On soldiers posing with corpses

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:

Al Qaeda/Haqqani Network death squads beheading 10 civilians in Sabari and placing their heads in a semicircular warning to collaborators

The Taliban strapping explosives to and blowing up prisoners

The Taliban executing a former ISI officer and then desecrating his body

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.

And this:

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.

And this:

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.

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  • Kent Gatewood says:

    Suicide bombers should not be buried until we are sure they are no longer a threat. Couple of weeks, a month.
    Also survivors of a suicide attack have a right to celebrate.
    Better not be any pictures of soldiers posing with dead Germans or Confederates.

  • wallbangr says:

    Very well put. While I groaned at the mention of yet another ugly military news story yesterday, I had the same thought about taliban executions, which are recorded and then spread virally around the internet. It is telling that the media sees no need to “expose” these actions, much less feign outrage over them. As with the urinating video, this was poor decision-making by the guys who shot the footage, especially because they likely would have been told from on high that we don’t need the negative media coverage. Perhaps not as forcefully in this case, as these photos were from 2010 (before we had the koran burning incident, the urinating video, etc.). I’m sure every soldier, marine and airman has been told by now to be sensitive to the issue. The irony of this need for sensitivity, when you consider what their professions entail, is likely not lost on them. While these photos may turn your average civilan’s stomach, they pale in comparison to what these young men see and experience every day. So I couldn’t agree more with your point about the media failing to put these pictures in the proper context. One also wonders what suddenly made these pictures so relevent and newsworthy now, 2 years after the fact? I recall plenty of so-called “war-porn” coming home with the lads from Iraq. Should those images be front-page news, as well? When you consider that our erstwhile allies in the region don’t really need an excuse to dislike us more, the media’s obsession with this kind of thing does start to seem like throwing fuel on the proverbial fire

  • Gerald says:

    I feel no outrage at seeing a dead terrorist. These so called holy warriors kill innocent men women and children as easily as some people would squash an insect. And they revel in the carnage and fear they cause. They have put themselves above the laws and mores of civil society and deserve no sympathy when they die. USA ALL THE WAY!!

  • Devin Leonard says:

    The latest series of photos or the photos that showed my brother Marines urinating on corpses is regretfull, but I am not going to run around with my butt on fire and condemn these young guys. We all do things we shouldn’t and this is hardly the worst thing in the world. Now…the killing of the Afghan civillians was another matter, but that was a lone event. Every professional military has had something like this happen. British soldiers did things in Northern Ireland they shouldn’t have. Israeli soldiers have done things in Lebanon and Palestine they shouldn’t have. French troops did things in Indo-china and Algiers they shouldn’t have and the list goes on and on. NONE OF THIS- reflects the overall professionalism of the US military, which is arguably the best in the world…period!

  • Gitmo-Joe says:

    You win wars by dealing with reality, not whining about the press. This has nothing to do with morality. I don’t give a damn if soldiers pee and crap on dead Afghans all day; if you make a video of it, it will be used by Al Qaeda for recruiting.
    In a war like this its all about winning over the “fence sitters”. Videos like this tell villagers we’re not much different than the Taliban. But the most powerful image of the U.S. Military is supposed to be that we are NOT like the Taliban.
    In the words of Petraeus, “The decisive terrain is the human terrain. The people are the centre of gravity. Only by earning their trust and confidence can the ISAF prevail.”
    Maybe some guys think Petraeus is full of crap and want to undermine his strategy. In that case, keep making the videos guys, you’re making good progress.

  • Will Fenwick says:

    There was a time when the government actually encouraged such activity. For example during the American intervention in Haiti in the First Caco War, Herman Hanneken took a rather graphic picture of the insurgent leader Charlemagne Peralte who he had just assassinated. The Marine Corps distributed the photograph to the local population in an effort to deter the population from joining the insurgency. Hanneken was later awarded the medal of honor for his assassination of Peralte.
    There is also the rather infamous picture of the aftermath of the First Battle of Bud Dajo during the Moro rebellion. The Americans involved under the command of Leonard Wood, liquidated an insurgent position that harbored large numbers of women and children. After the action ended the soldiers took a photograph of themselves behind a large number of dead moros.
    Pretty much every American counter-insurgency campaign since the dawn of photography has had similar instances occur. While these instances along with the incidents in Afghanistan are all revolting and disgraceful, they are typical of counter-insurgency warfare and despite modern attempts to prevent and discourage such activity it still occurs. It would seem that the more harsh the insurgency is the more of these incidents appear.

