The Duck of Minerva

The Duck Quacks at Twilight

Of Lords and Flies

March 23, 2011

The release of the first three of a reported 4,000 photos and videos from an American “kill team” in Afghanistan threatens to become the next “Abu Ghraib.”  The horrific images of civilian corpses being photographed with grinning American troops raises important questions about the American military’s ability to maintain professional standards and discipline; soldiers’ (racialized) understanding of and ability to engage with foreign societies; and the underside of military culture. In other words, contrary to the military’s spin machine, these images are not an aberration or simply the product of one “rogue” unit. Moreover, the central issue is not how to manage the “fall out” of (righteous) Muslim rage but how to encourage Americans to take a hard look at military culture in a time of unrelenting affective militarism.

Not An Exception or an Aberration

Another alleged kill team was caught in Iraq under the command of Col. Michael D. Steele in 2005.  Steele’s brigade allegedly murdered at least 8 unarmed Iraqi men and intended to murder more civilians when a soldier finally disobeyed illegal orders (New Yorker, 7/6/2009).  Steele’s Charlie Company (a.k.a. “Kill Company”) kept a kill board (a dry erase board) in which they tallied all kills, whether civilian or militant, as a way of keeping score in a game between platoons. Notably Steele was praised by his superiors for “combating terrorism” at the same time as he was being investigated by the US military for committing a massacre.

Reports by Iraq War veterans of the practice of carrying “drop weapons” and “drop shovels” to plant on dead civilians leads one to suspect that the murder of civilians may have been more widespread than just one brigade. Aaron Glantz and Iraq Veterans Against War have described the practice of desecrating corpses (including running over them with humvees) and taking “trophy photos” of the dead in Iraq (IPS, 9/16/2008).

Although taking a large number of photos and videos of trophies is a relatively recent phenomenon, there are precedents at least going back to WWII. We know that the practice of taking physical trophies by defiling corpses has been a persistent feature of modern warfare. However, American troops seem to have abandoned their practice of beheading their enemies which was documented in the Pacific theater during WWII.

Of course, the US is not unique in having its soldiers accused of this subset of atrocity.  The Israeli army in October 2001 found photos of its soldiers gloating over the mutilated corpses of Palestinians (Sunday Telegraph, 10/14/2001).  The IDF denied reports that the ritualized practice of taking “trophy” photos of “big game” was widespread. However news reports stated that company commanders used such photos to motivate their troops and regularly carried such photos with them. The practice of collecting trophy photos had become so widespread that the “leisure and society” section of an unofficial Israeli army site carried photos of defiled corpses from the Lebanon war.

Bosnian Serbs were accused of collecting the ears of their victims and mixing animal parts and bones in with human remains in the mid-nineties. The Serbs tended to take photos of their victims prior to killing them in order to sell the photos to desperate family members seeking signs that their loved ones were still alive (USA Today, 8/3/1995).

In the Rape of Nanking, Japanese soldiers took photos of the atrocities and even the rapes they committed… One could go on with examples, but the point is that the practice of collecting physical and photographic trophies is not new to the US nor is it exclusive to the American military.  Given the prevalence of this type of behavior one could speculate that aspects of military culture incite such violations of norms and that the military may at times even benefit from illegal tactics.

Snuff Films in the State of Nature

But what do the photos actually tell us about military culture? The photos and accounts of the American kill team’s exploits in Afghanistan reveal soldiers who seem to have believed that they had entered into a kind of tribalized state of nature or at least a lawless zone. The 12 soldiers who composed the “kill team” allegedly murdered civilian targets at random, abused corpses, and collected body parts (including teeth and fingers of their civilian victims) as trophies.

According to Der Spiegel, the murders of Afghan civilians were “tightly scripted” and highly staged to fit particular standard narratives — as if these men thought they were repeatedly playing video games. One of the American soldiers told his father in a Facebook chat that his buddies had detonated a grenade to stage a plausible scenario before “mowing” down their innocent victim.  The scenario was again enacted to slaughter Mullah Allah Dad who was ordered to kneel in a ditch before throwing a grenade at him, shooting him and then collecting their “trophies”…

Why did these men so extensively document their crimes?  Were these intended as actual snuff films? With whom did the soldiers hope to share their documents? The answers are not yet known.

What we do know is that the soldiers in this unit were consuming large amounts of illicit and prescription drugs. A lawyer for one soldier has argued the unit should not have been allowed into the battle-space given the pervasive use of drugs and medications. Of course, while pervasive drug use may explain some of the soldiers’ distorted judgment and paint a picture of lax institutional discipline, it does not explain the specific content of the ritualized crimes or the desire to create documentary evidence of the atrocities.

What is needed is a theorization of the images taken by kill teams. If, as Michael Shapiro argues, the photograph is considered a simulacrum of the real, then the photograph carries with it an evidentiary function. The photo captures and reinforces existing structures of power relations (William Callaghan, “Trauma and Community,” Theory & Event 10, no. 4, 2007). One wonders if the intent is not to freeze in time a state of exception; to capture the space of the state of nature. If this line of speculation is at all correct, it reveals a desire to capture a moment of overwhelming power.  In essence it reveals a persistent anxiety about a return to an ordinary and generally powerless life.  The problem is that these photos are clearly staged in a ritualized fashion. Perhaps the aestheticization of brutality anesthetizes the viewer, and in a manner similar to pornography, requires the perpetual collection of documentary evidence to achieve the effect of the first viewing.  What else can explain the need to collect over 4,000 photos and videos? 

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Vikash is an Associate Professor of Political Science and Asian Studies at Hobart and William Smith Colleges in Geneva, NY. His main areas of academic interest are (post-) globalization, economic development, and economic freedom, with a regional focus on South Asia