Here we go again: ‘Afghan Leader Karzai Condemns “US Marines Body Desecration” Video‘. Of course this is to be condemned and I expect that the marines in question will now be facing charges under the Uniform Code of Military Justice which is designed for these sorts of instances. It may or may not cause an uptick in violence but I doubt that the actions of these ‘strategic corporals’ will have much detectable impact on the general state of affairs in Afghanistan which are what they are: bad and staying bad. It will cause consternation at home too, for a while, until the next celebrity nipple slip or whatever else distracts viewers. In the interim there will be vicious exchanges of outrage in comments pages such as here:
As a US Marine, I am appalled at this. The fact of the matter is that by acting in this way, these gentlemen were going against the core values that each of us learn from day one of bootcamp and/or OCS. There is absolutely nothing that warrants behavior like this, and the only feeling that this kind of action should evoke is dishonor to both the individual as well as the Marine Corps.
Absolutely awesome….you dumb ass people do not realize the Taliban rape and behead captured soldiers or dismember them prior to death. I know this because I have served there and these details are not released to the press in my opinion the only thing better is the Soldiers taking a crap right on their dead faces after placing a piece of pork in their mouths. Screw those sorry bastards.
The thing is, though, these scenes are really only partly outrageous if you accept the definition above. To be sure, they are violent. And they go beyond standards of what is right and decent not to mention standards of discipline in the Marine Corps. But they’re really not unusual. It’s only unusual that such things now propagate outside of the theatre of conflict so widely and rapidly. Dreadful things have always happened in war. Consider this quote from Joanna Bourke’s An Intimate History of Killing (p. 37) of body desecration banal enough to have become some sort of family tradition:
In Bougainville (1944), John Henry Ewen of the Australian Infantry Force recalled his uncle telling him about a skeleton in the First World War which they had propped up with a dog biscuit in his mouth. Imitating his uncle, Ewen sat a Japanese skeleton under a signpost, added a tuft of dry grass for hair, and stuck a tin hat on his skull. He looked ‘pretty good’, Ewen commented, adding that he wished he had a camera.
The major difference today is John Henry Ewen is hardly ever without a camera. Cameras are ubiquitous in daily life and on the battlefield. A while ago I wrote in an article ‘The More You Know the Less You Understand‘ that ‘networked soldiery which can film anything and store and share the images on a microchip changes the rules of the game.’ I’m now not quite as sure of that statement–I’m not sure, as I was implying then, that it really is a strategic game changer. Now, I think perhaps that while the style of play is different it’s still the same old game. At the time I wrote that I was impressed by something the journalist Andrew Marr had said in the Daily Telegraph in ‘Digital Cameras Have Dispelled the Fog of War‘:
If ordinary troops can film anything and store it in tiny chips, or send it straight on, then the gap between what actually happens in war and what the domestic audience knows about has been closed.
Yes, of course, British families knew more about the Somme than historians sometimes admit: my family in Glasgow received and washed the sons’ laundry from the front every week, sending back packets of cake and small comforts.
But, somehow, actually seeing real-time images of what was going on would have been very different. Could the First World War even have been fought? I doubt it – and the same goes for much else. Had the Grande Armée had digital cameras, would Napoleon have stayed in power for five minutes after the retreat from Moscow?
Somehow, no doubt, wars will continue to be fought, and furtive cruelties will carry on in darker corners. But warfare has depended for centuries on a rampart of silence, a wall of willed incomprehension, between civilians at home and those killing. In a small way, the arrival of digital photography has broken through that wall.
There’s more than a kernel of truth to what he says and I like very much the line ‘rampart of silence, wall of willed incomprehension’. Images which in the old days would have ended up in a shoebox in the attic, or destroyed when the picture-taker returned to the normality of life back home are now shared and infinitely reproduced on the Internet. And yet the truth is still that the gap between what actually happens in war and what the domestic audience knows of it has not been closed. In fact, I’d hazard a guess that it has grown. The camera provides an illusion of intimacy, of beingthereness which can be false and misleading.
I’m not really trying to defend what these Marines were up to. Only to suggest that the dense media ecology in which war is now fought has an Alice in Wonderland like dimension which obscures as much as it illuminates while boosting war’s inherent chanciness, non-linearity and tendency to unintended consequences. As Ben O’Loughlin and Andrew Hoskins put it in War and Media:
…instant recording, archiving and distribution of images and stories add a chaotic element to any action. Nobody knows who will see an event, where and when they will see it or how they will interpret it. Nobody knows how the reactions of people locally or around the world will feed back into the event, setting off a chain of other events, anywhere, in which anybody may get caught up.
I’m not sure I can work through all the issues in a blog post–or for that matter in an article. The problem is complex, as academics dodging the question like to say. If however, you are interested in this area then I would recommend Janina Struk’s new book Private Pictures: Soldiers’ Inside View of War which puts the thing in historical context, from the Crimean War to Iraq. I found it very worthwhile. Let me quote from the conclusion which I think is salient:
The standard representation of war has become perceived as neutral–just as the imperialistic attitudes reflected in the images of the empire were also regarded as neutral at the time. But paradoxically, rather than reveal the true nature of war in the way that commentators imagined photography would do when it was invented more than 150 years ago, photographs have had the effect of concealing it. By serving commercial and aesthetic demands above the political, war photography does little to counter the ideological view that war is just and inevitable–in fact it could be argued that it goes some way to sustaining it.
Perhaps this is precisely the point: that the nineteenth century idealists, and all those in the business of representing war ever since, were not really searching for true depictions of war but rather drama, heroism and humanity as perceived by those of us who have never been there. As a consequence what they were seeking was not images of war, but ‘war photography’, a genre that would suitably reflect these elements. Perhaps that is why the snapshots taken by soldiers that capture fragments (and that is all a picture can do) of the brutal, mundane, frightening, and shameful world of war, that ignore the conventions of photography, are deemed problematical, confusing or unacceptable.
So, you know, don’t rush to judge.