The LA Times published the photos this morning and the obligatory Obama briefing and denunciations by the White House and Pentagon duly occurred this afternoon. I remember a college friend of mine whose brother was in the military at the time telling me how he and his buddies posed for photos with the bodies of dead Panamanians during the U.S. invasion to get Noriega. He told me it was their way of dealing with the stress of combat; by making a lethal situation seem absurd, it became easier to cope with the reality of killing other human beings. Which is not to excuse it: Trophy photos are a dumb thing to do, especially in an age of mass media and ubiquitous cameras, because you’re potentially creating the enemy’s propaganda for them. That’s why, I assume, you rarely see stuff like this surface. Most troops have the good sense either not to do it, however tempting it might be, or to keep a tight lid on the photos lest they circulate. Alex Massie makes the same points at Britain’s Spectator:
This is what war does to men at arms. As Toby Harnden tweeted, most reporters who have spent extended periods of time in Iraq or Afghanistan will have seen or heard of the existence, or rumoured existence, of these kinds of “trophy” photographs. War is a gruesome business at the best of times but this kind of behaviour is scarcely unusual. Quite the contrary: soldiers have posed to be pictured with their dead enemies for as long as cameras have existed; for that matter, they have taken trphies or trinkets or even body parts for as long as men have been engaged in the fighting business.
Again, this is not something people care to dwell upon but the mystery is not that soldiers in the field sometimes behave in ways that might upset those left at home but that this does not actually happen more often. (Indeed, I suspect it happens less now than at any previous point in human history.)
He’s responding to Andrew Sullivan, who predictably seized on the photos as an indictment of “empire” or whatever. So — why publish the photos as “newsworthy” if they reflect an unfortunate yet traditional practice in war? Well, after the Koran-burning and ensuing fraggings and riots, the alleged rampage by Sgt. Bales, and the previous uproar over Marines posing with Taliban corpses, it’s arguably part of the “things are going to hell in Afghanistan” narrative — although, as it turns out, these new pics are two years old. Beyond that, though, it might be evidence of a breakdown in discipline within the specific brigade (4th brigade, 82nd Airborne) of the anonymous soldier who gave the pictures to the LAT. Danger Room points to two apparently unrelated scandals involving the 4th brigade kinda sorta around the time these pictures might have been taken, which may or may not suggest a broader slackening in overall discipline. If so, it would have been nice if the LAT had connected the dots to put this in context. Then again, it’s awfully easy to link trophy photos to any other internal problem a brigade might be having, however disconnected, and cite the two as evidence of a broader breakdown in discipline. If I’m right in thinking that this sort of thing goes on more often we think (although not nearly as often as it might), then it’s probably also happening in brigades that are otherwise squeaky clean.
Here’s Ralph Peters laying into the White House and Pentagon for overreacting to a regrettable but not unusual aspect of war. Exit quotation: “If our strategy and doctrine is so pathetically weak that it can be derailed, destroyed, shattered by a few burning Korans or a few photographs — the dead body parts of terrorists — well that’s not much of a strategy or a doctrine.”