Is War Porn Amoral or a Natural By-Product of War?


Joanna Schroeder admires Salon’s John Rico for his honesty about what makes young soldiers pose with corpses during wartime, and wonders whether war porn is deviant, or a natural by-product of teaching young people to kill.

The nation was shocked last week when we learned of more supposed bad behavior by US troops overseas, in the form of posing with the bodies of dead enemy combatants. This isn’t shocking news though, is it? It’s been happening since the beginning of this  war, and as far as we know, as long as war has been happening, in one form or the other.

In a fascinating Salon.com piece, former infantry soldier and combat veteran John Rico an insider’s perspective on the function of so-called war porn, and wonders what it is about society that makes us so shocked to learn that young people who’ve been trained to fight and kill since they were 18 years old have reveled in the death of their enemies:

I have to say that I find all the political and polite posturing to be quite amusing. I say this because with a single email, attaching just a few of the files in my own treasure trove, I could ignite this controversy all over again.

You see, I too have a secret collection of “war porn.”

I am not alone.

Every single infantry soldier I know has a collection of war porn. Photos of IED sites, shots of spent shell casings after a battle, and most notably, the photos of the people we’ve killed. And yes, sometimes in these photos, we’re mugging for the camera with the dead guy behind us.

For those of us who’ve been protected from the horrors of war, for those of us who’ve never seen a the dead body of someone who was actively trying to kill us, it’s impossible to imagine keeping photographs of any dead body, let alone gory ones, let alone ones where we’re mugging alongside a body.

That’s serial killer stuff, right? Like Jeffrey Dahmer? Not so fast, says Rico.

As much as I’m disturbed by what Rico says in his Salon piece, I believe honesty is the best way for us to attempt to walk in someone’s shoes:

As with all things, context is everything. And considering that the United States has tasked soldiers to kill on its behalf; that they are, in fact, killing and also being killed; and that their duties sometimes include picking up body parts after a suicide attack – is their desire to document this insanity really the crazy part?

The real grotesqueness isn’t in infantry soldiers taking a few war trophies. No, it’s the idea that’s been sold to the American public that war can be sterile. It’s the idea that 18-year-olds who have been ordered to kill people will never play with the body parts afterward.

I think before we judge these young men and women, before we decide that they are “bad” or deviant, we need to do as Rico commands us to do, and examine what’s truly behind these photographs. Perhaps the worst part of these photographs is that they are made public and create worse anti-American sentiment in an already dicey situation.

What do you think? Is War Porn deviant, or a natural byproduct of teaching young people to kill?

 

Photo courtesy of The U.S. Army

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About Joanna Schroeder

Joanna Schroeder is the type of working mom who opens her car door and junk spills out all over the ground. She serves as Executive Editor of The Good Men Project and is a freelance writer whose work has appeared on sites like Redbook, Yahoo!, xoJane, MariaShriver.com, hlntv.com, and more. Joanna loves playing with her sons, skateboarding with her husband, and hanging out with friends. She just finished her first novel. Follow her shenanigans on Twitter.

Comments

  1. wet_suit_one says:

    Honestly, only people who lead such sheltered lives could find this behaviour odd.

    I’m not a soldier, but having studied war since a young age, I am unsurprised by anything that is done in warfare.

    Anyways….

  2. The question would be is War deviant. Apparently not. Human beings, must someplace in their deep genetics, love violence. There are so many things that happen during war time…from taking trophies to sexual assault to torture…seems the purpose is to completely dehumanize the enemy all while bonding with your own side through the activities listed above.

    As for ” Perhaps the worst part of these photographs is that they are made public and create worse anti-American sentiment in an already dicey situation.” No. The more light shed on the things our government tolerates (or encourages) the better, save for the thought that placing articles about it all just normalizes it. That’s the risk to me. We’ve already got movies like Hostel and Saw bringing us torture porn on DVD, Netflix on demand etc, now this is happening in real life (and has been from the beginning of time, I guess).

    But our government seems to sanction it. Other governments too.

    Humans (can and do) enjoy cruelty. This much is obvious.

    • Julie,

      You don’t think there’s some consideration to be made with respect to who our opponents are in Afghanistan?

      Make no mistake, the US gov’t could create propaganda if they wanted to. They could get all the images of Americans being beheaded by jihadists (of which there are several), and all the images of the 9/11 victims, and put together great video packages suggesting the average Afghani is sub-human.

      But they don’t do that.

      Unfortunately, our opponents in Afghanistan do. Go watch the documentary Restrepo (this is also a great documentary for other reasons), and you’ll see. The average villager has no idea that beheadings of capture American civilians take place. Many of them don’t even believe the 9/11 attacks ever happened. But they are told/shown images and stories of injured and killed Afghanis on a daily basis by agents who sympathize with the Taliban.

