Here’s an open question: The latest photos and images related to an alleged Stryker “kill team” in Afghanistan are nauseating, but how common are they among soldiers serving on the front lines with digital cameras in their pockets?
Two of the images published by Rolling Stone yesterday are clearly linked to a shooting that Joint Base Lewis-McChord soldiers allegedly staged in January 2010 to cover up a murder. The rest come from apparently legitimate fighting. They’re gruesome, even showing a body apparently dismembered in a helicopter strike.
I know I’m not the only journalist who’s seen similar images collected by Iraq and Afghan war veterans. The differences here are the allegations that Stryker soldiers intentionally targeted civilians, and that some of the American soldiers kept body parts from their victims as “war trophies.”
As Rolling Stone notes, the soldiers violated an order by sharing the images and videos among themselves. Casualty photos were supposed to be used only to assess damage or gather intelligence, according to testimony at hearings this winter for soldiers linked to the “kill team.”
In May, soldiers in the 5th Brigade, 2nd Infantry Division had an amnesty period to destroy all of their casualty photos, according to court testimony. That gave the Army a chance to collect images it didn’t want the public to see, and it gave the infantrymen a window to escape punishment for behavior that had been tacitly condoned.
Still, some of the images made it back to the states and found their way to Rolling Stone and Der Spiegel magazine.
Last week, New Yorker writer Seymour Hersh put the first batch of “kill team” photos in the context of the more than 40 years he’s spent reporting on the military and war crimes, from My Lai to Abu Ghraib.
“I have come to have a personal belief: these soldiers had come to accept the killing of civilians—recklessly, as payback, or just at random—as a facet of modern unconventional warfare,” he wrote. “In other words, killing itself, whether in a firefight with the Taliban or in sport with innocent bystanders in a strange land with a strange language and strange customs, has become ordinary.”
Seven years ago I was cub reporter at McClatchy’s Merced Sun-Star in Central California interviewing an Iraq war veteran for the first time. The young soldier was proud of his work keeping his comrades safe, and jarringly frank about what he could do with a squad automatic weapon mounted on a Humvee. Then he showed me pictures of casualties from his deployment. It was clear those images were shared among his fellow soldiers.
On the other side of the war, in 2008 I spent two months in Baghdad for McClatchy, and one of my most striking memories was finding a Syrian satellite TV channel that showed nothing except IED attacks on American Strykers and Humvees, usually synchronized with music. The channel celebrated President Bush’s embarrassing goodbye from the country when an Iraqi journalist hurled his shoe at him. It created a video montage splicing a slow-motion clip of the shoe throw with IED attacks and a soccer match where tens of thousands of Iraqis shouted anti-American slogans at U.S. soldiers who attended the match to protect an Iraqi dignitary. That passed for patriotism in Iraq at the time.
I’ll leave you with more from Hersh:
“In long, unsuccessful wars, in which the enemy—the people trying to kill you—do not wear uniforms and are seldom seen, soldiers can lose their bearings, moral and otherwise. The consequences of that lost bearing can be hideous. This is part of the toll wars take on the young people we send to fight them for us. The G.I.s in Afghanistan were responsible for their actions, of course. But it must be said that, in some cases, surely, as in Vietnam, the soldiers can also be victims.”