Prime Minister Thatcher and the British Ministry of Defence changed the face of war coverage during the 1982 Falklands conflict. In Vietnam, journalists had been relatively free to report and roam at will, and could usually persuade some friendly military transport to take them where they wanted to go. In the Falklands, journalists were totally dependent on naval transport and military communication systems to get any story out at all. Moreover, those allowed this privileged access were handpicked; of the two official photographers, one was from the quasi-establishment Press Association and the other from the pro-Thatcher Daily Express. Don McCullin, the most influential and independent-minded war photographer of his generation, was refused permission to go.

George Bush senior learnt a trick or two from the British when he embarked on the first Gulf War. Images from that war present a squeaky clean, high-tech and laser-accurate campaign in which civilians didn’t get hurt and all the right targets were eliminated. When George Dubya resumed hostilities against Saddam in Iraq, there appeared to be a fundamental change in policy towards the press. Sure, you can send along your reporter, your photographer, your TV crew but they’ll have to be “embedded” with us for their own protection and, oh yes, they’ll have to sign a document agreeing to abide by military controls.

Hundreds of embedded photojournalists accepted this poisoned chalice and virtually no images emerged from the professional phalanx that could be said to be revealing, challenging or even questioning of the nature of this conflict. Most wars throw up some iconic images. What will we remember from Iraq? A military-controlled mug shot of the captured Saddam Hussein looking like a Camden Town dosser, blood trickling down the lens of John Simpson’s stricken cameraman and perhaps most memorable of all, the trophy pictures taken by amateurs on mobile phones at Abu Ghraib.

In the midst of deep despondency at the inability of contemporary photojournalists to take on the US-British war machine, along comes a book that does just that. Why, Mister, Why? is a truly remarkable publication because it resurrects the basic principle that war reporting is about  capturing the essence of the conflict. The impact of the book is reinforced by a succinct, hugely intelligent, perceptive and painfully honest introductory text by Michael Hirsh, a senior editor at Newsweek. If ever we needed reminding that lasting photojournalism is not just about great images but about context and meaning, Hirsh’s words ram home the message.

Van Kesteren’s photographs communicate with an awful closeness and directness the felt life of ordinary Iraqis, confronted with a degree of random violence that neither they nor, perhaps, even the US perpetrators can begin to understand. We experience this conflict as much as is ever possible through the eyes of the “liberated” civilians and get a visceral feeling of what it is like to be occupied by an unheeding and uncomprehending army.

There’s something filmic about the sequencing of the pictures, a kind of relentless build-up through the war, the victory and the inevitable resistance to what is undoubtedly the core of the book, a hard-edged elegy for a situation that is completely out of control. Hirsh was persuaded to accompany van Kesteren for 48 hours into Samarra, a hotbed of insurgency in the Sunni triangle. Van Kesteren had seen it all before but Hirsh was appalled.

They witnessed US soldiers bursting into civilian homes, their massive size and menacing appearance terrifying women and children; arrested men trussed up like chickens as soldiers’ boots thumped into their backs; troops casually rifling through private family photo albums and male soldiers ostentatiously body-searching women civilians. All this had a profound effect on Hirsh: “I realised the Bush administration truly had no clue what it was doing in Iraq. Like a hidden generator, the occupation itself, I realised, was sustaining the insurgency.” He concludes: “[Yet] it is by now quite clear to anyone with a clear mind and honest heart that the US fought a war with Iraq that simply did not have to be fought.”

Van Kesteren stayed for seven months in Iraq but was embedded for only about six weeks on assignment for Newsweek. In Samarra, he gained the trust of the soldiers on the ground, who effectively controlled him since the official military press officers never went on these dangerous raids. These soldiers had been in Iraq for 10 months without a translator, and had no way of knowing who were the suspects, so they adopted the simple solution of arresting almost every male they came across. They saw all Iraqis as the enemy and since they thought they were doing nothing wrong, they allowed van Kesteren to photograph everything. Just occasionally, they would stop beating a civilian and tell him: “You’re lucky, Newsweek is here tonight.”

Both Hirsh and van Kesteren retain an element of sympathy for the troops on the ground. They were expected to carry out a counter-insurgency role they were not trained to do. The raids witnessed were, as Hirsh puts it, the soldiers’ “only interludes of empowerment … ‘Geneva Convention’ was not a term often heard at 3am in Samarra, not when you think everyone is against you.” One US officer had made an effort to learn Arabic and understand the Iraqi mind, but after many months, even he concluded: “The Iraqis will never like us, so they better fear us.”

There are some legitimate criticisms to be made about the presentation of Why, Mister, Why? The picture editing is too indulgent; many repetitive images communicate the same visual meaning. Most photographs are presented as double-page spreads but sometimes an important part of the image disappears into the centrefold. The chapter headings and anecdotal texts are irritatingly placed in the centre of a double page photograph, tempting you to rip them out. The lack of individual captions does not always help overall understanding of the work. On the plus side, the physical feel of the book is decidedly anti-coffee table, more like an extended magazine, smaller than A4, with quite flimsy paper that has serrated edges. All the text is in both English and Arabic, adding a sense of seriousness.

The book finishes on a despairing note with a horribly graphic series on the Baghdad car bombings: “The man was drenched from head to toe in his son’s blood. ‘My life is over,’ was all that he said,” relates van Kesteren.

Michael Hirsh, the writer, acknowledges his debt to van Kesteren, the photographer: “[But] too often the reporters tend to take the lensman for granted, as if they were there merely to add art to their words. This was one case where a photographer saw what was happening first and led one reporter to the well and bade him drink.” Why, Mister, Why? restores one’s faith in the capacity of photojournalism to engage, reveal and comprehend.

It should be compulsory viewing for anyone who still believes in the American Dream. As many ordinary Iraqis declared to van Kesteren: “If this is democracy, then they can keep it”.

Colin Jacobson