Shoot first, share the pics online later

Sat, Apr 2, 2011, 01:00

Photographing violence is so common in the military that US soldiers seemed to think it normal to pose with the body of an Afghan boy they had killed, writes TOM CLONAN

THIS WEEK’S Rolling Stonearticle about “the Kill Team” has rocked the US military and diplomatic establishment. The article graphically describes – and shows in images taken by the soldiers involved – how troops of the US 5th Stryker Brigade murdered a 15-year-old Afghan boy named Gul Mudin in January.

The soldiers involved, 26-year-old Stf Sgt Calvin Gibbs, 21-year-old Cpl Jeremy Morlock and 19-year-old Pvt Andrew Holmes, all belonged to Bravo Company, based at Forward Operating Base Ramrod, in Kandahar Province. According to US army criminal investigators, they and two others were involved in a five-month killing spree of innocent Afghan civilians from January to May of last year.

The publication of photographs of the killings by Rolling Stoneand, earlier, Der Spiegelhas generated an international scandal that echoes the abuse of Iraqi prisoners in Abu Ghraib prison in 2004. According to the US military investigation, the 5th Stryker Brigade sustained mounting casualties from improvised explosive devices following their deployment to Kandahar in the summer of 2009. In revenge, Morlock and Gibbs decided to murder innocent Afghans and “drop” or place captured Taliban weapons close to their bodies to justify their killings. On January 15th, on a routine patrol to the village of La Mohammed Kalay, they found their first victim.

Gul Mudin was working for his father in a poppy field when he was spotted by Morlock and Holmes. In evidence at his court martial Morlock described the child as a “pleasant, smooth-faced boy” who smiled and walked towards them at their request. Morlock motioned at him to halt and tossed a grenade at his feet. He and Holmes then shot him a number of times at point-blank range with assault rifles. According to their evidence, “his little cap fell off” as he collapsed, face forward into a pool of blood. The troops then photographed Gul’s naked body. The images show, among a group of grinning soldiers, the broken body of a child with an expression of surprise and dismay still evident in death.

There are precedents for such atrocities. Lieut William Calley was convicted in a US military court of the massacre of 22 civilians in the village of My Lai, in Vietnam, in 1968. Several US troops were convicted of the rape and murder of Iraqi civilians in Mahmudiyah, in Iraq, in 2006. What is unprecedented is the propensity for front-line troops to film, document and record their atrocities – and to share them – on digital platforms.

For centuries soldiers the world over have taken photographs of their exploits in the field. During the US Civil War dead bodies were often posed for primitive daguerreotype images. Many ordinary soldiers in the second World War made photographic records of their war service, though few combat images made it past the military censor.

In Vietnam, Polaroid and instant film made it easier for combat troops to evade the censor’s eye. There are probably thousands of prints of disturbing images from that conflict in attics across the US.

THE INVASIONS OF Afghanistan and Iraq, however, have coincided with the rise of digital technologies and a new Facebook generation of combatants. US troops now often film – and share – real-time images of their actions on the front line. A new disinhibition has emerged among soldiers internationally. Cruelty, torture and murder are recorded and shared via the web. From videos of execution and beheading in Iraq to the murder of children in Afghanistan, the uncensored horror of war is available to anyone with internet access.

What is remarkable about the images published by Rolling Stoneis the absolute desensitisation to violence evident among the troops participating in the shots of Gul Mudin. Even among battle-hardened troops the impulse to kill children is normally suppressed, not celebrated in highly stylised trophy-kill photographs.

Emerging research by the US military suggests that combat stress reaction (CSR) may play a role in this behaviour. CSR affects about 35 per cent of soldiers deployed to combat. According to the US military, key risk factors that aggravate CSR include “an unclear mission, lack of home support and constant risk of ambush, and attack particularly from mines and improvised explosive devices”. In many respects the US deployment to Afghanistan fits precisely the criteria for exposure to acute CSR.

The physical symptoms include muscle tremor, tachycardia, hyperventilation and diarrhoea. The behavioural symptoms include irritability, panic attacks, hyperarousal, hypervigilance, depression, anger and substance abuse. Rage and intoxication can combine to lower inhibitions around killing.

According to the military inquiry, at the time they murdered Gul Mudin members of Bravo Company were regularly abusing hash, opium, zolpidem, amitriptyline, cyclobenzaprine, promethazine, codeine and trazodone.

According to the US army surgeon general, 66,935 cases of acute CSR have been diagnosed in US troops serving in Afghanistan since 2002. In this febrile environment the rates of physical and psychological trauma among US troops have reached levels not seen since Vietnam.

Afghan civilian casualties have also increased dramatically since 2007. Though most of them are inflicted by the Taliban, Nato’s statistics show an increase in casualties inflicted by US, British and coalition troops. Inevitably, more tragic images will emerge from Afghanistan, but the pictures of Gul Mudin represent a profound violation of trust and echo the iconic images of the bound and hooded Iraqi prisoners at Abu Ghraib. They may yet become emblematic of Nato’s mission in Afghanistan.


Dr Tom Clonan is The Irish Times Security Analyst; tclonan@irishtimes.com