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In 2010, Jeremy Morlock and Andrew Holmes, two US soldiers stationed in Afghanistan, set out to kill a civilian, for no other reason than that they could.The latest edition of Rolling Stone magazine documents the activities of Morlock and Holmes and the so-called ‘Kill Team’ they led, activities that culminated in the murder of a young farmer named Gul Mudin.
The story is shocking. But, depressingly, much of it is also very familiar. Consider, for instance, a brief video taken by the soldiers, documenting an airstrike on two suspected insurgents. Like Wikileaks’ ‘Collateral Murder’ video, the soundtrack records the unabashed pleasure the men take in watching the Afghanis die.
The soldiers subsequently edited the clip for distribution, sexing up the footage with a rock soundtrack and a title card reading ‘Death Zone’. Throughout the internet, there’s a flourishing genre of such home-made combat films. As far back as 2005, the Pentagon denounced the proliferation of clips in which real deaths had been overdubbed with heavy metal or hip hop, on the basis that, as the New York Sun rather diplomatically put it, ‘they could be regarded as anti-Arab’.
Another clip from the Rolling Stone story shows soldiers gunning down two armed Afghan men riding a motorbike. After the shooting, the men gather round the corpses. ‘I want to look at my kill,’ says one, and all the soldiers pull out cameras and begin snapping. That photographic enthusiasm produced a cache that Rolling Stone’s Mark Boal describes: a grotesque image gallery of severed heads, mutilated torsos and other body parts, sometimes adorned with props.
Again, we’ve seen this before.
In late 2005, an adult site called nowthatsfuckedup.com began offering serving US soldiers access to sexual material in exchange for photos proving they were in combat zones. The proprietors expected photos of locales. Instead, they received so many images of body parts and corpses that, before being shut down, they established a special gallery to display this war porn alongside their more traditional brand of smut.
Boal argues that the photos from the Kill Team’s Third Platoon exemplified a culture of hostility toward, and contempt for, the people of Afghanistan. ‘Most people within the unit disliked the Afghan people, whether it was the Afghan National Police, the Afghan National Army or locals,’ one soldier explained to investigators. ‘Everyone would say they’re savages.’
That was the context in which Morlock and Holmes embarked on their thrill-killings. And that was the also context in which no-one tried to stop them. The military trains soldiers to kill; killing entails dehumanization. But in wars like Iraq and Afghanistan, it’s very easy for that dehumanization to take on an explicitly racial dynamic.
A few years ago, I interviewed Camilo Mejía, a US Iraq veteran active in the anti-war movement. ‘The moment we got [to Iraq],’ he told me, ‘we realised that they were calling [Iraqis] “hajis”.’ [T]hey used it to dehumanize everything. Haji applied to everything, not just the people. It was haji food, haji women, haji kids, haji music – everything was haji, worthless.’
I remembered Mejía last week, in the context of a scandal about Australian troops in Afghanistan, who had been using FaceBook to describe Afghans as ‘sand coons’, ‘dune coons’, ‘niggers’, and ‘smelly locals’. Now, it’s a long way from insults to murder, and there’s no suggestion that those soldiers backing up their racism with illegitimate violence.Nonetheless, there’s all kinds of historical evidence to suggest that, in wars in which the enemy is understood as racially inferior, the kind of sociopathy documented by Rolling Stone becomes far more prevalent.
For instance, before the advent of portable cameras, battlefield souveniring often involved the collection not of images of bodies but the body parts themselves. Yet that practice was considerably less common in, say, the Western Front of the First World War, where the combatants were culturally familiar with each other, than on the Pacific Front during the Second World War, where both sides saw the other as entirely subhuman. Such was the quantity of body parts taken that US soldiers returning from combat in the Pacific were routinely asked whether they were carrying bones; in 1984, a team repatriating wartime Japanese corpses from the Mariana Islands estimated that an astonishing 60 per cent lacked skulls, presumably because they’d been souvenired.
Authorities might talk about the need to win ‘hearts and minds’ in Afghanistan and Iraq. But in the context of an occupation there’s a countervailing pressure to discourage soldiers from empathizing with the locals they police.
Mejía put it like this. ‘They don’t prepare you for a different culture, and they don’t want you to understand it, because understanding Iraqi culture means you humanize Iraqis. […] It’s not in their interests that you have those conversations; it’s not in their interests that you view the people as people.’
Ronn Cantu, another Iraq veteran turned peacenik, described the same phenomenon. ‘[T]here’s a perception that they’re less than human, more like animals. […] When people don’t speak your language, you feel that they’re incapable of communication, just because you don’t understand them. In Iraq, that’s a multiplied a thousandfold – and then you’re given a rifle and told that whatever you do, you won’t get into any trouble.’
As it happens, the soldiers from the Third Platoon ‘Kill Team’ are, in fact, in trouble, with five soldiers charged with murder. Yet Rolling Stone describes an army desperately scrambling to portray those involved as ‘bad apples’ even though murders of civilians were allegedly ‘common knowledge’ among the unit. No officers have been charged — indeed, some have been promoted — despite allegations they knew about the killings from the beginning.
Conflicts like Iraq and Afghanistan require very young men to police a population that’s largely hostile to their presence. The dynamic between occupiers and occupied facilitates a racial antipathy, such that some of those young men will inevitably do terrible things.
Yes, individual perpetrators must be held accountable for their crimes. But should we not also be asking questions about the character of wars that foster such a tremendous hatred toward the civilian population in whose name we are supposedly fighting?