Lewis Carroll’s War

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.

Achilles desecrating the body of Hector

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.


8 thoughts on “Lewis Carroll’s War

  1. Well, there WAS 9/11, right? Who started the fight?

    Don’t get all worked up Muslims… it’s not all Americans, just a few idiots with small dicks, lol.

    I am somebody spoact.blogspot.com

  2. Charles says:

    This sounds terrible (even to me), but I do accept that this kind of behaviour goes on, although I don’t condone it. My initial reaction was ‘who was the idiot who decided it was a good idea to record this?’ Neither the act nor the recording of it were good ideas, however they do reflect the amount of frustration felt by those fighting in Afghanistan.

    I also remember the images that came out near the start of the conflict that showed Northern Alliance troops castrating Taliban fighters on a stretch of road – possibly an act of revenge against things the Taliban has done to them and theirs? We consider our disciplined armed services to be of a higher moral standing than this, but is it really true?

  3. The Faceless Bureaucrat says:

    David, is this moral relativism I detect? Or is it something different when we advocate it? ;-)

    Quite aside from the ‘we must hold ourselves to a higher standard’ argument (which I believe is valid, by the way), I think what you are commenting on is interesting, but perhaps only makes sense if you look at it with one particular domain or dimension in view. What is usual (and therefore, by definition, not outrageous) on the battlefield is not really the issue. That may or may not change very much over the millennium. There are many debates to be had as to whether fierceness/brutality in combat has a positive or negative effect on troop morale, the intimidation of the enemy, etc., but I think those are largely beside the point.

    What is at stake, and what certainly counts in the contemporary epoch, is the acceptability of what happens on the battlefield to those of us off the battlefield. This is yet another offshoot of the ‘war is political’ trope. Soldiers need political and social legitimacy to survive at the institutional level. (So, too, do Warriors, but the bases are slightly different.) If what militaries do is not within the bounds of the home societies’ tolerance, then they may find themselves deemed illegitimate, and from that find it hard to command more and more blood and treasure. Hence the plethora of political speeches (during States of the Union, etc.) praising not only the bravery of the soldiers ‘over there’, but claiming that they represent the ‘very best of [insert country here]’ values, hopes, aspirations, conduct, compassion, etc.

    This, perhaps, is the risk of having the battlefield broadcast/pointcast directly to our homes. If we knew what went on ‘over there’, we may not want to support it any more. Brando’s Colonel Kurtz certainly got it right when he spoke about the perverse sense of ‘obscenity’ involved in war, but the reality is civilians have the right to determine that ‘usual’ is and what ‘outrageous’ is.

    Even Homer, in portraying the behaviour of Achilles, draws our attention to the fact that it was outrageous, and that it would not and should not be tolerated. And the standards are set, and judged, by those off the field of combat. By killing Troillus (Apollo’s son) on the altar of Apollo’s temple, Achilles gets what he has coming to him. First his ‘special friend’ Patrolcus is killed by Hector (aided by Apollo). And finally, he is later killed by Paris, again assisted by Apollo.

    When Achilles desecrates Hector’s body, Homer is at pains to show us that this, too, is outrageous. Both Apollo and Aphrodite prevent the body from being destroyed (despite being dragged behind a chariot), and it is Thetis, Achilles’ immortal mother, who convinces him to allow Priam the ‘usual’ right to mourn the death of his son. Clearly, such ‘misbehaviour’ must have been outrageous, if it required such exceptional intervention from Olympus? Surely that is Homer’s point in bringing it up in the first place?

    After all, as Carroll himself once said, “Everything’s got a moral, if only you can find it.”

  4. MikeF says:

    Conversely, is this just a physical reaction from the mixed messages we have sent our soldiers/marines? Hell, two years ago, we asked them to have “courageous restraint” and not kill bad guys. You cannot mess with soldiers/marines minds like that. In the short period after the fight, when one is clearing the objective, sometimes people do stupid things as they are having an emotional release from the their soul struggling (ethical dilemma) between being a man and a soldier. This is nothing new. We just don’t understand it.

  5. Lesley says:

    This all recalls to me Baudrillard’s complaint (refering to the first Gulf War) that we want to try and fights wars without any enmity, and second, that we are continually shocked by the immorality of images.

  6. Quintin says:

    Before I start, the following is not meant to condone (or condemn) the behaviour of these Marines. It is merely the surface scratching for an explanation.

    As with all human behaviour, including group behaviour, the actions of these Marines have an intrinsic as well as underlying symbolic motivation – in this particular instance, we look for the symbolic motivation, since no one here will actually believe that these Marines “really needed to go right now” and that there was no other place where they could have relieved themselves.

    It is with that recognition of the symbolic motivation that we, external to this small group, derive that the purpose of this ritual was to desecrate the bodies of their enemy – perhaps for the purpose of revenge (as F-B had pointed out, this is an ancient and common motive). But there are two possible alternative motives, interlaced as the one relates to the motive of the individual within the group, and the second of the individual towards the group.

    Though the action of urinating is for most parts accepted to be a purely physiological function to expel waste, (and that would be a natural outcome of having had that extra Starbucks), it also has a role to play in the marking of physical boundaries (so a territorial behaviour), as well as the signalling of submission during confrontation. As much as we’d like to argue that humans have somehow become exempted of such behaviour with the advent of Twitter and Justin Bieber, the reality is that this species is as much a part of that subscription as the dog. The question is: is this what we’re looking at here? It could be, but I do not think that this is the primary motive for the behaviour of these Marines, the reason being that acts of desecration are not limited to urination. There is something else… So why do fighting men do this type of thing?

    I believe that, on an individual level, acts of desecration are the equivalent of whistling in the graveyard. Whilst philosophers may still roil with the question of the Meaning of Life, the purpose of it is simple – it is to continue. It is therefore accepted as an axiom by Pavlov, Darwin, Ardrey, Maslow (and the list goes on and on), that all creatures (except the special case of some humans) want to continue living. This is sometimes coined as the Survival Instinct, (or reflex, if you will), and can be observed in all but single-celled creatures. But such creatures gifted (or cursed) by Evolution with self-awareness, understand mortality – it is part of the awareness programme. When confronted with death, we are reminded of our own inevitable and eventual demise – and it troubles us. In the case of these Marines, that calls for a show of “courage” – in this case, the pretence of it (or bravado). These Marines are pissing on bodies, but the symbolism is that they are urinating on their own fear of death. They are mocking death. They are whistling in the graveyard.

    So much for the individual motive, now for the group perspective.

    One of the prominent reflexes for the individual within a tight-knit group is that of performance – or the perception of adherence to the rules of the group. A number of things may trigger performance anxiety: the informal leadership of the group may be in flux (this is usually the case), or the group may be new, even if it is merely the addition or departure of a member, or the group may have had a tough time during operations (a rough fire-fight in terms of duration and intensity). It is time for the individual members of the group to show “what they’re made of”, so to speak, and reassert themselves within the group. I can guarantee you that this behaviour started with one individual – the one in greatest need of such a reassertion, the one with the greatest experience of performance anxiety.

    In short, not a scene of grave-robbing Nosferatu’s in the making… merely a small group of very scared boys.

    So to the readers of this: by all means, go ahead and condemn them. Court-martial them. Hang them if you will. But when you do so, bear in mind the possibility that it may be you coming to terms with your own mortality and that you are in effect addressing the same fears as they were (albeit in a different manner). Whistling in the graveyard.

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