The recent images in the media of uniformed U.S. Marines urinating on dead bodies in Afghanistan rightfully invokes nearly universal condemnation. Besides respect for the dead being somewhat of a universal human value at this point, it is a supreme law of war for every single nation on the planet.
These images should prompt a lot of questions here in America, about our military, our wars, our culture and our role in global affairs. To some, mostly the weavers and backers of war policy, it seems again that 'a few bad apples' have acted on their own within the military, and will be brought to justice in accordance with domestic military law.
To others, such as myself and the majority of veterans I associate with, the barbarity of these images is synonymous with our experiences within a military at war. No crime our brothers and sisters commit really surprises us anymore, but confirms to us our nation's brutal history, of which for a time we became a part, and offers us a reminder that nothing's really changed.
But while our military's mission of 'engage and destroy' remains essentially the same in Afghanistan as it has been in every other conflict, the modes of documentation have changed, as now nearly every troop carries his own camera into combat. From this fact flows a cinematic phenomenon that troops and veterans recognize as 'war porn.'
War porn means different things to different people, similar to the 'adult material' from which it draws its name. Generally, in military and veteran circles, war porn is recognized as any image or video produced in a combat zone depicting death, violence, gore, brutality, depravity, lewd behavior or any other shocking act that would be perceived unacceptable or even criminal if committed on American soil.
War porn, like pornography, is traded mostly in secret. It is consumed mostly in private, and those who possess it may often feel hesitant to share it with anyone outside of the military or veteran communities. However, during the past decade, the American people and the world have witnessed several stark examples of war porn leaking to the surface. Perhaps the most famous incident to date are the images of bound and naked prisoners being abused in Abu Ghraib Prison, in Iraq, that leaked in 2004.
However, not every piece of war porn that bubbles to the surface ever generates public outcry on the level of the Abu Ghraib photos or the latest disgusting iteration. Several websites have risen to prominence during the War on Terror, solely for the purpose of trafficking war porn. Gotwarporn.com claims that it is "countering the cyber-jihad one video at a time," by uploading examples of, "the devastating force we bring to bear on our enemies." Videos can be browsed according to the type of weapon used, the type of violence committed and the location where the violence occurred. Gotwarporn.com regularly displays user-uploaded video, referring to most of their content as having been "leaked."
But gotwarporn.com is not the first website to help soldiers traffic their war porn. Nowthatsfuckedup.com, which now directs to the Polk County, Flor., Sheriff's Office, was removed from the web in 2006, after its proprietor, Chris Wilson, was charged with misdemeanor obscenity. The site, which began as an amateur pornographic hub where users could share images of their partners for a fee, became a central depository for war porn after Wilson began allowing site users from the U.S. Military to forgo the membership fee in exchange for posting an image proving they served overseas. According to a Nation magazine article from 2004, the uploaded photos began as "benign images of troops leaning against their tanks, but graphic combat images also began to appear."
These images, while horrifying to most, serve a purpose for the soldier, and further, have broader public appeal in the U.S. More than simply being in-demand for their shock value, images like these, "constitute a field report on the production and reproduction of U.S. global dominance," according to Prof. Mary Ann Tetreault of Trinity University in her 2006 piece entitled, "The Sexual Politics of Abu Gharib."
"The Abu Ghraib images and documents describe violations of the captives' bodily integrity, masculine self-image, and religious rules about cleanliness," writes Tetreault. "Photos show naked victims arranged in piles, smeared with filth, and forced to simulate sexual acts. Their manhood is disparaged in many ways. Indeed, they are feminized--unmanned--by the gaze of their captors who strip them, scrutinize and manipulate their bodies, taunt them, and create pornography out of their humiliation by taking pictures of them."
To me, the images of the Marines urinating on dead Taliban fighters share a similar cultural significance with the images from Abu Ghraib. Again, we see depicted not just random degenerate acts carried out purely for shock value, but instead, we see an image structured in a very specific way; one that acts as a metaphor for U.S. domination. The image is of not just a physically defeated enemy, but of an enemy that has also been stripped of his dignity, customs and masculinity.
