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Nov 01, 2007

All You Need Is Heroin: U.S. Troops In Their Own Hand


Graffitti17 2

Graffitti02 3

Epitaphs.  Reasoned opposition.  Doubt.  Fatalism.  Bravado.  Anger.  Bitterness.  Hate.  Faith, and blind faith.  Commemoration.  Castigation.

Photographer Peter van Agtmael has made two trips to Iraq and one to Afghanistan in the past couple years.  Among his work over that time is a series, the idea of which is eminently logical, but which I haven't seen before.  To capture a more raw if performative picture of the U.S. soldier's experience, Peter photographed graffiti on the bathroom wall at a major traffic point for U.S. troops, the Al Salem Air Force Base in Kuwait.

4Graffitti10  Graffitti135
6Graffitti15  Graffitti167
8Graffitti25  Graffitti239

I have some brief reactions to a few of the images.  (In #1, for example, I am struck how someone, obviously quite religious, ended up phrasing this as a question.  And I see #3 as speaking to the emotional monster of the killing field, and how quickly feelings become a liability, needing to be numbed out.)

Primarily though, I'm interested in what you are seeing and thinking here.  (All images pop open to a larger size.)

For additional photos, see this article at the ABCnews site.  (Click on the Photo link with the caption: Scared, Bored and Lonely -- The Horror Written On The Latrine Wall.")  More of Peter's images are also available at the World Press Photo site, where he won a Story Award for coverage of a night raid in Iraq.

(images: © Peter van Agtmael/Polaris Images.  Kuwait.  2006.  Used by permission.)


This is heartbreaking, but somehow uplifting at the same time. The ones where God is praised/appealed to especially catch my interest as they help to demonstrate the soldiers' sense of humanity that must be hard to hold on to. I was also struck by the hostility of reaction to some of these, I'm thinking here specifically of #6. Thank you for sharing these photos.

It's useless to play lullabies for those who cannot sleep.
John Cage

this is what we will never see on the nightly news...we used to see it in the 60`s but they learned their not televise the truth,the dead and dieing because it upsets the american conscience. how long will it be before we reap the whirlwind?

What do soldiers want? Same as the rest of us - peace and redemption.

Thanks for these photos, and the link to the additional photos. Both series give us a window into how the people fighting this war are coping with it, and it gives us a chance to connect. To put ourselves in their place for a moment, and feel viscerally what they are feeling, being in the middle, the muddle, of that situation.

I can't judge any of that graffiti, it's all raw and primal emotion. These soldiers know the futility of their mission. They know that taking care of one another while they are there, as best they can, is the only abiding truth.

number 6 is telling....anyone with a conscience is branded a 'fag".
an interesting commentary on where our culture is these days.

You know, I think the "Fag!!!" in number 6 might well be ironic. Who knows, really? The original message is so clear and heartfelt, I can see someone using a distancing mechanism.

"Where our culture is these days?" The degrading of gays and women in general has been used by insecure male bullies forever, hasn't it? One must repress all tenderness and feeling if one is going to be a real man, as defined by today's Republican party. It's always been there, but you're right-- it has gotten worse under Bush. We're all fags to that bunch. And damn proud of it.

Like the other commenters, #6 jumped out at me.

In particular, the "normalcy" of the original latrine grafitti, befitting any American who'd ever stayed awake during Sunday School (or, hell, "The Ten Commandments") and hearing 'Thou Shalt Not Kill', in contrast with the reptile-brained, monosyllabic retort.

What Chrisss said. (And doesn't the use of only 3 exclamation points itself indicate homosexual tendencies?) ;-)

van Agtmael is embedded and his photographs ~ portraits, really ~ exhibit dark / thoughtful character. These snapshots of latrine graffiti fail to achieve the same 'production value', but succeed in becoming the more telling as photojournal artifacts as soon as the viewer accepts the conceit implicit FRAME that these are inner expressions of the characters, thus.

the difference in apparent production values may reveal that the photographer either did not "set up" with an agenda to make graffiti documents, or he felt sufficiently uncomfortable himself (being embedded) to take these photographs = intimacies from his subjects, the result being a kind compositional urgency, of a quick, "furtive look" into their unguarded, personal space.

No one here, signs their work; the only names on this wall are names of the dead; everything here is unauthorized, but anything is allowed. Each man speaks to all other men in The Group in this intimate way, from this, their only intimate place: the only time they are ever likely to be alone, anonymous; tense, naked, without pretense?


But what do they say, "I Want To Survive"? Are we surprised that they (or anyone, really) actually have 'inner thoughts' like this, stuff they (or we) would write on that wall, or this blog, for others to see, especially: if we thought we could not be seen, ever be known?

#6: i need you desperately, yet feel uncomfortable by our necessary intimate dependency?

From the Latrine to the Terminator:
"Maria and I were saddened to hear the tragic news of Spc. Johnson’s death."
Other details follow, but no mention of 'Balls' @

Thank you all for the kind and thoughtful comments. I wanted to make a few elaborations on questions and postings...

jtfromBC- Thanks for posting that link. I never followed up on the life lost behind that name. These last months I have been doing domestic work following the pictures I took in Iraq and Afghanistan. It took a long time to reach that point. It was easier to try to leave everything behind every time I would step on a plane home.

MonsieurGonzo- The graffiti series came about by accident. On my first trip to Iraq I snapped a few shots of graffiti that struck me, but didn't think much of them until a friend seemed more interested by those photos then by the ones for which I'd risked my life. When I went back, I made sure to go into nearly every bathroom stall to see what was written. Interestingly, most of the soldiers that asked why I was barging into every stall with a camera thought it was a worthwhile thing to record. I got the impression that the graffiti at Ali Al Salem is legendary. It certainly is ubiquitous, covering much of every stall.

DoctorJay- I think the contribution to #6 was sincere, as I saw many variations written by many different hands next to similar commentary. The graffiti often branched out into many hands commenting on an original statement. The army is a cross section of the society and as a result there were endless contradictions in thought. Not what I was expecting, as hollywood portrays the military as a far more thoughtless institution then it really is. A tragic shame, as it contributes to the general dehumanization of soldiers outside of military families.

Thanks all for commenting and I'd be happy to respond to any questions.


I am horrified that this Jesus person is the driving force behind so many of these poor fsckers.


Stop lying. You love it. And what's with "this Jesus person"? Where have you been?

was intrigued by my own initial response to these; even before they were (sic) blown up. in particular #8. first glance, I thought this was some take on a bhurka. Having worked my way through the enlargements, opened this one expecting some vitreole around arabic female attire. interesting projection/contextualisation on my part. did anyone else get that image?

The words of the prophets are written on the bathroom stalls.

Peter, have you had any opportunity to photograph American graffiti on bases inside Iraq?

Heroin is a central nervous system depressant that relieves pain and induces sleep. It produces a dreamlike state of warmth and well-being. It may also cause constricted pupils, nausea, and respiratory depression, which in its extremes can result in death. Heroin activates brain regions that produce euphoric sensations and brain regions that produce physical dependence—hence its notorious ability to produce both psychological and physical addiction.


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