  • Mr T says:

    I am sure Karzai has publically condemned the Taliban and demanded they leave the country as well.

  • mike merlo says:

    trophy’s are healthy

  • jean says:

    There was picture of head of a suicide bomber that was circulating in 2007. As I recall, he managed to jump on a HUMMV in downtown Khost, his head flew in the air and bounced off another vehicle. The picture made the rounds. It’s hard to explain how soldiers walk away from near death experiences or what coping mechanisms they use to reconcile the events they lived through. Humor helps, even humor that is maybe in poor taste. I am not making excuses for bad behavior or laspes of disiplince. It’s been a long war. Need to stake the vampires and come home.

  • Ben says:

    This needs to be put on the front page of every single newspaper in America tomorrow.
    Tack on said examples of the enemy’s actions as well.
    It’s high time the public hold news organizations accountable for their lack of journalistic integrity. Whatever happened to truly unslanted journalism? Has there ever been such a thing?
    To the victors go the spoils… and in these days control of public sentiment and ultimately, policy are the spoils.
    Keep up the excellent work!

  • Bill Ardolino says:

    “You win wars by dealing with reality, not whining about the press.”
    Generally agreed but … if we’re interested in dealing with reality, then a good place to start is the fact that when you have hundreds of thousands of troops rotating through combat zones, with cameras on every smart phone, one isn’t going to completely suppress this type of behavior. Of course the troops are harming the strategy, and of course the behavior should be discouraged. That doesn’t change the fact that this will happen. And that the strategy is fatally flawed if it depends on it not happening at all.
    And in the case of an editor making a decision to capitalize on recent outrage over US behavior by publishing images that are *two years old* and not uncommon, then criticizing the gatekeepers in the press is arguably a more realistic strategy than pretending this can be stopped altogether.

  • chris says:

    I agree it is nothing new and its a part of the soldiers
    dealing with the horrors they see. Black humor is a great release.
    the big change is that with technology it is spread a lot faster around the globe and our enemies know how to use it to motivate their troops.
    the question is do we learn to use this as a tool ourselves. Teach the enemy to fear us as demons of war or do we ban all personal media, ( cell phones, cameras, computers from our soldiers ?)

  • Chris says:

    May I have a link to (if not just a reference news article or something) to the photo of the Iraqi policeman celebrating the insurgent deaths?I’ve just plum never heard of it.

  • Bill Ardolino says:

    “May I have a link to (if not just a reference news article or something) to the photo of the Iraqi policeman celebrating the insurgent deaths?I’ve just plum never heard of it.”
    It is a “personal recollection” from one of my trips to Iraq 5 years ago, not a recollection of a pic or news article. I have unpublished photos of the pile of dead bodies, but not of the celebration that preceded the photos. The incident was not unusual for the Iraqi tribal and security forces at the time. It merely rates as an anecdote, compared to the violence in the area/era (midnight hits by anti-insurgent forces, chlorine SVBIEDs, execution of imams by al Qaeda, etc.)

  • Dale Coggin says:

    All though I haven’t read everyone of the comments posted above… I feel like this is nothing more than the media sensationalizing a very insignificant story to make headlines and draw attention to their own agenda of anti-war, anti-whatever they are trying to accomplish.
    Since the beginning of photography on the battle field, soldiers have posed with the dead bodies of their enemies… it may be tasteless , even slightly disrespectful, definitely politically incorrect… but warriors, for the most part, are not politicians. Most are very young and do not think of political and international ramifications of their actions. They are there doing the job they have been given to do and they do it the best that they can.
    Its usually the politicians and especially the politically correct liberal media that usually makes sensationalized stories out of insignificant and un-noteworthy events such as this.

