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Fifteen years later, photos of the US invasion of Iraq offer a rare lens on war

Reuters/Kai Pfaffenbach
In a foxhole, 15 years ago today.
  • Johnny Simon
By Johnny Simon

Deputy Photo Editor

Published This article is more than 2 years old.

Today is the 15th anniversary of the US-led invasion of Iraq, and a look back at photos from that time reveals an increasingly rare way of seeing war.

Photos from the first weeks of the 2003 invasion, taken by photojournalists mostly embedded with military units, painted the picture of a decisively planned war unfolding neatly, and implied a quick resolution. Carefully organized photo-ops over the next two months created a visual narrative of victory, from the sight of a statue of Saddam Hussein being toppled in Baghdad to US president George W. Bush landing on an aircraft carrier to declare “Mission Accomplished”. 

AP Photo/J. Scott Applewhite
President Bush declares the end of major combat in Iraq as he speaks aboard the aircraft carrier USS Abraham Lincoln off the California coast, on May 1, 2003
AP Photo/Jerome Delay, File
Iraqi civilians and U.S. soldiers pull down a statue of Saddam Hussein in downtown Baghdad, on April 9, 2003

But that supreme confidence was undone by the ensuing months and years of conflict that killed more than 4,000 Americans, and more than 100,000 Iraqis. After Iraq, the US military has increasingly favored drone strikes and special operations missions, rather than sending in ground troops for a military engagements. In turn, pictures from the US’s military engagements abroad have become far harder to come by—and not nearly as flamboyant.

Today’s conflicts are often conducted away from media, with little to no publicly available visual documentation. As strategic and technological shifts have led to fewer service members deployed into conflict areas, they have also created a gulf between what the US does abroad and what its citizens can see. In the future, Americans may look back at Iraq as the final episode in a long tradition of overt military propaganda.

AP Photo/Julie Jacobson
US Army and Marine troops hunker in a bunker at their base in the Kuwaiti on March 20, 2003.
Reuters/Kai Pfaffenbach
US Army combat engineers lay in their foxhole to secure important ground in the south of the city of Najaf in central Iraq, on March 23,2003.
Reuters/Damir Sagolj
A US marine sits inside near the southern Iraqi town of Nassiriya on March 24, 2003.
AP Photo/Itsuo Inouye
A US Marine from the 15th Marine Expeditionary Unit looks back as he takes position and aims his rifle after hearing the sound of gunfire in southern Iraq on March 21, 2003.
Reuters/Damir Sagolj
US marines check their weapons near the town of Nassiriya March 24, 2003.
Reuters/Jerry Lampen
A US soldier bares a tattooed arm while carrying his weapon as he patrols a water treatment plant in the southern Iraq town of Umm Qasr on March 25, 2003.
Reuters/Desmond Boylan
Soldiers of the 15th Marine Expeditionary Unit (MEU) Fox Company “Raiders” secure a bridge over the Euphrates river in the town of Nassariya in central Iraq on April 3, 2003.

A convoy of 2nd MEF (Marine Expeditionay Force) crosses a bridge over the Euphrates river in the town of Nassariya in central Iraq April 3,

Reuters/Kai Pfaffenbach
A US Army combat engineer smokes a cigarette while between the cities of Najaf and Karbala as another sandstorm turns the daylight orange, March 26, 2003.
AP Photo/Julie Jacobson
US Marines Staff Sgt. Travis Riddick keeps an eye on the outside of the CH-53E on which he was the tail gunner at a camp along the Iraqi border on March 21, 2003.
AP Photo/Julie Jacobson
A US Marines CH-46E Sea Knight helicopter passes over a herd of camels as it heads back to base after dropping off some troops at a forward position in Iraq on March 31, 2003.
AP Photo/Julie Jacobson
US Marines Sgt. Michael Castaneda, of the 3rd Light Armored Reconnaisance, allows a family to pass a checkpoint near a Marine encampment on a road south of Baghdad on April 4, 2003.
AP Photo/Itsuo Inouye
Sgt. Bruce Whitfield of Los Angeles, Calif., with the 15th Marine Expeditionary Units, Echo Company, takes a break in the sun in Nasiriyah, Iraq on April 5, 2003.
AP Photo/Itsuo Inouye
Lance Cpl Jose Castro from Houston, TX, with the 15th U.S. Marine Expeditionary Units, Echo Company, guards at a checkpoint in the southern Iraqi city of Nasiriyah Sunday on April 6, 2003.
AP Photo/Julie Jacobson
US Marines with the 7th Marines, 1st Division, search buildings at a deserted Iraqi Republican Guard training camp Sunday, April 6, 2003, south of Baghdad, Iraq. Teams of Marines searched rooms and inspected the remains of Iraqi soldiers’ personal belongings and training material. (AP Photo/Julie Jacobson)
AP Photo/Itsuo Inouye
Sgt Willis William with the 15th Marine Expeditionary Unit, shakes hands with an Iraqi boy during a patrol in Nasiriyah on April 15, 2003.
Reuters/Desmond Boylan
A Marine of the U.S. Marine Expeditionary Unit (MEU) Fox Company “Raiders” sits in a truck at the entrance to Iraq’s main port of UmQasser on March 21, 2003.
Reuters/Pool/Simon Walker
Members of the U.S. 15 Marine Expeditionary Unit (MEU) load a mortar during a pitched battle with Iraqi forces at the port in Umm-Qsar insouthern Iraq on March 23, 2003.
Reuters/Desmond Boylan
Marines of the U.S. Marine Expeditionary Unit (MEU) Fox Company “Raiders” take control of a road during the early stage of the push into southern Iraq to take control of the main port of Umm Qasr on March 21, 2003.

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