      This is the reality of the conflict in Afghanistan: we are fighting an enemy who does not care about freedom of information, is totally unabashed about creating and using propaganda, and is happy to take advantage of the relative naivete that comes with living in a village that has no internet and TV access in order to drum up anti-American hate.

      In light of such an opponent, it’s difficult to say that there cannot be any concern about the kind of anti-American sentiment that these sorts of photos will generate.

  3. The Wet One says:

    Is war deviant? OMG! What an utterly ahistorical (dare I say ignorant of history?) comment. War is exceedingly natural to humans. Violence, murder and mayhem is par for the course amongst humans. Our modern era of peace is the abnormality and deviance, not the norm (historically speaking). Granted, that’s a kind of deviance of which we can all approve.

    Violence is a tool and it is a tool that has been effective to achieve certain ends for a long long time. One is wiser to examine why it has become a less effective tool in recent times than to attack to tool because it is violence. That way lies the defeat of violence. Stephen Pinker’s book “The Better Angels of Our Nature” goes some way to explaining the decline in violence. Reading Thomas Hobbes’ “Leviathan” will get you a long way there too. In modern times, understanding why great power wars have not been unleashed upon us again since WWII, you can thank the Bomb. It has proved to be the only thing that can restrain us from doing what comes naturally (namely making war).

    In fact, given the evidence, if you want more peace, spread nukes around en mass. Sounds crazy, but it has worked, quite unlike anything else that’s been put forward.

    Anyways…

    • “The question would be is War deviant. Apparently not. Human beings, must someplace in their deep genetics, love violence. There are so many things that happen during war time…from taking trophies to sexual assault to torture…seems the purpose is to completely dehumanize the enemy all while bonding with your own side through the activities listed above.”

      Did you read my answer? I said as much as you. It’s part and parcel of human existence.

      • The Wet One says:

        I understood your words to suggest there was a question. I’m sorry if I misinterpreted you. It is abundantly clear that humans are violent, sadistic and cruel creatures. The degree of our sadistic cruelty and violence is hidden to us today because our society are so peaceful, respectful and benign. The real question is, how did this happen and how do we repeat it.

        Nature ain’t nice. That’s where we came from and that’s still where we reside. War was endemic in nature and remains endemic today (though in different ways than in the past). How we change this is the question. The workable answers may not be pleasant, but they work. The finest example, nuclear weapons. Not a pretty answer to the question of war between superpowers, but they did keep the peace.

        The Wet One

  4. (First off I wonder what the seeming obsession with use of the word porn. It seems like these days every time its noticed that people take pleasure in something that may be bad people trip over themselves to call it some sort of porn. I know there isn’t some exlicit link to sex when they do that I just wonder how/why people have gotten to the point of constantly coming up with such new types of porn. Reveng porn, war porn, torture porn, etc…)

    If you look back in history these types of photos are by no means the first war trophies. Its just that in the past there was no technology to make an instant copy of a fresh kill so instead soldiers would take body parts, weapons, and other things as proof that they did what they were trained to do.

    Is War Porn deviant, or a natural byproduct of teaching young people to kill?
    As Julie says war does not seem to be a deviant and from that I think that war porn is not a deviant but rather one of many by products of teaching young people to kill (other by products for example being people who don’t revel in the violence but hide from it).

  5. To me, the whole thing makes perfect sense. War is, as has been said, part of human nature for better or worse. It is also an unfathomable nightmare. We’re talking about young men and women with almost no life experience being sent to a faraway place to shoot and be shot at. I am certain that they experience nightmares that the vast majority of us could not even comprehend to be real. These images, I’m sure, are a reminder that it was real. “I’m not crazy, this happened. Here is photographic proof that it happened.” Totems, physical reminders, and pictures all serve as a reminder that what they experienced was real.

    I keep physical reminders of some of the nightmares that have happened to me to serve as a reminder that it was real. Most people have trouble believing that some things can actually happen because they are so far outside the realm of normal events, and in the face of all that doubt, it can be hard for yourself to believe it actually happened.

    The real problem is not the fact that these young men and women are making mementos of war; the real problem is the fact that we are putting them in a situation where they need to make them.

