The Death of an Iraqi soldier, Highway of Death, 1991

The Death of an Iraqi soldier, Highway of Death, 1991

This photo at first was regarded by many editors as too disturbing to print, but later became one of the most famous images of the first Gulf War. The death of an incinerated Iraqi soldier on the Highway of Death, 1991.

The Highway of Death refers to a six-lane highway between Kuwait and Iraq, officially known as Highway 80. It runs from Kuwait City to the border town of Safwan in Iraq and then on to the Iraqi city of Basra. The road had been used by Iraqi armed divisions for the 1990 Invasion of Kuwait.

That soldier was an Iraqi who was the victim of a fuel-air bomb. An article on Color Magazine described and had a photo of a device that looked like a big yellow garbage bin. Apparently it has high explosive as will as zirconium to provide incineration for a large radius. The US were able to destroy much of the opposition before the Iraqi could even target them. It was a bloodbath.

Postwar studies found that most of the wrecks on the Basra roadway had been abandoned by Iraqis before being strafed and that actual enemy casualties were low. After the war, correspondents did find some cars and trucks with burned bodies, but also many vehicles that had been abandoned. Their occupants had fled on foot, and the American planes often did not fire at them.

This photo was taken by Ken Jarecke. His quote “”If i don’t photograph this, people like my mom will think war is what they see on TV”.

“The image shows a burned-beyond-recognition Iraqi soldier in the front window of a destroyed truck. The sun is coming in through the back of the truck and most of the surfaces in the image are burned and just torn up, so it’s almost a black and white image although it was made on color film. It was early in the morning, we had been up most of the night. There was supposed to be a ceasefire in about an hour, maybe an hour and a half. We had traveled east from Nasiriya towards Basra, hooked up with Highway 8 and we started travelling south towards Kuwait City. And we came across this… just a single lorry, kind of in the middle of a double-lane highway. I was with a public affairs officer with the US Army and he said: “I don’t really get my jollies out of making pictures of dead people.” And I said… I just thought of the first thing I could think of, and I said: “If I don’t make pictures like this, people like my mother will think what they see in war is what they see in movies.”

He didn’t try to stop me, he let me go and I just went over there. And he might have been the driver of the truck, he might have been the passenger, but he had been burned alive and it appears as though he’s trying to lift himself up and out of the truck. I don’t know who he was or what he did. I don’t know if he was a good man, a family man or a bad guy or a terrible soldier or anything like that. But I do know that he fought for his life and thought it was worth fighting for. And he’s frozen, he’s burned in place just kind of frozen in time in this last ditch effort to save his life. At the time it was just something… well, I better make a picture of this. I thought there might have been better pictures. I literally shot two frames and moved on to other things and I didn’t really think a whole lot about it.

The first Gulf War was done entirely under the US Department of Defense Pool system, which means any press organisation that was a member of that pool had access to everyone else’s work. The film was processed and when the image got to the AP office in New York, they all made copies for themselves to show people but then they pulled it off the wire. They deemed it was too sensitive, too graphic for the editors of the newspapers that are part of the co-op – too graphic even for the editors to see, not even to let them make the decision of what the market they served could see.

So, basically, it was unseen in the US. In the UK it was published by the London Observer and I was actually going through Heathrow and I picked up the newspapers and I saw it was quite big, and that was basically the scene I thought I was going to see in all the newspapers around the world, since everybody had access to the image. It caused quite a controversy in London, which is what images like that are meant to do. They’re meant to basically cause a debate in the public: “Is this something we want to be involved in?”

How can you decide to have a war if you are not fully informed? You need to know what the end result will be, what the middle result will be. And since then, it’s an image that has a life of its own. It’s been published hundreds of times, you can find all over the internet, it just keeps going and it’s published as much today as it ever has been.

War in movies and war on TV all seems incredibly clean. You see people, they get shot, they die. Everyone moves on. Occasionally you’ll get spurting blood, but even that’s kind of clean. There are a few exceptions of course. But the general formula in TV is that bullet = death, flying bodies = death, and everyone moves on. What you don’t really see in the movies is suffering. People who are still awake even though the lower half of them is strewn across a road. People who walk around with Lockheed Martin lodged into a skull cavity. People who didn’t really get that clean humane death.

Things Worth Fighting for: Collected Writings by Michael Kelly, chapter “Highway to Hell”, a war veteran memoirs:

I walked along for a while with [Bob] Nugent, who is forty-three and a major in the army’s special operations branch, and who served in Vietnam and has seen more of this sort of thing than he cares for. I liked him instantly, in part because he was searching hard to find an acceptance of what he was seeing. He said he felt very sad for the horrors around him, and had to remind himself that they were once men who had done terrible things. Perhaps, he said, considering the great casualties on the Iraqi side and the extremely few allied deaths, divine intervention had been at work, “some sort of good against evil thing.” He pointed out that there had not been much alternative; given the allied forces’ ability to strike in safety from the air, no commander could have risked the lives of his own men by pitching a more even-sided battle on the ground. In the end, I liked him best because he settled on not a rationalization or a defense, but on the awful heart of the thing, which is that this is just the way it is. “No one ever said war was pretty,” he said. “Chivalry died a long time ago.”

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