You’re Looking At The Heads

The heads. You’re looking at the heads. Sometimes he goes too far.

—Apocalypse Now

In January of 2007 I was pretty rough on the Germans, when reports emerged that German troops in Afghanistan had festooned their vehicles with Nazi emblems, mounted skulls on the hoods of their patrol vehicles, pressed their weapons to the heads of Afghan boys to laughingly enact “mock executions,” and photographed one among them extending his penis towards the opened jaw of a human skull.

This skull the Germans apparently snatched from an area where Afghan villagers obtained their clay, and with it they had quite the party—playing with it, posing with it, photographing one another in skull-fondling frolic. Those soldiers who declined to engage in skullfucking were reportedly excoriated as “wimps”; the practice justified on the ground that “it’s hard on the nerves when you’re constantly confronted with people from your own army or the allies getting hurt or dying.”

I later opined that “all this confirm[s] the sense of Normal People that Germans in uniform should not be allowed beyond their own country’s borders for, oh, another 1000 years or so.”

Now, one of the publications that broke the story of the German skullfucking, Der Spiegel, has published photographs that American soldiers in Afghanistan snapped of themselves, posing with the bodies of civilians they had deliberately killed. Although the publication printed but three of these pictures, it is said that, with the typical American penchant for excess, these louts compiled and kept more that 4000 war-porn stills and videos: there are “also entire collections of pictures of other victims that some of the defendants were keeping.”

News of this Stryker “kill team” has been around for a while; I referenced it last September, noting that the Taliban was no doubt helpfully spreading word among the Afghan populace of just what the mealy-mouthed foreign crusaders were truly up to in their country.

What was not known then was that these people actually documented in pictures their various and sundry crimes. Though that we should have suspected. Because everyone in this country photographs everything these days, without sense, or sense of shame. Seemingly no one is immune to succumbing to this nonsense: last month a married New York Republican member of Congress resigned after it was learned he had posted would-be beefcake photos of himself to Craigslist, in a truly failed booty-trolling attempt.

We actually seem now to be moving into a world where it is assumed that if something is not captured on camera, it didn’t happen. At the close of last year’s health-care debate, three black Democratic congressmembers—John Lewis, Andre Carson, and Emmanuel Cleaver—reported that some among the racist teabaggers roiling then around Washington shouted racial slurs at them as they walked from House office buildings to the Capitol. Though even a white man, Congressmember Heath Shuler, affirmed that he too heard the slurs, racist foghorns like Sean Klannity have subsequently and repeatedly claimed that it never happened, because no one came forward with cellphone footage documenting it, even though the racist serial fabricator Andrew Breitbart “pledged $100,000 to the United Negro College Fund if anyone provides proof of the epithets.”

Anybody anywhere will also apparently post anything at all to Facebook: the defense for one of the members of the “kill team,” Adam Winfield, involves the fact that he “sent Facebook messages home early last year saying that members of his unit had murdered one civilian, planned to kill more and were urging him to ‘get one’ of his own. He said they threatened him to keep quiet about the plot.”

In one incident, which has been reconstructed based on documents from the investigation, the soldiers themselves detonated a hand grenade in order to make it look like they were the subjects of an attack before killing a man. One of those who allegedly participated, Adam Winfield, 21, described the incident to his father in a chat on the social networking site Facebook. “They made it look like the guy threw a grenade at them and mowed him down,” Spiegel quotes Winfield as having written in the chat.

We know that the billionaires of Facebook can’t be bothered to get out of the sauna when people use their platform to announce that they’re killing themselves; apparently they are likewise unable to tear themselves away from the Sotheby’s catalogue when people use their platform to proclaim that they’re roaming around Afghanistan murdering people.

Not that members of the United States military were any more moved to lift ass from chair than were the feckless Facebook folks: after Winfield inscribed his confessions to Facebook, “Winfield’s father reported his son’s allegations to the base, but no action was taken, and two more civilians were killed. The alleged murder plot was not discovered by Army investigators until months later.”

So what did the members of this “kill team” do, that they were so compelled to capture on camera?

Twelve American soldiers face charges over a secret “kill team” that allegedly blew up and shot Afghan civilians at random and collected their fingers as trophies.

Five of the soldiers are charged with murdering three Afghan men who were allegedly killed for sport in separate attacks this year. Seven others are accused of covering up the killings and assaulting a recruit who exposed the murders when he reported other abuses, including members of the unit smoking hashish stolen from civilians.

According to investigators and legal documents, discussion of killing Afghan civilians began after the arrival of Staff Sergeant Calvin Gibbs at forward operating base Ramrod last November. Other soldiers told the army’s criminal investigation com-mand that Gibbs boasted of the things he got away with while serving in Iraq and said how easy it would be to “toss a grenade at someone and kill them.”

By late fall, Gibbs was outlining what he referred to as “scenarios,” in which platoon members could kill unarmed Afghans and drop grenades and other “props” by the bodies to make them appear to be legitimate battlefield casualties[.]

The suspects are accused of having killed civilians for no reason and then of trying to make it look as though the killings had been acts of self-defense. Some of the accused have said the acts had been tightly scripted.

