Why soldiers take photos

All troops keep "war porn" stashes. I did too. What's crazy is the public's belief in a sanitized conflict

Published April 23, 2012 3:59AM (EDT)

The hand of a combatant killed in Afghanistan, taken from the author's personal stash of "war porn."      (John Rico)
The hand of a combatant killed in Afghanistan, taken from the author's personal stash of "war porn." (John Rico)

Once again, U.S. troops have been caught behaving badly.

This time it comes in the form of photos published by the Los Angeles Times showing soldiers from the 82nd Airborne Division posing with the body parts of a suicide bomber. Politicians condemn this horrific behavior, the military brass promises a full investigation, and Americans all across the nation shake their heads at such outrageous behavior.

On cue, the punditry proposes its theories. Years of perpetual war have left the forces undisciplined. Or perhaps this latest travesty demonstrates how the noncommissioned officer corps – traditionally, responsible for troop discipline -- has been gutted by too many deployments.

As a former infantry soldier and combat veteran from Afghanistan, I have to say that I find all the political and polite posturing to be quite amusing. I say this because with a single email, attaching just a few of the files in my own treasure trove, I could ignite this controversy all over again.

You see, I too have a secret collection of “war porn.”

I am not alone.

Every single infantry soldier I know has a collection of war porn. Photos of IED sites, shots of spent shell casings after a battle, and most notably, the photos of the people we’ve killed. And yes, sometimes in these photos, we’re mugging for the camera with the dead guy behind us.

These soldiers from the 82nd?  It’s the exact same thing we did during my own deployment that ended back in 2005. And based upon the six degrees of camaraderie that exists on my Facebook account, it’s the same thing that’s been done by dozens of other infantry soldiers whom I will never know. It’s not that these soldiers from the 82nd were doing anything deviant or abhorrent, as much as they got caught doing something that everyone already does: take photos of war.

Here are some of my own PG-13 samples:

Deep in Taliban country on a mission to capture a high-value target, the weather made extraction impossible.  We took over someone's house and hunkered down. Low on food, we killed and ate a goat. Then we impaled its head on a stake -- just soldiers having some fun.

War porn isn't always violent. Sometimes it's sentimental, like an IED site where a dear comrade was lost. War porn can also be a breathtaking horizon captured from the side of a Blackhawk, or simple images of a smiling Afghan child -- anything that makes you remember how surreal, twisted, horrible and beautiful it all was.

Why do we take these photos?

Consider that the infantry is largely composed of 18-year-old kids who have spent a couple of years in training for the sole purpose of fighting with and killing the enemy. Then they are shipped off for a year at a time, to a foreign land where they are under constant threat and where some of their friends will die. Within this environment, they are then one day given the gruesome task of picking up the body parts of a suicide bomber. How does any sane human being respond to these conditions?

Taking a silly photo to relieve the stress doesn’t strike me as the worst thing in the world, given the circumstances. The desire to document surreal experiences is a normal human motivation. Yes, in this particular context the details are rather gruesome, but this is a gruesome task we’ve handed them.

As with all things, context is everything. And considering that the United States has tasked soldiers to kill on its behalf; that they are, in fact, killing and also being killed; and that their duties sometimes include picking up body parts after a suicide attack – is their desire to document this insanity really the crazy part?

The real grotesqueness isn’t in infantry soldiers taking a few war trophies. No, it’s the idea that’s been sold to the American public that war can be sterile. It’s the idea that 18-year-olds who have been ordered to kill people will never  play with the body parts afterward.

In this sterile world of war – one undoubtedly sold to the American public to ease their comfort with its perpetual existence – missiles are so precise they can avoid collateral damage, drones can narrow in on specific terrorist targets from the sky, and wars need to be neither bought nor paid for.

Or something like that.

The unfortunate reality is that war is messy.  Missiles hit the wrong targets all the time. Drones accidentally kill women and children.  And when 18-year-old infantry soldiers get their first confirmed kill, they high-five, cheer and take a photo.

By John Rico

John Rico, a veteran of Afghanistan, is the author of Blood Makes the Grass Grow Green, and can be reached at bloodmakesthegrassgreen@gmail.com.


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