The war in Afghanistan is at a crossroads. President Obama will soon decide whether to commit more U.S. troops to a conflict that’s already on the verge of becoming the longest military action in American history–or perhaps begin to dial back our commitment there. It’s been more than eight years since the war began, and for much of that time, it was a conflict that took place at the margins of our awareness. First the quick fall of the Taliban regime made Afghanistan seem like a problem largely solved. Then the extended agony of the Iraq war drew all eyes in that direction. But the problem wasn’t solved, the Taliban insurgency sprang back to life, and now Afghanistan is a military and political conundrum: Is it in our national interest to double down, or is the conflict an impossible one that will only come to grief?
In August, photojournalist Adam Ferguson, who has visited Afghanistan repeatedly to document the lives of U.S. infantrymen, landed there again, this time on assignment for TIME. His mission was to join Apache company, a detachment of 102 soldiers who had arrived a month earlier to establish a combat-operations post in the Tangi Valley, not far from Kabul. An incongruous strip of greenery between two bone-dry mountain ranges, the valley has become a flash point for the Afghan insurgency. By the time Ferguson got there, 26 men of Apache company had been wounded in the seven weeks since their arrival, and one had been killed in action–all from improvised explosive devices , the deadly little bombs that lurk anywhere. To convey the truth of a soldier’s life in a place like that, your pictures have to delineate a wide range of experience, from pain and grief and anxiety to loneliness, mischievousness and sheer boredom. The images have to find an equilibrium between the war zone as a place of jangling danger and abrupt violence and the war zone as the temporary quarters of young men far from home who are simply trying to get through the day with some semblance of normality. There will be blood, but there will also be mealtimes, horseplay and video games. Recall the old dictum by the great photojournalist Robert Capa: “If your pictures aren’t good enough, you’re not close enough.” What our photographer has attempted here is to get close enough. There have been cameras pointed at war zones since 1855, when the British photographer Roger Fenton toted his tripod and glass-plate negatives to the scenes of the Crimean War. A few years later, Matthew Brady and his team made their unprecedented record of battlefield deaths and civilian devastation in the Civil War. For most of us, our memories of war in the 20th century are from an image bank of photographs, from D-day to Korea and Vietnam–pictures that not only recorded those wars but also informed the way people felt about them. In the end, countless arguments will be made to chart our course in Afghanistan. But in those debates, pictures will have their place. They bring their own kind of information to the table: news about the look and feel of a place, the light, the dust, the weather. They say something about the emotional climate too–like the difficulty of identifying the enemy in a place where the distinction between the insurgents and the local population may be indiscernible.