Why the ‘kill team’ put themselves in the frame
Recently released photos from Afghanistan show soldiers trying to give perverted purpose to a purposeless war.
A young man’s dead body lies prone on the sand. His red t-shirt, having either ridden up or been pulled up, has left his blood-streaked back exposed to the camera. And there, behind him, is a US soldier sat on his haunches, grinning for the camera as he pulls the man’s head back in the manner of a big-game hunter with a slain lion.
This little scene was the work of the self-styled ‘kill team’, or as they are otherwise known, the Fifth Stryker Brigade, a part of the US Second Infantry Division currently stationed in Afghanistan. Twelve of them now stand accused of multiple murders and the hoarding of body parts.
However, their current notoriety is only partially attributable to their reprehensible actions. For what has really given these soldiers their semi-infamy has been the publication on Monday of three leaked photos (used as evidence in their trial) in German news magazine Der Spiegel, one of which I describe above. Der Spiegel, perhaps in an attempt to whet the public’s appetite for barbarism while scaring the wits out of the White House, claims it now has access to 4,000 similar pictures and videos. The US army has been predictably defensive: ‘We apologise for the distress these photos cause. The photos appear in stark contrast to the discipline, professionalism and respect that has characterised our soldiers’ performance during nearly 10 years of sustained operations.’
But that is the curious thing about these photos. While the kind of behaviour exhibited by the 12 accused is no doubt far from endemic, it does not seem quite as exceptional as the US army attempts to make out. The main example that springs to mind is, of course, the 2004 case of the abuse and torture of detainees at the Abu Ghraib prison in Baghdad. Again, like the kill team’s exploits, all of the abuse, the humiliation and the degradation visited upon the Iraqi inmates was faithfully recorded and photographed by the protagonists. And then there was the Now That’s Fucked Up website. Here, as Brendan O’Neill reported in 2005, American soldiers in Iraq and Afghanistan were encouraged to post their very own photos of death and destruction in return for free access to the whole, tawdry gamut of amateur porn. While this last example did not involve – as far as anyone knows – murder or torture, it did feature, for instance, marines smiling and giving the thumbs-up sign beside the charred remains of a dead Iraqi. One thing’s for sure, it was a website somewhat at odds with the image of ‘discipline, professionalism and respect’ that the US army claims characterises its troops’ performance in recent years.
Perhaps it’s because it all seems so remarkably unremarkable that the outrage in the West has been as nothing compared to the self-doubt and public handwringing that accompanied the initial Abu Ghraib scandal. No doubt the turmoil in nightly-bombed Libya and the disaster in Japan have helped to bury the scandal so far. And the fact that it is currently a national holiday in Afghanistan has probably blunted any immediate reaction in Afghanistan. Yet there does seem to be more to the muted reaction to the photos than the mere fact of other news and a national holiday.
Part of this is that the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan have been ones in which, over time, it has all started to hang out. This is hardly surprising. As the impetus for the conflicts ebbed after the initial burst of Kosovo-inspired, ethical-looking, post-9/11 conviction among the US and UK elites, actual reasons for continuing the conflicts became ever more difficult to find. Seemingly without tangible strategic objectives, let alone a moral justification, leaks and whistle blowing became far easier. There was no grand cause that might put such reprehensible acts, like the humiliation and abuse of prisoners at Abu Ghraib or the sadistic killing of random Afghans, into some kind of perspective. A war without purpose was hardly going to be one worth covering up for. In this sense, the near serial publication of morally compromising photos and videos, on the back of internal leaks, captures the unravelling of these missions from within.
But there’s another way in which the profound purposelessness of the war in Afghanistan is captured by the kill-team scandal. And that’s in the actions of the perpetrators themselves. Writing of the Abu Ghraib abuse scandal, critic Susan Sontag noted that soldiers taking photographs of atrocities during conflict is far from unusual. But what set Abu Ghraib apart was that the protagonists actually appear in the photos. She writes: ‘If there is something comparable to what these pictures show it would be some of the photographs of black victims of lynching taken between the 1880s and 1930s, which show Americans grinning beneath the naked mutilated body of a black man or woman hanging behind them from a tree. The lynching photographs were souvenirs of a collective action whose participants felt perfectly justified in what they had done.’
That same act of placing oneself at the scene of the atrocity is apparent in the kill-team photos. In fact, a number of the soldiers actually take turns to pose individually with the body. Furthermore, as Der Spiegel reported, ‘some of the accused have said the acts had been tightly scripted’. This is substantiated in another report, which says that one of the accused came up with ‘scenarios’ in which certain props would be placed around the victims so as to make them look like legitimate targets rather than what they were, random Afghan people. So, like the lynching photographs of which Sontag writes, showing ‘participants [who] felt perfectly justified in what they had done’, you have a similar situation involving US soldiers in Afghanistan. But with one vital difference: the justification, failing to arise from a sense of racial and moral superiority, had to be fabricated. Whether it involved giving the victim a grenade to hold or placing a gun near their body, the reason for the confrontation had to be invented. These photos, as twisted and repugnant as the acts they depict, are works of self-affirmation. They create the illusion of reason and purpose in a conflict that is singularly lacking in either.
That they might be seen by others, despite the fact that they are potentially incriminating, is part of the point, too. For troops fighting a conflict that even those in power have become deeply ambivalent towards, such images of staged combat, brutal but triumphant, appear as attempts at justifying the conflict to a wider audience. They also serve as testaments to the folly of Western rulers who believe that a lack of moral coherence at home can be found by getting stuck into the affairs of people abroad.
Tim Black is senior writer at spiked.
To enquire about republishing spiked’s content, a right to reply or to request a correction, please contact the managing editor, Viv Regan.