U.S. troops pose with suspected Afghan bombers' bodies
By Josh Levs, CNN
updated 9:47 AM EDT, Wed April 18, 2012
Defense Secretary Leon Panetta is among U.S. and NATO officials condemning the 2010 photos.
“(CNN) -- The Los Angeles Times published photos Wednesday of U.S. soldiers posing with what the newspaper said were bodies of insurgents in Afghanistan -- sparking outrage and condemnation from U.S. military officials.
“The two photos published by the paper are among 18 provided by a U.S. soldier, who wanted "to draw attention to the safety risk of a breakdown in leadership and discipline," The Times reported.
“The military said an investigation is under way.
“The photos, from incidents in 2010, represent "a serious error in judgment by several soldiers who have acted out of ignorance and unfamiliarity with U.S. Army values," NATO'S International Security Assistance Force said in a statement. Gen. John Allen, the ISAF commander, condemned the photos, as did U.S. Defense Secretary Leon Panetta.”
From the earliest battlefields, long before written chronicles of war, bits and pieces of the vanquished have been used as trophies. The reasons for using the defeated to broadcast a message may vary. Some tribes ate the vanquished in order to absorb their “powers,” and incidentally their protein. Other combatants mutilated the defeated in order to increase the terror associated with losing in combat. One of the most effective reasons was the unmistakable announcement of who really won the battle. No soldier surrenders his right hand or his skull willingly. Those trophies were used to enumerate the losses suffered by the defeated army, tribe, or nation; and coincidentally to increase the psychological terror imposed upon them.
Soldiers who brought the largest number of trophies to the post-battle reckoning were unmistakably superior in their craft than those who made up the trophy pile. As with any such violent craft, luck also played a role in determining who won and who lost.
The Crusades, the wars for empire, various religious wars and every battle that took place left piles of bodies missing parts, and accoutrements. Anyone could bring home someone else’s dagger, helm, or armor. Bringing home some bit of opponent spoke more loudly of the horrors of combat.
We like to depict U.S. troops as morally superior to all other soldiers down through modern battlefield history. Some facets of modern warfare make it easier to hold such opinions than it should be. We’ve never been that moral on the battlefield.
Scalping was always used to paint the defeated American Indians as barbaric. True, post-battle mutilations were part of Indian warfare. Sometimes religion played a hand in such activities. Quite often, it was the women who engaged in mutilations and quite often the defeated was still alive when these sports began. Scalping was introduced as a means of counting the numbers of soldiers killed in the French-Indian War. Scalps were exchanged for trade goods. They often made their way back to the settlements and towns as heirlooms and curiosities.
The Sand Creek Colorado battle was probably the worst demonstration of mutilation by Americans during the Manifest Destiny period. The irregular army under a religious fanatic leader displayed truly vicious and brutal behavior.
Photography began to be used as a recording device during the American Civil War. While truly horrible pictures were made, the process was labor-intensive and not easily done by troops after a battle.
During WWII, American troops collected skulls and teeth during the Island-hopping Pacific campaigns. The Japanese treatment of captured Americans made their soldiers quasi-acceptable targets for such trophy taking. Cameras were somewhat more available and developing film more easily done, so such documentation did take place by all combatants. The German forces even went so far as to photograph and document their inhumanity in conceiving and carrying out the Holocaust. American and other Allied forces were able to document the liberation of the various slave labor and death camps.
VietNam with its brutal guerrilla warfare involving the wholesale slaughter of villagers for political reasons saw trophy taking. Teeth and ears were commonly collected by those who found their way over the line. Taking pictures with prisoners was only a short step from taking pictures with the bodies of the enemy. I’ve seen too many faded shots of grunts with propped up Vietnamese bodies.
In order to teach our troops to fight and kill, we have typically put them through a process of dehumanizing the enemy. There is, within most of us, an aversion to killing someone else. The basic training we provide our soldiers is designed to overcome that aversion to the degree that they are willing to follow orders when asked to kill others.
The current generation of soldiers has grown up playing 1sst-person-shooter video games; the participant is able to role-play and to virtually destroy single and groups of “the enemy.” To a degree, infantry training and re-training now includes some forms of these games, which require “shoot – no shoot” rapid decisions. While the trainee can lose, there is no physical penalty for failure.
With the inception of “killing games” and the dehumanization of the enemy, it becomes easy to disregard the former humanity of dead enemies. While random killings and trophy collection are severely proscribed and certain to bring heavy penalties, collection of digital trophies is now easier than ever.
When we inure trainees to the innate brutality of warfare we strip away some of the all-too-thin veneer of civilization that exists in young males. The physical and emotional drive to contest with others for status is partly involved in using weapons to achieve increased status among peers. There is no longer a reward for body counting. In many ways, we are trying to conduct a war with no killing and no casualties. This, when demanded of the troops who most frequently take fire and casualties, is highly illogical and impossible of execution. The confusion and frustration that are engendered among the line units is a factor in these countless small violations of the UCMJ. Trophy taking by capturing digital proof of how one vanquished the enemy is going to carry status in some cultural groups in uniform and out.
In my experience and in what I have read, it is usually the least well educated among out troops who resort to violations of the rules of engagement and UCMJ.
The U.S, populace will treat this in divergent ways. The more progressive of us will recognize the impropriety of such behavior and condemn it. Unfortunately, they will too frequently condemn the armed forces as well. The reactionaries will see little wrong and will ramp up the 2nd Amendment and gun law arguments with the NRA encouraging the various militias that are comprised of people who chose not to share the military risk, or who may even have been rejected by the military as unsound to provide with modern weaponry.
The armed forces have one purpose, imposing our national goals upon other nations, and/or groups, by means of force. That almost always involves killing. Once we’ve told a young soldier that it is permissible to kill at the nation’s request; it is very difficult to rescind that request. Fortunately, most of our soldiers are fully capable of reversing that training. For a few, there is little limit between video games and video training. Those are the ones who take pictures with bodies and who find other way to take trophies. It is always frightening when we see such actions carried out by young men and women in our uniforms. Change the national emblems and suddenly all our pretence of moral superiority is peeled away with that thin overlay of civilization.