting order. I don’t have an enlisting order because I’m not 18 yet.
Why are you refusing to join the army?
I am a Palestinian, and I cannot fight my own people. It’s against the way my parents raised me. Many years ago, my two brothers and I agreed that we would not serve in the army. Last year it began to be more of a reality when I received my first letter from the authorities.
What are you going to do after graduation?
I can’t do anything. I can’t travel. I can’t even go to university. I am trapped inside my land. I think I am going to spend some time in prison, and after prison, I really want to continue my studying of music—maybe abroad. I’m a musician, and my friends and I play for peace and to end the occupation.
Are you scared of being imprisoned?
I’m nervous. Every student in my class thinks about continuing their lives normally—maybe going straight to college or having fun for a year. Because I am studying in Nazareth, my siblings and I are the only Druze in our school. I’m thinking, I’m going to end up in prison. That’s not a place for a normal guy to be.
Read more from our Grievous Sins issue:
New Roma Ghettos
Meet the Last Lykovs
Let’s Get Physical
Bradley Manning Pleaded Guilty Yesterday: ‘I Did It’
After a blizzard blanketed the mid-Atlantic in early 2010, a 22-year-old soldier home on leave in Potomac, Maryland, braved the storm in hopes of locating an Internet connection that, unlike the one at his aunt’s house where he was staying, hadn’t been severed by nearly two feet of snow.
When Private first class Bradley Manning made it to a Barnes & Noble bookstore outside of Washington, D.C., he unpacked his laptop, logged-on to the complimentary Starbucks Wi-Fi and searched for some files he had burned onto a disc back in Kuwait before Christmas. It was in that shop, surrounded by comic books and minimum-wage-earning baristas, that the slight and bespectacled soldier uploaded classified and unclassified military files to the website WikiLeaks, an action that remains the target of both a CIA probe and a grand jury investigation three years later—and that yesterday landed Manning in court in Fort Meade, Maryland, where he pleaded guilty to ten criminal charges and will now likely serve twenty years in prison. “I believed that if the general public, especially the American public, had access to the information,” Manning said yesterday in court, which I attended, “this could spark a domestic debate on the role of the military and our foreign policy in general.”
The government’s case—and public opinion about the young soldier’s act—has hinged on the assertion that Manning’s leak put the United States in danger by making sensitive military information public. The files leaked by Manning include the now-infamous “collateral murder” video of an Apache helicopter attack in Iraq, in which US soldiers mistake a group of journalists and civilians for insurgents and then kill them; US diplomatic cables about the collapse of three major financial institutions in Iceland; files on detainees in Guantanamo; and portions of Iraq and Afghanistan war logs. “They capture what happens [on] a particular day in time,” Manning said about the war logs.
Manning was captured by American officials in May 2010—after he’d gone back to Kuwait to continue his service in an intelligence center—when the ex-hacker turned goody-two-shoes Adrian Lamo, who had been in communication about the files with Manning via email, tipped off the FBI. Manning was then accused of an onslaught of charges related to allegations that he supplied material to WikiLeaks. Since then, Pfc. Manning has been imprisoned without trial for over 1,000 days. Only during Thursday’s testimony, though, did he own up to those crimes and explain to the world with his own words why he willingly released materials that have changed history—if not in the way Manning had originally intended.
When he finally finished reading the 35-page statement prepared for the court Thursday afternoon, a handful of supporters and members of the press seated before a closed-circuit stream of the testimony across the Army base erupted in applause. The only other time they ever heard the soldier speak at length was this December when he testified to the conditions he endured while jailed in a military brig after first being detained. His treatment there was so egregious that the presiding judge, Col. Denise Lind, agreed to take four months off of any eventual sentence handed down.
But for voluntarily admitting his crimes during a pretrial hearing on Thursday nearly three years after the fact, Pfc. Manning stands to face upwards of 20 years in prison. After his case is formally court-martialed beginning in June, though, he could be sent away for life. Because he gave classified information to WikiLeaks and, thus, the world, the government says he sent that intelligence into the ether and helped aid anti-American terrorists. The government could legally execute the soldier, now 25, if they convict him on that charge.