  • Neonmeat says:

    I think perhaps the reason we see so much outrage over photos such as these compared to similar Taliban and AQ documents is because we expect such things of our enemy but prefer to see ourselves in a different light. For many ‘our boys’ fighting overseas are just that, boys and teenagers, we rightly glorify their fighting spirit and courage but because of this I believe we often forget the brutality of their actual day to day lives and the effect this would obviously have on young minds (and old alike).
    I remember seeing a video of a Taliban beheading when I was much younger and it still sickens me to think of it today. Trophy pictures of dead enemies taken after battle pale in comparison to the act of sawing a mans head off on camera and then deliberately posting it to video sharing sites all over the world. As other commentators and the author has said taking trophy pictures is as old as war itself even ancient civilisations would depict battles and vanquished enemies in murals, statues even paintings (often in more gruesome detail than the badly taken photos we see now, and this ‘art’ hangs in galleries!) and it should not be treated as a new phenomenon.
    The media however seems fixated on villifying ISAF troops, in particular American soldiers who have born so much of the brunt of these recent wars. They have chosen their narrative for this ‘story’ and you have to search very hard to find news that doesn’t stick to it. On that note thank you LWJ.
    Also what is a chlorine SVBIED? I understand the vehicle-borne-improvised-explosive-device part but what does the S stand for?

  • James says:

    This kind of reporting by the LA tombs just appalls me. Two whole pictures, huh? La dee da ! ! ! Whip dee doo ! ! Big deal ! !
    As far as I can determine, we don’t even know if those body parts even belonged to Afghans.
    People need to boycott buying their paper till they get it right. Don’t buy the paper. Dont’t advertise in it (especially small businesses in the greater LA area).
    As far as this so-called ‘anonymous’ individual that provided the pics. Isn’t that person possibly at least as guilty if not moreso than the soldiers shown in the pictures? Isn’t he required to report such incidences to his superiors in a timely manner?
    The picture of the severed hand on the shoulder looks to me like it may well have been altered.
    These soldiers may well be court-martialed. I believe they have a fundamental and constitutional right to confront and cross-examine their accuser (whoever it was that provided the pictures). They also should be entitled to a presumption of innocence.
    Why don’t Mr. “Anonymous” come forward instead of hiding behind a veil of anonymity? This guy could be a former enlistee who received other than an honorable discharge and carries a grudge against the US military.
    Who was behind the camera in those pictures (or actually taking the pictures)? Could it possibly be Mr. ‘Anonymous’ himself?
    In my honest evaluation, there is something mighty ‘fishy’ about this whole story.

  • Jason says:

    Mr. Roggio,
    Thank you for your comments and saying what needs to be said concerning this fabricated outrage. It seems as if we are the only ones who can do wrong, according to our media, politicians, etc., while our enemy, who is a vicious, evil enemy get a pass on every atrocity committed. Your statement was a honest and great commentary on the current environment that we are fighting in politically.
    This is why I love your writings and keep up the great work!

  • George says:

    I think we should use the pictures and video’s to our benefit. When the media asks our SefDef what he thinks of our troops taking pics and posting video’s of suicide bomber bodies. After they have survived I think he should say……”yes they did post pictures and we’re gonna post more too, thats what happens when you blow yourself up” sucks to lose.

  • Bill Ardolino says:

    “I understand the vehicle-borne-improvised-explosive-device part but what does the S stand for”
    ‘S’ = the ‘Suicide’ variety

  • gary siebel says:

    There have been indications that some of the wilder activities associated with college spring breaks have toned down because of fears of participants that said activities are certain to appear on somebodies cam phone, and shortly thereafter on the net. Random video cannot be prevented, so it even more important to thoughtfully control the videos you make yourself. Civilians have caught on– time for soldiers to figure it out too.

  • Devin Leonard says:

    MSNBC analyst and Medal Of Honor winner Jack Jacobs made a great point the other day. He talked about the sanctamoneous crap the LA Times was perpetrating by trying to say their release of these pictures was “for the public good”…BS, he said (paraphrasing here) It was to sell newspapers that’s it and that’s all. The LA Times is little more then a spruced up tabloid.
    It does soak up my kitty’s pee quite well though.

