War Porn and Iraq

Photographing war was the province of photojournalists. Now the soldiers themselves are photographers.

| Wed Jun. 14, 2006 3:00 AM EDT

The history of war-atrocity snapshots did not start with the Abu Ghraib screen-savers from hell. After all, photography itself came into being as the industrializing West was imposing its rule on much of the planet. That imposition meant wars of conquest; and such colonial wars, in turn, meant slaughter.

From the moment the wooden sailing ship mounted with canons took to the high seas and Europeans began to seize the coasts of the planet, technological advantage lay with them. When others resisted, as they regularly did, the result was almost invariably an unbalanced slaughter that passed for war. Even in the relatively rare instances when European powers, as at Adowa in Ethiopia in 1896, lost a battle, the casualty figures still tended to run staggeringly in the other direction. In 1898, at the victorious battle of Omdurman, the British, using Maxim machines guns and artillery, famously slaughtered perhaps 11,000 Dervishes, wounding many more, at a cost of 48 British casualties. ("It was not a battle," wrote one observer, "but an execution.")

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With the one-sided slaughter their technological advantage in arms (and in the industrial organization of warfare) offered came the presumption by the Europeans, the Americans when they joined the imperial game, and the Japanese when they too leaped in, that there was some deeper kind of superiority -- racial, religious, or civilizational -- at work determining events. And so, above the repetitious fact of slaughter was invariably unfurled a banner with glorious slogans about delivering the benefits of "civilization" (in the French case, literally, the mission civilatrice; in the American case, "democracy") to the ignorant or benighted heathen and barbarians of the backward parts of the planet.

When against such obvious superiority and the benefits that went with it, native peoples "irrationally" resisted their own subjugation, when, against great odds and suffering terrible casualties, they refused to give in and were not wiped away, this naturally confounded expectations. It engendered an incomprehension, sometimes a fury in the troops sent to subject them, who had been assured that their task was an expression of manifest destiny itself. Then, of course, came frustration, resentment, rage, the urge for revenge, in short, the atrocity -- and against such inferior, irrational, inhuman types, it was increasingly something not just to be committed, but to be recorded.

How convenient that the camera was there and ever easier for any common marauding soldier to use. There is, unfortunately, no historian of the trophy war photo (as far as I know), but from the later nineteenth century on, these certainly begin to appear -- Europeans holding Chinese heads aloft after the Boxer Rebellion was crushed by a European-American-Japanese expeditionary force; the photo albums Japanese soldiers brought back from their imperial (and disastrous) expeditionary campaigns on the Chinese mainland in the 1930s -- those "burn all, kill all, loot all" campaigns against resistant peasants -- with snapshots again of Chinese heads being removed, private records of moments not to be forgotten.

The principle was: Do the barbaric to those already labeled barbarians or "bandits," or "rebels," a principle extended, not surprisingly, to America's imperial wars. When Vietnam descended into the famed "quagmire," for instance, it also descended into an orgy of atrocities. By the accounts of soldiers, the taking of ears, fingers, even heads was not out of the ordinary. As one soldier described the matter to author Wallace Terry in Bloods, An Oral History of the Vietnam War by Black Veterans, "Well, those white guys would sometimes take the dog-tag chain and fill that up with ears? They would take the ear off to make sure the VC was dead? And to put some notches on they guns. If we were movin' through the jungle, they'd just put the bloody ear on the chain and stick the ear in their pocket and keep going. Wouldn't take time to dry it off. Then when we get back, they would nail ?em up on the walls of our hootch." Another told Terry that the fourteen ears and fingers "strung on a piece of leather around my neck? symbolized that I'm a killer. And it was, so to speak, a symbol of combat-type manhood."

And the camera, which anyone could use by now, was never far behind. Many of these scenes were snapped and undoubtedly kept, including, as journalist Michael Herr recounted in his classic account of the war Dispatches, shots of severed heads. Some of these photos were disseminated. I remember one of them appearing in the late 1960s in an alternative (or, as they were called then, "underground") paper, of a grinning American soldier holding up a severed Vietnamese head in what could only be called a trophy-hunting pose.

But the digital camera, the cell-phone camera, and the capacities of the computer as well as the Internet -- that technological superiority still at work -- have lent the trophy photo new power in our latest war of frustration, making it so much more available to the non-war-making public and the world at large. As Susan Sontag commented after some of the Abu Ghraib photos were finally published, these reflected "a shift in the use made of [trophy] pictures -- less objects to be saved than messages to be disseminated, circulated. A digital camera is a common possession among soldiers. Where once photographing war was the province of photojournalists, now the soldiers themselves are all photographers -- recording their war, their fun, their observations of what they find picturesque, their atrocities -- and swapping images among themselves and e-mailing them around the globe."

This article appeared first, as the introduction to David Swanson's "The Iraq War as a Trophy Photo," at Tomdispatch.com.

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