Strange Things Are Afoot at Khalid Sheikh Mohammed’s Trial
If the trial had happened in federal court in New York City, like the Obama administration originally wanted, it’s unlikely that the surreal shenanigans of justice that went down this week at the Khalid Sheikh Mohammed’s pre-trial hearings in Guantanamo Bay would have gone so unnoticed. After all, it’s the trial of the century, except it’s being held in a secretive offshore facility and administered with rules of evidence and procedure that are still being figured out.
To refresh your memory, KSM is the alleged mastermind of the 9/11 attacks and a host of other Qaeda initiatives. He was captured by CIA and Pakistani intelligence forces in 2002 and was shuttled between CIA black sites until he took up permanent residence at the Guantanamo Bay Detention Camp in Cuba in 2006.
It’s there that a military commission, a kind of ad hoc court-martial-like trial, is being held for KSM and four of his top-level al Qaeda associates. These proceedings are the War on Terror’s first forays into“bringing these terrorists to justice,” as President Bush said in a speech to a joint session of Congress in the weeks after the attacks in 2001.
But things got weird on Monday, during a pre-trial hearing. Some of the evidence that will be used against the five defendants in the case was either obtained through enhanced interrogation techniques or is classified information that cannot be released to the public. So the courtroom at Gitmo, which was specially built for these proceedings, is equipped with a “censorship button” that an assigned security officer of the court presses at the behest of the judge, Army Colonel and retired judge James Pohl, when classified information is brought before the court. After that button is pressed, the audio of the proceedings cuts out, and a red light illuminates on the judge’s bench, letting members of the media, who are already listening in on a 40-second delay, and trial counsel know that this information is being blocked.
On Monday, it became entirely unclear who is in charge of pressing that button and by extension, who or what entity is really running this trial or monitoring the proceedings externally. According to unofficial court transcripts obtained through the Office of Military Commission’s website, the censorship button was pressed during an exchange between the judge and defense counsel.
After the red light went off, Judgle Pohl said, “Trial counsel, note for the record that the 40-second delay was initiated, not by me. I’m curious as to why.” He continued, “If some external body is turning the commission off under their own view what ought to be… then we are going to have a little meeting.”
KILLING UP CLOSE -
THE DEATH OF WILLIAM WOLD
Below is an excerpt of TheThings They Cannot Say’s opening chapter, which chronicles the tragic demise of Marine William Wold. Kevin Sites first interviewed William while covering the Iraq war in 2004, only minutes after the 21-year-old corporal and his fire team gunned down six insurgents inside a mosque in Fallujah. Back then, William was wired for combat, calloused from killing and watching friends die. This excerpt picks up with William’s story seven years after meeting Kevin in Iraq and explains how the decorated Marine’s life was irreparably broken by the things he saw and did in the name of his country.
We’ve paired the text with photos from artist Nina Berman’s Purple Hearts series, which is comprised of portraits and interviews with American soldiers who were seriously wounded in the Iraq War, focusing on their struggle to find identity and purpose after returning home. For more information about the project, visitNoorImages.com.
William Wold seemed fine initially when he came home from Iraq, according to his mother, Sandi Wold, when I speak to her by telephone seven years after my conversation with her son in Fallujah. Wold had begged his mother to sign a parental-approval form when he wanted to join the Marines at 17, taking extra online classes to graduate a year early in order to do so. But after four years of service, he had had enough.
“They were going to promote him to sergeant, but he didn’t want to reenlist. He just wanted to be normal,” she says, echoing his own words from our videotaped interview. His much-anticipated separation from the Marine Corps would come in March 2004, but in the interim, she had promised to treat him and a couple of Marine buddies to a trip to Las Vegas as a coming-home present. She and her second husband, John Wold (William’s stepfather, whose last name William took), met the three Marines at the MGM Grand and got them adjoining rooms next to their own. Sandi was elated to see her son home safe and in one piece, and she wanted to see him leave the war in Iraq behind as quickly as possible.
“There’s no way I can show you how much I appreciate your willingness to die for me,” she remembers telling the three. But she tried her best anyway, going so far as to hire in-room strippers for them through an ad in the Yellow Pages.
“They talked me into buying them suits and renting a stretch limo. These guys show up and they go out partying that night, these guys are pimped out, I’m spending so much money it’s stupid,” she says, laughing at the memory. “Those Marines swam down some drinks, just the three of them. The hotel called my room—‘Do these Marines belong to you?’—as they’re stumbling down the hallways.”