In one incident in May last year, during a patrol, the team apprehended a mullah who was standing by the road and took him into a ditch where they made him kneel down.

The group’s leader, Staff Sergeant Calvin Gibbs, then allegedly threw a grenade at the man while an order was given for him to be shot.

Afterwards, Gibbs is described cutting off one of the man’s little fingers and removing a tooth.

The patrol team later claimed to their superiors that the mullah had tried to threaten them with a grenade and that they had no choice but to shoot.

Though it is always comforting to pretend that it is so, these men are not the product of some demonic lab that deliberately churns out monsters. These are Americans. One of them, Jeremy Morlock, is from Wasilla, Alaska, just like Sarah Palin; so too Steven D. Green, the soldier sentenced to life at hard labor for raping, killing, and setting afire a young Iraqi woman, is a Midland, Texas boy, just like George W. Bush. Calvin Gibbs is a Mormon, like would-be president Mitt Romney, and Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid; Gibbs, pictured above (that’s Palin over there to the left), seems to value his dog, as, presumably, he also values his wife—also a Mormon, and a soldier.

The problem with these men is that, as with Colonel Kurtz in Apocalypse Now, they went “too far.” Kurtz became officially outre only when he began operating outside the “rules”; although killing people was the raison d’être for America’s wars in Indochina, sanctified in daily, obsessively compiled “body counts,” one was not supposed to then lop the heads off these bodies, and publicly display them around the compound. This the problem also with this Afghan “kill team”: American soldiers are expected to contrive some colorable reason for killing civilians, as is done all the time when, for instance, the US military justifies the 98% civilian “collateral damage” rate of its drone war in Afghanistan and Pakistan. But deliberately targeting civilians, and without orders from above . . . well, that’s just not done. “Too far.”

Ditto removing and retaining parts of the bodies of people who have been killed. Though there is a long history of such practices in armed conflicts engaged in by members of the United States military. Beginning even before there was a United States, when colonial governments encouraged and rewarded the taking of scalps from Indians. Later, officers and men of the United States cavalry would slit the vaginas from dead Indian women and stretch them across their saddlehorns. American soldiers secured as souvenirs pieces of Asian bodies in the Philippines in the 1910s, in the South Pacific in the 1940s, and in Southeast Asia in the 1960s-70s. In all of these instances such atrocities were enabled by the widely-held belief, among Americans, that the people dismembered were racially inferior to the white people who carved them up.

William Styron, describing what was considered in the United States military in the 1950s to be a “highly regarded” member of the Marine Corps, and a sane person:

As a young Marine lieutenant I knew a regular gunnery sergeant, a mortar specialist, who carried in his dungaree pocket two small shriveled dark objects about the size of peach pits. When I asked him what they were he told me they were “Jap’s nuts.” I was struck nearly dumb with a queasy horror, but managed to ask him how he had obtained such a pair of souvenirs. Simple, he explained; he had removed them with a bayonet from an enemy corpse on Tarawa and had set them out at the end of a dock under the blazing sun where they quickly became dried like prunes. The sergeant was highly regarded in the company and I soon got used to seeing him fondle his keepsakes whenever he got nervous or pissed off, stroking them like worry beads.

These days it is of course not necessary to believe, there in the United States military, that one’s foes are racially inferior to American white people. This is because, as Joanna Bourke sets forth in An Intimate History Of Killing, the United States military has, since WWII, deliberately, and increasingly effectively, devised its training program so as to permanently channel each recruit into a belief system in which those declared the “enemy” are not human beings at all. This fulfills the military’s needs, because against a being not considered human almost anything is permitted, and without question. Just not cutting them up and keeping pieces as souvenirs. That, these days: “too far.”

Photographing and videotaping one’s kills is permitted depending on who you are and who it is that is killed. During War On Saddam I, under the reign of George I, Americans became accustomed to viewing on CNN various generals ebulliently narrating video footage of so-called “precision” bombs entering buildings and extinguishing the human beings inside them. During War On Saddam II, George II and his people proudly displayed, for all the world, grisly still photographs of the bodies of the slain sons of Saddam Hussein. Today, employees of the American military and intelligence establishment, ensconced in air-conditioned bunkers some 8000 miles away, derisively describe as “squirters” the human beings they watch scurrying about on video screens, as drones arrive to end their lives:

The missile strike on Wednesday, from a CIA drone, took place as Mr. Mehsud, a diabetic, was on a drip infusion for his kidney ailment, according to two Taliban fighters reached by telephone on Friday.

He was being tended to by one of his wives, the fighters said, and according to Pakistani security officials who had viewed American video of the attack, apparently from the drone, they were together on the roof.

They were both at the house of his father-in-law, Mulvi Ikramuddin, in the village of Zanghara, in South Waziristan. Mr. Ikramuddin’s brother, a medical practitioner, was treating him, the Taliban fighters said.

“He was clearly visible with his wife,” said a senior security official, who had seen the video. “His torso remained, while half of the body was blown up.”

Sometimes the military and Company people share the video footage of these kills with friendly allies:

A Predator drone hovering some two miles from the home had provided CIA operatives back in the United States with crisp video images of Mehsud and company.