  • CT SME says:

    Thank you LWJ for reassuring me that I wasn’t losing my mind. I could care less if our troops pose for photos with dead suicide bombers. Why? Because they are SUICIDE BOMBERS!! For gods sake that unit had been hit with VBIEDS and SVBIEDS over and over again. I’m sure those guys were elated that those idiots accidentally blew themselves up. Because that means they didn’t lose one of their brothers or themselves to one of those animals.

  • Will Fenwick says:

    With regards to Gary Seibel’s remarks above, this phenomenon has been around since long before the internet and camera phones ever were. As i’ve pointed out in two examples above, similar photographs have been circulated in nearly every counter insurgency operation the united states has conducted since the start of photography. And in the past, commanders and sometimes government officials would actually encourage and distribute such material for various reasons (most often to demoralize the enemy).

  • sports says:

    Well put…I thought it was distastful of the LA Times to make those photos a newsworthy story and I was even more disappointed the news channels thought they had to repeat the story.
    Meanwhile, I keep wondering why the medial doesn’t pick up and air some of the Taliban’s dirty laundry?

  • Gitmo-Joe says:

    I am disheartened that so many people on this site are not more concerned with the image of the U.S. Military and the consequences of all the photos since Abu Ghraib. I agree these particular photos are as bad as some others. But this stuff is not good.
    There is no question they hurt us. They erode our support back home, they erode our support around the world, they are used to recruit the enemy, they cause villagers to be less forthcoming with info. In a country where the vast majority can’t read, photos carry a lot of weight.
    It doesn’t matter if it used to be okay. It doesn’t matter if other armies do it. We are better than they are. We must always strive to be the best we can be. Part of being the best is protecting our image in the world. I do not like seeing our sec defense having to apologize to the world. I do not like seeing our retired Generals say we have a discipline problem.
    We should not take photos of this nature and we certainly should not do it in uniform.
    Forget blaming the press. In all these cases its soldiers posing in photos, soldiers taking photos, and soldiers sending photos to the media. We all know the press is not going to protect us.
    We can’t just say the hell with it. We have to stop this type of activity as much as we possibly can.

  • Devin Leonard says:

    Gitmo-Joe…I agree with you. My point was not to excuse this type of behavior in my posts. I DO think the American fighting man is the best in the world and was proud to serve as one of them. But, I also know the stress of war and that these things will happen, especially in a 10 year war (god knows they happened in Vietnam and in the 30 year war in Northern Ireland, with the Brits). Having siad that, you make great points that this does indeed hurt us in the short term and long term if they keep occuring. Jack Jacobs said the commanders need to provide better leadership, perhaps he is right. Just remember, everybody….we have the most diciplined and professional military on Earth and these incidents have not changed that.

  • Tom Kelleher says:

    I realize it has become quite fashionable to refocus the outrage presented by inconvenient news stories upon the authors of that information; but really, the decision by The Bills to jump upon the crowded Blame The Media Bandwagon is an assinine one.
    The logical outcome of such silly thinking is that Americans can’t be trusted to read the news presented by different news organizations and make up their own minds as to where this outrage should be directed; ie, we should ‘scrub’ the news to avoid wrong-thinking citizens coming to the wrong conclusions. Of course, there is a history of totalitarian regimes deciding to do just that. Is that really the path we wish to tread?
    Indeed, The Bills would go further…they strongly suggest we should PUNISH the authors who have given them offense (put them on the next plane to Kandahar, and stick them in a war zone) so as to teach them not to write questionable articles offensive to The Bills and other Right-Thinking citizens anymore. Again, well trod territory by many oppressive governments, gentlemen, but do our two authors REALLY wish to go there? Can they not see that this two-edged sword might be wielded by someone other than themselves…who takes offense at something THEY wrote?
    I think it a far better idea to allow Americans continue to read from several sources and make up their own minds, as opposed to the oppressive measures of Media Sanitization and Punishment put forth by The Bills.
    On the topic of outrage itself, The Bills smugly inform us: “Thus, this story doesn’t peg our outrage meter.”
    I suggest they allow their otherwise satisfied minds to simply think a little further…and employ the useful mental trick of Turn The Tables. Why should Americans feel any outrage at the “evidentially non-malicious” (as The Bills happily phrased it) burning of Korans? Well, just allow your minds to picture a bunch of [term deleted] janitors burning ‘extra’ American flags and Holy Bibles…and see if your otherwise non-functional ‘outrage meters’ jump a little bit. Similarly, picture Taliban soldiers posing with the body parts of American soldiers. Anything from the meter now, Bills?
    Suggesting that because the enemy has no ethics or feelings has destroyed YOUR sense of ethics is an inexcusable copout, gentleman.
    After all, if we as a nation are no longer required to be civilized because we battle savages, how can we POSSIBLY demand more from other peoples and nations?
    I just would request The Bills think a little bit more before they write such silly opinions. But no, I DON’T wish to punish either of them.

