If you talk very long with soldiers who’ve seen combat, they’ll offer that death is a joke. Not a very funny joke, but one that never gets old. With every new war, with every new brigade of recruits, soldiers rediscover the death joke and retell it by taking battlefield trophies of enemy equipment, enemy personal effects and even staged photos with enemy body parts, as the Los Angeles Times reports today.
The Times obtained a series of 18 photos of U.S. soldiers in Afghanistan posing with enemy corpses and published two of them in a story that began on page one. The living posers are all grins and chuckles, indicating the high mirth that battlefield death brings. In one of the published photos, amused U.S. soldiers hoist two severed legs of a suicide bomber and mug for the camera.
The Times describes other photos it did not run:
Two soldiers posed holding a dead man’s hand with the middle finger raised. A soldier leaned over the bearded corpse while clutching the man’s hand. Someone placed an unofficial platoon patch reading “Zombie Hunter” next to other remains and took a picture.
The publication of the photos elicited the standard response from the Pentagon. Marine General John R. Allen, commander of Western troops in Afghanistan, called the photos “entirely inconsistent” with U.S. values and promised a full investigation. The Pentagon also asked the Times not to publish the two-year-old images because, as its spokesman put it, they do not “represent the character and the professionalism of the great majority of our troops in Afghanistan” and they have “the potential to indict them all in the minds of local Afghans, inciting violence and perhaps causing needless casualties.” The Times correctly waved away those objections, stating its duty to report “vigorously and impartially” on the U.S. intervention, “including the allegation that the images reflect a breakdown in unit discipline that was endangering U.S. troops.”
The outrage the military is expressing over these ghoulish images ignores the fact that the taking of battlefield trophies, photographic or otherwise, is as old as war itself, as are military commanders’ bans on the collection of such ghoulish souvenirs, as Simon Harrison explains in his 2006 paper, “Skull Trophies of the Pacific War: Transgressive Objects of Remembrance” (abstract). Harrison differentiates between “near enemies” and “distant enemies,” with near enemies remaining safe from mutilation and scalp-taking but distant enemies being fair game. During World War Two, he observes, the Japanese were the distant enemy, and their body parts, including ears, teeth and especially skulls, were routinely gathered as keepsakes. Germans and Italians, the near enemy, remained largely safe from mutilation and desecration.