  6. Pimp Nazsty says:

    Anyone who plays video games knows that it’s bound to happen. I wouldn’t say it’s natural but most of what we do isn’t unfortunately. I doubt you would see a wolf kill another wolf, then tea bag him and piss on his dead body, but people are very likely to do that upon conquering death in a physical “besting your adversary” type way. I bring up video games, because it’s a simulated alternate reality that shows what we WOULD do in a given situation. In a video game you don’t kill the boss, beat the game, and wait for the credits to roll. You deliver the final blow and then generally yell at your tv screen and (what most do) teabag his dead body (stand over head, press crouch/sneak button repeatedly). The point is it’s generally not enough to simply kill your adversary. How do express the feeling of “YEAH!!! F*CK YOU!!! I BESTED YOU!!! You tried to kill ME, and now YOU’RE dead!!!! F*CK YOU!!!!….. B*TCH!!!!!” It comes out in the form of desecrating bodies and humiliating your enemy. Like talking sh*t in a video game. What’s REALLY immoral is giving kids a gun, pointing at the “enemy” and saying FIGHT OR DIE!!! They’re KIDS!!! They should be playing Call Of Duty not living it!!!

  7. Is War Porn deviant or a natural product of teaching young people to kill? We fail to recognize how many of the people around us think that death and suffering are funny without having been “taught” to kill. Walk into any 5th grade classroom and see how many boys you could get laughing over the thought of exploding frogs with fireworks.

  8. I have always been bemused by all forms of war porn, and yet having dealt with those who have served and returned such items and images have extremely strong emotional connections.

    I find the use of the word “Porn” odd – would you call someone who has strong emotional bonds to a Rock Star and their music a collector or porn – T-shirts, Posters, Concert images …. even autographs?

    Porn is evidently used to express negative emotions, views and to incite negative emotions.

    I recall a particular quote from Oliver Stone’s film “JFK” (1991) – “The organizing principle of any society, Mr Garrison, is for war,….”

    In so many ways that is very true – and has been shown throughout Human History. If it is correct, then warfare is not deviant, and the collection of supposed war porn literally inevitable. Add to that social representations of masculinity with Big Game Hunters posing with their kills ….. It’s just the same images being reproduced with different game!

    Hemingway – the hero in war and big game hunter! Cultural icons have way of being aped – even if it’s in a modern context, with camera phones and fast net access – and people suddenly wondering if the fall out may be closer to home than in some far off land!

    That does not mean I agree with war porn in any way, and given the whole mess that is Afghanistan – Iraq – and which has been misrepresented in so many ways for so long …. It is not surprising that the whole mess is beyond the comprehension and psychology of the people affected – and those not affected until they see something they have not be prepared for – and never expected to see!

    It’s odd – but if a Journalist takes an image it’s fine – and you can see what I mean by that if you just Google “vietnam iconic images” and look at the image results! But for a soldier to ape such images in the battle field is seen as somehow terrible. “Iraq Iconic Images” and “Afghanistan Iconic Images” – also provide strong visual clues to the way people are having reality presented to them.

    Advisory – Don’t Google “war porn” and look at the images – the content is adult, and not suitable for viewing by those seeking to address warfare.

    I have seen many films concerning the fall out of war, and studied the subject widely. The most accurate portrayal I have seen is not even recognised as a war film – there is heroism, but not on the battle field – there is fighting, but not with conventional weapons – there is truth, but not the truth people would expect or even want.

    For those who can not grasp why war porn exists – I would recommend they watch “In the Valley of Elah”.

    It is chilling and honest, and having spoken to many service personnel who have served in the modern battle field, they tell me that It sums up and illustrates their experiences more than anything else that is out there.

    “The organizing principle of any society is for war.” – It’s a pity that the same societies have not organised how to deal with the effects and lasting legacies – and if they did, they may well find warfare less productive and organise far fewer wars .

  9. Say what you will, you cannot expect people to fight, kill, and die for you, without consequences. Everyone hear has stated in one way or another, that violence is a part of nature, and no one hear can really say what is right or wrong until being in a soldiers place. Violence is a part of us, it comes naturally to some, scarcely to others. It is the job of those that shy away from violence(which is most of the population in America) to accept those that fight for us, not ostracize them for doing what soldiers have been doing since war has been around. Which is the beginning of time. It is man’s fate to wage war on each other. What many of you are doing with your questions of ‘Is war porn wrong?’ and ‘Are these young men and women fighting for us wrong, or bad?’, what you are doing is trying to humanize war, which is impossible.

  10. Even if war is not deviant, I think the best option would simply be to NOT teach young ones how to kill, don’t you think?

Trackbacks

  1. […] whether war porn is deviant, or a natural by-product of teaching young people to kill., on the Good Men Project: The nation was shocked when we learned of more supposed bad behavior by US troops overseas, in the […]

  2. […] whether war porn is deviant, or a natural by-product of teaching young people to kill, on the Good Men Project: The nation was shocked when we learned of more supposed bad behavior by US troops overseas, in the […]

  3. […] I can’t help but be reminded of a piece I wrote a few weeks ago for The Good Feed Blog about so-called “War Porn” – commemorative photographs and items that service people keep in “celebration” […]

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