Afghan body part photos a grim reminder of how war has changed

US Defence Secretary Leon Panetta has said the images are an aberration, but evidence points to the contrary. EPA/Michael Reynolds

Once again we are confronted with disturbing images coming out of a war zone, this time of American troops posing for trophy shots with the body parts of alleged Afghan suicide bombers, published by the Los Angeles Times.

The official response to these images has been to declare them an aberration, the product of an unrepresentative group. It has also been implied that the press is irresponsible for circulating them, even if in this case only a selection has been made public.

But rather than an aberration, these images may offer an insight into the changing nature of war and violence.

A growing trend

Earlier this year video circulated of a group of American troops urinating on the dead bodies of alleged Taliban fighters.

In 2004, hundreds of images of torture emerged from Abu Ghraib prison in Iraq.

In 2005, it emerged that troops in Iraq and Afghanistan were uploading images of dead and mutilated bodies in Iraq and Afghanistan in exchange for access to pornographic websites.

Many of these images spilled into the public domain and remain there today. Just enter “cooked Iraqi” into a search engine and you will see a group of smiling marines surrounding the incinerated body of an Iraqi. This image was originally uploaded in exchange for access to pornography.

Digital warfare

There is continuity and transformation at work here. In the Pacific theatre during World War II, it was not unusual for the body parts of Japanese soldiers to be taken as souvenirs. One well-known example is a photo published in Life Magazine in 1944 of an American woman with the skull of a Japanese soldier she had received from her navy fiancée. This photo featured as “picture of the week”.

But as we have entered the digital age, some sort of transformation has taken place. It is no longer journalists taking the photos, but military personnel themselves.

The latest photos are in the same tradition as the Abu Ghraib images that shocked the world. DSK

The Abu Ghraib pictures were originally taken for circulation among friends and military colleagues, many modelled on the pornographic images that were being widely consumed by guards at the prison.

Others were modelled on the stereotypical poses that tourists adopt when visiting markets or standing in front of monuments – smiling for the camera, making sure that the site being visited is in the background.

A visual grammar recurs throughout these images, one where guards pose making a “thumbs up” gesture to the camera, whether squatting next to a corpse or in front of hooded prisoners being forced to masturbate.

This same grammar is evident in the hundreds of photos traded for access to pornography in 2005, and it recurs again in the photos that surfaced this week.

The entry of digital cameras into warzones both records a transformation at work, and is also an instrument of that transformation.

Shifting battlefields

The classical sociological theories of warfare emphasise a modern military model, one of uniforms, ranks, obedience and a culture of honour.

This is the model that emerged from the Vienna accords of 1815, where war was to become the domain of specialist professional armies, separated from day-to-day life, where soldiers opposed in war would be united in a shared culture of valour.

This is captured in World War I, where war took place in isolated fields, where estimates suggest the vast majority of those killed were military personnel.

Most of us are aware that today’s wars are radically different. The most obvious indicator is that most of those who die in war today are civilians, with war taking place in cities and suburbs, not isolated fieldd. They are prosecuted not only by professional armies but by militias, clans, organised crime, corporations, friends and even individuals.

Personalising conflict

These images alert us to another dimension of this transformation. In the classical military model, violence is de-individualised in a military culture of obedience. The increasing presence of digital cameras in war zones alerts us to a reversal of this pattern, underlining the increasing role of private experience in war.

Today, the violence of war is increasingly personalised. That is why we are seeing this blurring of public duty and private pleasure captured by the entry of stereotypical tourist practices into war-zones.

It is not surprising that at Abu Ghraib most of the indicators of classical military culture had broken down: uniforms were not worn, practices such as saluting were abandoned, people of different ranks were sleeping together.

Significantly, the soldier who forwarded these most recent images to the Los Angeles Times is believed to have done so because of concern about a collapse of discipline.

In the classical model of war, violence is contained: spatially, in the battlefield, and psychologically, through military discipline that separates person and function. Today this separation is less and less viable.

Collapsing culture

The images published by the Los Angeles Times are not an aberration.

They point to one of the most significant transformations at work in contemporary warfare. Violence has been de-personalised, and this is linked to what amounts to a demilitarisation of the armed forces and the collapse of the culture of honour, in particular as it is extended to the enemy.

Next week we celebrate ANZAC day, a day that is fast becoming our national day. Whatever the merits of this development, it runs a great risk of sentimentality and looking backwards to a time when violence was contained, by professional armies and by a culture that extends honour to the enemy.

Today’s wars are radically different. These photos remind us of that.

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