Recently, a scandal has erupted over pictures of US Soldiers posing proudly with the corpses of dead Afghan fighters. I am reminded of a flight I took last year from DC to Detroit. I sat next to a man from a town close to mine who was returning from Iraq. He indicated that he had been working in a training position for the military in Savannah for the past few months, but was now 100% DAV. He was returning to his wife and an unsure future, though he gets reasonable benefits and full health care.
I have met a lot of these guys and some have even been my students. They are usually pretty sharp, follow instructions to the letter, work incredibly hard and will help out other students when needed. I can usually tell that something is wrong though, particularly if they don’t show up for a couple of weeks.
I was interested in getting his opinions on a small spatial project I had done on conflict events in Iraq and showed him of the maps I had made. He was only moderately interested but answered my questions as to what was where in Baghdad and why some areas are harder hit than others.
In return, he showed me some of his pictures.
The man was personable, but guarded, though he happily showed me pictures of him and his buddies posing with the bodies of Iraqi insurgents. He even laughed at a few of them and remarked that there were good times to be had in Iraq. After a few minutes, he must have realized the public nature of an airplane and quickly closed them up. It was interesting to me that he would carry them around with him in a marked folder.
I can’t claim to understand what happens in war. I have seen what war does to its participants, both soldiers and civilians. I do fault the better judgement of people that pose with bodies, though am interested in a culture of violence that would allow humans to revel in it.
I am drawn (again) to Amartya Sen’s work on the nature of violence and its relationship to identity, a concept I often think about. He posits that violence is only possible when the objects of attack are reduced to compartmentalized categories that remove all others. These photos, which are strikingly similar to that of the widely popular lynching photos in the United States, are no exception. American soldiers gleefully posing with corpses view them not as someone’s son, friend, father or neighbor, reducing them only to one single facet of their true identities. Sen would argue that the true crime is not the violent act itself, but the violence of stripping away the individual identity of the recipient of violence.
Photos of soldiers posing with bodies, though, is at least as old as the camera itself: