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

By RHP | Posted on: December 27, 2013 | Updated on: October 24, 2015
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.”

15 thoughts on “The Death of an Iraqi soldier, Highway of Death, 1991

  1. D. Patton

    I guess those Iraqis made a very poor career decision. When they were told to leave Kuwait in January, they shouldn’t have continued to rape and pillage Kuwaiti citizens until February. Tough shit for them.

    1. Damiuss

      Pictures like these are great reminders that at the end of it all, we are all just human. Many men have done atrocious things in the name of the “greater good” of their country.

      Every one of them thinks themselves a patriot. Every one thinks themselves a “good guy”.

      At the end of it all though, war is where the young, patriotic, and stupid are tricked or brainwashed by deceivers, by the old and bitter, into killing each other while those (and the families of those) who send them in to die sit comfortably, hundreds to thousands of miles away.

      Your comment makes you sound old and bitter.

      1. Campbell

        That comment shows he’s sick in the head. He’s either never been to war or is very much lacking empathy, most likely because he’s sick in the head.

        1. David Marshall

          I am Canadian. How come people like you never have empathy for victims of the similar types of things the oppressors do to the people they conquer ??? Such as the Kuwaiti freedom fighters who were captured, put in a storm drain, had the cover bolted down over them, drenched in gasoline by the laughing Iraqi occupiers and burned alive. Why do people like you, I could call you Liberals because you probably are, but not all liberals are like you – why do you always imply and insinuate that the perpetrators of things like what we see above – horrible as it is – do it unilaterally, without cause or justification, without any real moral reason. Why do people like you cleverly or innocently ignore the fact that the occupation of Kuwait was one of the most brutal, horrible, and one-sided since WWII, and although the western response to fighting the Kuwait Gulf War was almost certainly about liberating Kuwait’s oil resource for western nation consumption, the extreme brutality of the Iraqis towards the Kuwaitis – Kuwaitis talked about that extensively – does justify the brutality of Kuwait’s Liberation, however ugly that was. War is hell, but the Kuwaitis did not bring this onto themselves, in fact they even supported Iraq against Iran, and Iraq still treated them as vermin and vassals to be brutally subjugated, pillaged, and eliminated if they showed resistance. If you know of a better way to stop Saddam Hussein’s Iraqi Army from doing what they did to weaker societies, why don’t you do it?, you immature sicko.

          1. auspiciousb

            Your knowledge of history is flawed and suffers from the opposite of what you accuse this person of. You cannot accept responsibility for what the United States did to a much weaker country that posed no threat to us at all. We are the ones who are sick, and the sooner we stop paying for war the better off everyone will be. Learn your own country’s history. There are books that tell it. But you have to care enough to read them. That is what someone who really loves their country, including its enlisted, will do.

    2. Brendan Johnson

      For those that volunteered this might be true, but what about the draftees?

  2. John Trainor

    The United States is murdering people in foreign lands to defend our dollar. We are now persecuting Christians in our own country, trampling the rights of conscience, filling up our cup of iniquity. Torture, secret prisons, a tyrannical police state mushrooming up all around us, our arrogant leaders bankrupting us with their irresponsible fiscal insanity. Our Constitution repudiated more by the day. And president Obama laughs on. Woe to thee O land when thy king is a child. Keep excusing and ignoring the treason destroying our beloved nation, but you will be left holding the bag! All the destruction we are meting out around the world will come back on our own heads. We are fasting becoming the Nazi’s of World War II. Anyone who is honest with themselves and who stops to really think it through knows it. “I tremble for my country when I reflect that God is just; that his justice cannot sleep forever.” Thomas Jefferson

      1. Brian f.Lee

        Taking Bible out schools,separation of church and state. Taking down the ten commandments in our courtrooms and schools. Christians made a deal with the devil when they agreed to “separation of church and state” the Christians basically said we will not have a voice on how you run the united States. As long as we get tax free status. I was in the 3rd grade when this happened. And we as a country have been on the righteous side of hell ever since. Whoa. To you that is not enlighten.from yours truly former 82nd soldier.

        1. Max M.

          You were in the third grade? “On January 1, 1802, Jefferson wrote the Danbury Baptists, assuring them that ‘the First Amendment has erected a wall of separation between church and state.'” You must be the oldest living human being.

  3. Chip

    In war, there must be a winner and a loser. A stalemate, armistice or any other lack of finality only prolongs the grief and misery until there is a winner and loser, resulting in far more deaths than had the conflict been decided convincingly in the first place. Note the return of global war after WWI or the millions who have died under North Korean rule. America, like no other country in history, has done its best to win wars without conquering. America has made the world a much better place. Learn your history.

  4. KERRY

    I was at the Towers and saw hundreds of pictures like this. Many soldiers took pictures.

  5. alex lint

    William Tecumseh Sherman put it best: “War is hell.”

    It’s strange that, in modern culture, Sherman’s quote has been turned on its head. In the movies (and even in everyday life), one often sees people uttering the line but with a smile on their faces, as if it is some kind of ironic statement.

    But it isn’t. Sherman was a man who had seen carnage first hand, and had caused much of that carnage himself. His infamous “March to the Sea” through Georgia was characterized by brutality and destruction, mostly directed at civilians. So when Sherman spoke of death and destruction, he knew exactly what he was talking about.

    I remember reading somewhere that Sherman made the statement several years after the American Civil War was over, in a speech to a group of boy scouts or the equivalent. Whatever the context, here is the full quote:

    “I am tired and sick of war. Its glory is all moonshine. It is only those who have neither fired a shot nor heard the shrieks and groans of the wounded who cry aloud for blood, for vengeance, for desolation. War is hell.”


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