Capturing the Architecture of War Before It’s Gone

Since the U.S.-led invasion of Afghanistan in the fall of 2001, NATO and Afghan troops have relied on outposts, tiny bases erected in some of the least hospitable terrain to ever see combat. The outposts are places of refuge; the troops sleep, fight and sometimes live behind their makeshift walls. Many are no bigger than a tennis court and could only hold perhaps a dozen troops at a time. To protect them from the bullets and rockets of their enemies, NATO troops built walls from tightly-stacked sandbags or Hesco barriers, wire mesh baskets they fill with dirt and rocks that absorb the projectiles.

Donovan Wylie’s new book, Outposts: Kandahar Province and an accompanying exhibition at the U.K.’s National Media Museum show us some of the tiniest such bases in the remote areas of southern Afghanistan. Built by Canadian and American troops over a five year stretch from 2006 to 2011, the photographs in Wylie’s collection explain the practical requirements of the outposts–they are often built on high ground with open fields of fire to overwatch troops patrolling below–and show the crude architectural beauty that accompanies structures designed for practicality and the limits of the terrain. In one photograph, a tiny collection of barriers stands on an escarpment just below a towering peak. Because of their temporary construction, these outposts aren’t likely to survive, as Hadrian’s Wall and Masada, which beckon visitors as remnants of ancient war. That is why photographs are so important—to document how the first war of the 21st century was waged, with the most sophisticated weaponry, often utilized from fortifications that have changed little throughout the centuries.

Donovan Wylie is a photographer with Magnum Photos. See more of his work here. Outposts: Kandahar Province will soon be published by Steidl. The accompanying exhibition will be on view at the National Media Museum in Bradford, the U.K. through Feb. 19.

Nate Rawlings is a reporter at TIME. Find him on Twitter at @naterawlings. Continue the discussion on TIME‘s Facebook page and on Twitter at @TIME.

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