  • Bill Ardolino says:

    Tom Kelleher –
    1. Our (fantastical) wish to put authors on a plane to Afghanistan wasn’t suggested as an Orwellian punishment, rather as a tongue-in-cheek educational device to learn what is unusual in war. Unless you believe we and other correspondents who travel to these places simply believe in self-flagellation, rather than first-hand understanding. Similarly, to be clear, the suggestion that we build a time machine was also not literal.
    2. Publishing pics of troops posing with corpses during the course of, say, normal news coverage on a unit would be appropriate. Pushing two year old pictures of an unremarkable event to the front page to capitalize on recent stories is a poor, non-contextual editorial judgment, and sensationalism, in our opinion.
    3. As for the suggestion we would be outraged if some individuals (I have deleted your racist term, use another one and next time your entire comment will not be approved) burned American flags or Bibles, you are wrong. That does not rate on the outrage meter either. Given that American flags are burned with some regularity, I know this with certainty.
    As for insurgents posing with American bodies, yes, you have a point: the outrage meter registered when corpses were hung from the bridge in Fallujah. But context is relevant: those pictures involved orgiastic mutilation of corpses, not some fools smiling while taking SSE forensics as Afghan cops hold the limbs of a suicide bomber, and were published at the time of the event, in the context of a major news story.
    Bottom line: We condemn taking trophies and do not endorse the behavior in the LA Times pictures. Chain of command should actively educate and warn troops with UCMJ consequences to discourage this behavior. We also concurrently do not believe the existence of these pics merits the treatment they received in the news cycle, and ironically, agree with you: individuals should have the whole picture, and be able to decide for themselves. Hence our suggestion that the media routinely show more graphic representations of war, across the board, in a timely presentation, if they are going to shine a light on this issue involving US soldiers.
    Please try to read the piece more closely before offering (to borrow your adjective) a “silly” critique. And while you may be passionate on the subject, please watch the tone of your comments to avoid violating LWJ comment policy.

  • James says:

    To Tom Kelleher:
    Oh me oh my Tom. Get a grip on yourself.
    You have to agree now don’t you that there is such a concept as ‘ethical’ journalism?
    In my honest opinion, the story we’re now openly debating was not ethical journalism but would be more in line with yellow journalism. Or, maybe I should come up with a new term and call it ‘morbid’ journalism, which is as bad or maybe even worse than pornography.
    Of course, the premise that there has been a ‘failure of leadership’ I feel is a valid one. But that failure begins with ‘Mr. Apology’ [in DC].
    No need for taliban appearing with body parts. There’s plenty of that kind of material out there already.
    How about Danny Pearl? What were his last words (before they cut his head off)? “My mother is a Jew.”

  • Jay Hill says:

    As long as there has been war there has been men who have celebrated their survival in many ways. Taking “war trophies” many that are considered inhumane was always one and with the advent of photography there came the idea of photographic images with the one’s who were defeated. I have served in Iraq and Afghanistan and while I find it offensive personally I will not condemn these soldiers for doing what they did. For anyone who has “lived” through a fire fight they know there comes with it a certain level of feeling invincible and an adrenaline rush like no other, as well as the bodies overriding the realty of what really happened by doing such things as trophy taking and photography. For me it was laughing, I laughed at and found joy in the destruction of my enemies and their means of killing me and my men. So am I a bad person? Because I laughed at and enjoyed defeating my enemies is close combat? No I am not and neither are these men. Don’t judge unless you have been there.
    Jay Hill
    US Army 1SG retired
    Combat Engineer “Sappers”


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