“It was a perfect picture,” gushed Pakistani Interior Minister A. Rehman Malik. “We used to see James Bond movies where he talked into his shoe or his watch. We thought it was a fairy tale. But this was fact!”

It is interesting that Americans recurrently become obsessed with pornographic snuff films, in which it is said that a woman sexually used is later killed, on camera, but for which there exists no evidence suggesting that such a film has ever been made. And yet remain eyes wide shut to the fact that military snuff films such as those described above are filmed every day, authorized and approved at the highest levels of the United States government, and that they themselves not uncommonly view them on their own television screens.

So the Afghan “kill team” just photographed the wrong dead people. That’s all. Subsumed in what the Crimean War veteran Leo Tolstoy described as “the general debasement resulting from life in the army, with its glorification of the uniform and the flag, and its authorized violence and murder,” in their particular photo-snapping these men went “too far.” Now they can go to prison. As the war laughs on.


6 Responses to “You’re Looking At The Heads”

  1. 1 possum March 24, 2011 at 3:57 am

    The culture of war is a terrible sight. In my time in Vietnam there were soldiers who cared so little for human life, especially the lives of non-Americans, that scenarios like you describe could easily have been the game of the day. We were taught from the very beginning to react without thinking. We were told to follow orders no matter our personal convictions. In country we were led to demean and dehumanize the opposition in every possible way. What is left of humanity once a soldier is fully indoctrinated is too small to be of much benefit.

    Terrible as was can be today we create soldiers without feelings. Then when their time is finished we dump them into society and expect them to return to normal functions. It is no wonder at all that so many cannot do so and end their lives in suicide. The entirety of war as waged by America today is a tragedy of epic proportions.

    • 2 bluenred March 24, 2011 at 5:54 am

      They train you to react without thinking to keep you alive. In quieter times, they don’t want you to reflect, because then you might put down your gun and go home. : / It serves their purposes, and in the selfish short-term yours, to regard what you’re fighting as not human. It’s a terrible thing that is done to those sent to war. And, as you note, terrible too that what is turned on in people sent to war is not turned off when they’re mustered out.

  2. 3 possum March 24, 2011 at 7:04 am

    “in the selfish short-term yours, to regard what you’re fighting as not human.” Exactly right. I never could get to that low level. They remained people in my young mind. Ever more today those are human beings we are killing in our rush to conquer the world.

  3. 4 soothsayer March 25, 2011 at 7:54 pm

    by Wislawa Szymborska

    Nothing has changed.
    The body is susceptible to pain;
    it has to eat and breathe the air, and sleep;
    it has thin skin, and the blood is just beneath it;
    an adequate supply of teeth and fingernails;
    its bones can be broken; its joints can be stretched.
    In tortures, all this is taken into account.

    Nothing has changed.
    The body shudders as it shuddered
    before the founding of Rome and after,
    in the twentieth century before and after Christ.
    Tortures are just as they were, only the earth has grown smaller,
    and what happens sounds as if it’s happening in the next room.

    Nothing has changed.
    It’s just that there are more people,
    and beside the old offences new ones have sprung –
    real, make-believe, short-lived, and non-existent.
    But the howl with which the body answers to them,
    was, is and ever will be a cry of innocence
    according to the age-old scale and pitch.

    Nothing has changed.
    Except perhaps the manners, ceremonies, dances.
    Yet the movement of hands to shield the head remains the same.
    The body writhes, jerks and tries to pull away,
    its legs fail, it falls, its knees jack-knife,
    it bruises, swells, dribbles and bleeds.

    Nothing has changed.
    Except for the course of rivers,
    the lines of forests, coasts, deserts and glaciers.
    Amid those landscapes roams the soul,
    disappears, returns, draws nearer, moves away,
    a stranger to itself, elusive,
    now sure, now uncertain of its own existence,
    while the body is and is and is
    and has nowhere to go.

    Wislawa Szymborska was born in Poland in 1923. She lived through the Germans’ occupation of Poland – and defied them by going to illegal classes. Then she lived under an oppressive Communist regime – not always pleasing its officials with her poetry. In 1996 she was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature , one of the few women to receive it.


  4. 5 Robison November 10, 2011 at 8:55 pm

    As a 20 year military vet, let me explain for anyone else unfortunate enough to stumble across this blog and this post, these people are complete and total morons. The have no idea about military training, or laws which limit the use of force. Soldiers are not tought to react without thinking, this is just horseshit.

    The reason the actions of thse soldiers is so abhorrent is because it is so abnormal. The other 99.99% of the military knows the difference between right and wrong and practices it. And linking politicians to these scumbags? Wow, this blog is one perfect example of everything wrong with the internet.

    • 6 bluenred November 11, 2011 at 3:12 am

      Not all that abnormal, as explained at length in the piece.

      And it is false that “[t]he other 99.99% of the military knows the difference between right and wrong and practices it.”

      Because what is practiced in the military is killing people and breaking things.

      And killing people and breaking things is wrong.

      If people in the military truly “kn[ew] the difference between right and wrong,” they would put down their weapons, strip off their uniforms, and go home.

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