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
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 far enemies being fair game. During World War Two, he observes, the Japanese were the far 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.
The desecration of the bodies of Japanese soldiers was so common that in 1944, Life magazine published a light-headed photo of a young woman posing with a Japanese soldier's skull sent to her from New Guinea by her Navy boyfriend. That same year, columnist Drew Pearson reported (pdf) that Representative Francis E. Walter (D-Penn.) had presented President Franklin D. Roosevelt with a letter opener made from the forearm of a Japanese soldier. "This is the sort of gift I like to get," Pearson quotes FDR saying, although the president did not touch it.
The Japanese government made propaganda out of the two high-profile incidents, James J. Weingartner writes in a 1992 paper (pdf). Both acts violated the 1929 Geneva Convention prohibition against the mistreatment of the dead. The Navy lieutenant was reprimanded, and FDR returned the letter opener with instructions that it be properly buried. Although the U.S. command reiterated once more its policy against the desecration of enemy remains, trophy-taking continued in the Pacific Theater until war's end. Harrison recounts the story of a Japanese skull gathered at Guadalcanal that one Marine handed down to the next generation. Nicknamed "Oscar" and autographed by dozens of servicemen, the skull had been lacquered and occupied a middle-of-the-shelf place of honor in the collector's home. After he died in 1960, it remained a cherished object by its inheritors for several more decades.
In making playpens of Afghan bones, U.S. soldiers signal not a breakdown in leadership and discipline in the unit, as the soldier who gave the photos to the newspaper would have it, but the soldiers’ view that they’re fighting a dehumanized “far enemy,” akin to the Japanese or the Viet Cong, whose body parts were often violated by U.S. soldiers during the Vietnam War. Harrison surmises – although not in these words – that much of the body-part souvenir-taking that goes on during wartime displays a coward’s courage. That is, the corpse is collected by the soldier who discovered it, not the one who did the killing. (Evidence of decomposition and rat-chew marks on “Oscar’s” skull indicate that it was discovered later, not harvested from the battlefield by the killer.)
Harrison allows that the fierceness of combat may cause soldiers to mutilate the enemy and collect human souvenirs, but notes that “battlefield conditions cannot explain why servicemen in many cases collected such trophies not for themselves but – as is often the case with souvenirs and holiday mementos purchased by tourists – as gifts for relatives and others back home. Some collected such objects at the specific request of family members.”
Without defending the conduct of the unit that allegedly posed for and took the disgraceful photos, we should keep in mind that the collection and preservation of enemy body parts is no longer for rogues only. Amassing the arms, legs, torsos, skulls, body scraps and full remains of dead enemies for intelligence purposes now appears to be U.S. military policy. As the Times explains, the parts were set aside by Afghan police until U.S. soldiers could visit and lift iris scans and fingerprints from them for identification. Even dead, these combatants were worthy of a biometric interrogation in which they were expected to provide forensic battlefield intelligence: dead, but still capable of speaking.
Why does the ancient art of trophy-taking tend to make its practitioners grin or chuckle the way the soldiers captured in the photos published in the Times are? They seem to be laughing at death, but I think death is laughing at them.
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