Breaking

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


The picture was previously considered by many editors to be too disturbing to print, but later became one of the most famous images of the First Gulf War. The photo was taken by Ken Jareke, quoting him: "If I don't take a picture of it, people like my mom will think war is what they see on TV". His account regarding this picture is below.

The image shows a burnt-beyond-recognition Iraqi soldier in the front window of a destroyed truck. The sun is coming in from the back of the truck and most of the surface of the image is burnt and just torn, so it's almost a black and white image, although it was made on color film. It was morning, we were up most of the night.

There was going to be a ceasefire in about an hour, maybe an hour and a half. We traveled east from Nasiriyah towards Basra, were connected by Highway 80 and started our journey south towards Kuwait City. And we came to this... just a single lorry, sort of in the middle of a double-lane highway. I was with a US military public affairs officer and he said: "I really don't take my pleasure out of making pictures of the dead". And I said: "If I don't make pictures like this, people like my mother will think that what they see in war is what they see in movies".

He didn't try to stop me, he let me go and there I went. And he could be the driver of the truck, he could be the passenger, but he was burnt alive and appears to be 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 man, or a terrible soldier or anything like that. But I know he fought for his life and thought it was worth fighting for.

And he's frozen, he's burned to the ground in time in this last-ditch attempt to save his life. At the time it was just something... well, I'd better draw a picture of it. I thought maybe there could have been better pictures. I literally shot two frames and moved on to other things and I didn't really think too much about it.

The First Gulf War was conducted entirely under the US Department of Defense pool system, meaning that any press organization that was a member of that pool had access to everyone else's work. The film was processed and when the image arrived at the AP office in New York, everyone made copies for themselves to show to the public, but then they pulled it by the wire. He recognized that it was too responsive, too graphic, even for editors.

Originally, this photo was not seen 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 around I am going to look in all the newspapers. Everyone had access to the image since the world.

This caused a lot of controversy in London, which is what it takes to do such images. They basically lead to a debate in the public: "Is this something we want to be involved in?".

How can you decide to go to war if you don't have complete knowledge? You need to know what will be the end result, what will be the middle result. And since then, it's an image that has a life of its own. It has been published hundreds of times, you can find it all over the internet, it just keeps going and it is published today as much as it was before.

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 to the Iraqi city of Basra. The road was used by Iraqi armed divisions for the 1990 invasion of Kuwait.

Post-war studies found that most of the wreckage on the Basra road was left behind by Iraqis before it was scrapped and that actual enemy casualties were low. After the war, reporters found some cars and trucks with charred bodies, but also several vehicles that had been abandoned.

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