The Los Angeles Times has published pictures of US troops posing with the corpses of Afghan insurgents. Coming on the heels of a video of Marines urinating on dead Taliban, the firestorm after the (evidently non-malicious) burning of Korans, and the murders of civilians in Kandahar, the story predictably shot to the top of Memeorandum, The Washington Post, and The New York Times, among many other outlets. We haven’t bothered to turn on the TV, but the cable news outlets likely began their 24 hours of deep concern and outrage.
The photos buttress the recent themes of repeated violations of US social mores and the negative outlook on the war, as well as attracting eyeballs through reliable shock value. But on that last point, we wonder, and we think some members of the US media need to evaluate their priorities. As distasteful as the practice may be to many (ourselves included), young soldiers posing with dead enemy is not a particularly novel event, in either the vast history of human warfare, or the recent battlefields complicated by the presence of digital cameras.
One of the best historical resources that delves into the phenomenon is With the Old Breed: at Peleliu and Okinawa, Marine mortarman Eugene Sledge’s history of the Pacific Campaign in World War II.
The behavior is also not unique to the military, as attested to by the tradition of medical students jauntily posing with cadavers:
Taking photos with cadavers is nothing new. In the late 1800s and early 1900s, medical students regularly posed with cadavers. Some took darkly humorous shots with the dead bodies posed or dressed in costumes. Others took serious classroom photos mid-dissection.
Hughes, a recent graduate of the University of Iowa’s medical school, proudly displays a photo in her office of her great-grandmother with a cadaver that was taken in her medical school anatomy class in 1910. But she acknowledges times have changed.
Some personal recollections from the most recent conflicts stand out to us: Americans grinning next to the body of an Afghan man killed when he tried to emplace an IED meant to kill other members of their patrol; and Iraqi cops firing off light machine guns in the air in celebration over a roughly handled pile of insurgent corpses.
This itemization, which is far from complete, isn’t meant to justify mistreating corpses or a breakdown in discipline — not in the least. But we do argue that it serves to contextualize, and ultimately question, the decision by Western media to belabor corpse photos as a top news story. Gross humor in professions that deal with life and death is not unheard of. And there are much more shocking events taking place in this war that are ripe for similarly prominent or graphic treatment. For example:
Mass executions, more mass executions, an execution with a reccoilless rifle, the poisoning of 170 Afghan women and girls, as well as innumerable other examples. None of this is to mention the idea of more commonly showing graphic visuals of run-of the-mill, perfectly legal killing, which is of course the central event in a war.
Thus, this story doesn’t peg our outrage meter.
And to the extent it outrages a viewer, it speaks to failures by the media and media consumers. On its face, it reflects a failure to contextualize these events. It also shows a failure of LA Times editors to prioritize what classifies as behavior worthy of ‘front page’ treatment, especially in light of the trade-off between news value and gratuitously stoking rising Afghan xenophobia against US forces. And above all, it amounts to a failure on the part of some to judge what constitutes outrageous or unusual events during war. We don’t speak for everyone, but young soldiers posing next to dead insurgents ranks about a 2 (of 10) on the scale of things that have shocked us about Afghanistan or Iraq.
And yet, there are sweeping reactions like this:
A decade at war has led to a disturbing ethos in some parts of the military, one that some in the upper echelons seemed to, if not endorse at least agree to keep quiet about. With Iraq over and Afghanistan winding down, I certainly hope that someone in Washington is thinking about what role this new wartime military will play in peacetime.
Something’s gone terribly wrong in our military industrial complex, which is not news, but it has become so wide, deep and secretive that control is no longer an option.
The sickening pictures speak for themselves. At what point will we recognize that inserting ourselves into places like Afghanistan and Iraq will change us, has changed us, and will change us.
With respect to the above authors, these statements cause us to want to kit them up with KEVLAR and SAPI plates and get them on the next plane to Kandahar. Better yet, build a time machine and send them to Baghdad in 2008, Fallujah in 2007, Kuwait in 1990, or to Inchon, Normandy, Okinawa, or Thermopylae at other points in human history. Failing all that, encourage them to read a history book. To express shock and attribute incidents like this to recent conflict, or, much worse, to domestic political considerations, constitutes either cynical manipulation or embarrassing naivete about both warfare and human nature. This may not be standard behavior by US soldiers. But it is not exactly rare when young men – Western or otherwise – are sent to war.
Thus, if you’re an editor who is going to vault these pictures to the top of the news cycle, don’t dwell overlong on the failings of a few US soldiers – gratuitously show it all, the whole stench and panoply of devastation wreaked by war, including actions by an enemy not bound by any rules of engagement. Because when folks in the United States are shocked that the behavior in the photos exists, it means either that the media is falling down on the job, or that some folks simply aren’t paying attention. Probably both. Perhaps the occasional cable news cycle featuring a reccoilless rifle round tearing up a bound Afghan policeman, or the mass execution of captured Pakistani policemen, would change that.