When the strippers show up at the Marines’ room, Sandi says the sound of partying was like its own war zone. Then around midnight there’s a loud banging on the adjoining door.
“The door swings open and it’s Silly Billy, drunk and laughing, and he introduces us to them [the strippers]… I could’ve gone a lifetime without meeting them,” Sandi says.
“He says, ‘Mom, I’m going to need an extra $1,200.’ ‘Dude,’” she remembers telling him, “‘you gotta be fucking shitting me.’ But I’m counting the money out, he’s dancing around, happy as can be.”
The whole trip, she says, was indicative of the closeness of their relationship. He would always stay in touch with his mom even while he was in Iraq.
“He would hang out with the snipers at night,” Sandi says, “because they always had satellite phones, and he would make sure to try and call me almost every week. It would just be, ‘Hey, I’m fine, can’t talk long, love you. Bye.’”
“He was through and through a mama’s boy. There wasn’t anything he wouldn’t share with me,” she says. “Sometimes I had to tell him I just don’t want to know.”
But Sandi says she began to sense something was wrong after William made a trip back East to see a woman he had met while doing presidential-protection duty at Camp David. He had called her his fiancée and said he planned to marry her, but the relationship ended after his visit.
“He flies back there and doesn’t last 24 hours,” Sandi says. “He lost it. He calls me and tells me to find him a flight home. ‘I can’t close my eyes, I can’t sleep,’ he tells me, ‘What’s wrong with me?’ I think he knew he was so unstable he was going to end up hurting her.”
The extent of his post-traumatic stress became clear to Sandi that summer after his discharge.
A Mercy Killing in Kabul
The restaurant opens to the street and the jumble of Kabul’s downtown bazaar.
Stray dogs move in uneven packs past vendors whose listing burlap stalls lean into a quicksand of low lying fog. Police flatten the tires of illegally parked cars and the cars sink into the mud and potholes of the ruined road wheezing air in an odd sort of gasping unison while their irate owners shout obscenities at the police. In the sky above this splintered section of city, a plane’s white contrail cuts lazy curls that vanish almost as fast.
Inside the restaurant, wood tables full of bearded men wrapped in shawls crowd the uneven floor, the air heavy, the room seeming to swell and pulse against the smudged walls with the odor of sweat and unwashed bodies and the heat from burning charcoal. I see no place to sit. Then a man waves to me and points at a space open beside him.
I wash my hands in a sink by the door. Frigid water trickles from the faucet. A cook stands nearby in clothes blackened with grease; behind him hangs the carcass of a lamb, its fur a bundle at his feet, a bloody knife entangled in the matted hair. He hacks off chunks of meat and throws them into a pan popping with oil; then, as it browns, he cracks an egg over the meat. The yolk slides off and dances in the hissing, popping oil until it floats white and bubbly. I shake my wet hands, and the cook throws me a grimed washcloth to dry them. I hand it back to him and make my way through the crowd toward the table where the man who had waved me over waits.
He tells me his name, Ghul Rahman. Deep lines river out from around his eyes and mouth. Beside him sits a gaunt man who stares at me as do the rest of the men seated at the table, a singular contained attention focused entirely on me. Westerners don’t often go downtown by themselves for fear of being kidnapped or targeted in some other way. A drive-by shooting perhaps or a bomb or a rogue Afghan policeman emptying his gun into the chest of a western contractor. But I get more than a little stir crazy remaining behind the walls of my hotel when I am not working until I get hit with the feeling that I must leave, go somewhere. However, as an American in Afghanistan, I remain caged no matter what I do. There is a quality of “whites only” when I leave my hotel for some other place—a restaurant usually—considered safe for Westerners. Afghans are not allowed in these places and armed guards stand at every entrance.
So today, I’ve decided to venture out on my own away from the sanctum of my hotel, restaurants and other safe retreats. With so many eyes on me, however, I wonder with the growing unease of a child who cavalierly entered a dark room on a dare only to imagine the sounds of ghosts, if I’ve made a terrible mistake.
“Where are you from?” Rahman says leaning back as if he needs to regard me from a distance.
“United States,” I tell him. “Journalist. Where did you learn English?”
“The university. Do you need a translator?”
“No. I have one.”