Regardless of the face that soldiers are trained to show the world, these types of dominance narratives are highly in-demand in military communities, especially after a decade of relative combat-defeat in which few, if any, of the U.S.'s larger goals for occupation have been accomplished. Historically, defeated or nearly defeated armies have been guilty of some of the most serious atrocities. Indeed, combat journalists throughout history have reported retreating troops to be some of the most dangerous individuals on the battle-field.
It has been my experience within and without the military that soldiers covet nothing greater than power over others. Be it expressed internally through the military rank structure, or externally through the destruction of an enemy, family or coercion of a sexual partner, soldiers generally believe themselves superior human beings to someone, and the affirmation of this desire can take on many brutal forms. Further, when the superiority of a soldier is questioned by a force outside the chain of command, brawls tend to erupt, barracks rumbles ensue and bitter rivalries take shape. What this generates is a 'wild west' atmosphere on and around many bases in the world. What this translates to for local communities is violence in nearly every form.
Statistically speaking, military communities are among the more violent U.S. communities, with military bases reporting significantly higher rates of incidents such as rape, domestic assault and suicide. U.S. military bases, both in the U.S. and abroad, have reputations for drunkenness, prostitution and general 'vice,' as if each installation were its own little 'Vegas,' promising the men within riches of whiskey, wealth, women and weapons.
Not surprisingly, addiction in the military is also something that runs rampant world-wide. But while we're all used to hearing about the alcoholism and the drugs, pornography addiction is reaping increasingly devastating havoc on military families, according to a recent Army Times story. In the story, Navy Lt. Michael Howard, a licensed therapist and military chaplain who councils soldiers for sex addiction, suggests that as many as twenty percent of our troops are addicted to online porn. "That would be a conservative estimate," he says, while others in the story corroborate his statements.
But war porn is something in a category of its own. Soldiers don't just download it, they are the primary manufacturers, and its existence doesn't just destroy American families. War porn, by definition, documents the destruction of someone else's family. Furthermore, if it can be argued that pornography normalizes violence against women, it certainly cannot be disputed that war porn normalizes violence against everyone!
We've only started as a society to be exposed to the bottomless archives of war porn that exist on hard-drives throughout the country. While particularly blood-thirsty participants in prior wars were forced to either keep simple snapshots or body parts of the people they killed to use as war trophies, troops of today have very different options. While an actual finger or an ear, which still are taken as war trophies, may not make it back across the boarder, a JPEG or an MOV file can be effortlessly concealed; even sent back ahead of the group with the simple click of a mouse.
While I have never heard an official estimate of how much war porn may exist from the occupations of Iraq and Afghanistan, I have spoken to fellow soldiers and veterans around the country and have been exposed to many individual collections. Given what I've seen myself, and knowing how many soldiers today carry cameras into combat, I'd estimate that there are many hundreds of thousands of terabytes of data in existence that could be classified as war porn.
While it is true that soldiers have gotten a lot more shrewd about who they'll share their war porn with, certainly as the result of various related scandals, I do not believe this has led many of them to destroy their individual collections. If anything, the war porn has simply been archived, and may be released at a later time. Many soldiers and veterans are yet to realize the true weight and consequence of what they carry with them. Hopefully, as their consciouses continue to recover, some of the more courageous ones may feel compelled to share publicly what they possess.
But even for those who will never share publicly, the evidence of their acts will continue to exist. It's the nature of digital information to stick around and be inconveniently discovered later on. It's only a matter of time until the flood gates open. Perhaps, as I said, it will be the veterans themselves who feel so moved by conscious. More likely, it will be hacked free by information anarchists or recovered by tech-savy garbage pickers in electronics landfills and recycling plants somewhere south of the equator. When that begins happening on a regular basis, we're going to have a lot to account for as Americans, after having blindly supported our troops through two bloody and unjust military occupations.
Yes America, our military is addicted to war porn, and this fact may ultimately usurp any legacy of honor or glory the military may cling to. No longer can the world be duped by the government-controlled facade of the U.S. soldier as a liberating force for good. Our image is that of an armed, drunken fiend in a public square with his pants down pissing into the wind. Sure, we may be an affront to those around us, but we're only really soiling ourselves.