Snapshots of War

WikiLeaks isn't the first site to publish controversial material from a war zone

In April, WikiLeaks released a graphic video entitled “Collateral Murder,” which shows U.S. soldiers shooting from a helicopter on a group of Iraqis while making triumphant comments. The WikiLeak triggered heated discussions about who has the right to take and distribute war images and what is the proper language to use when speaking about the violence of war. But “Collateral Murder” is only one example of the larger phenomenon of words and images produced during the Iraq and Afghanistan wars, often by soldiers, that go viral.

In “Body Horror on the Internet: U.S. Soldiers Recording the War in Iraq and Afghanistan” (Media, Culture & Society, November 2009), Kari Andén-Papadopoulos, an associate professor at the Department of Journalism, Media, and Communication at Stockholm University, explores this phenomenon, calling attention to “the blurring of boundaries between those who are fighting and those who are documenting the war.” In particular, she examines soldier-generated content on the online bulletin board called NowThat’ (NTFU), which was created in the spring of 2004 to provide a platform for male users to share sexually explicit amateur photographs of women. Because soldiers in Afghanistan and Iraq encountered difficulties while trying to pay for membership on the site (credit-card companies blocked charges from areas considered “high-risk”), NTFU offered free membership to U.S. soldiers who provided photographs that proved they were stationed in war zones.

The site then sorted the soldiers’ images into two categories: the “general” category, which included innocuously mundane moments such as soldiers relaxing in the barracks, and the “gory” category, which consisted mostly of photographs of corpses or body parts of Iraqi men, and “headshots” showing the severed heads of the insurgents as trophies in the hands of anonymous U.S. soldiers. Soldiers’ commentary on the site generally expressed solidarity with one another, forming a strong professional community, separate from civilians alien to the experience of war. According to Andén-Papadopoulos, soldiers’ comments ranged from detailed information about ballistic performance documented in the images to sarcastic jokes about their enemies’ serious or fatal injuries. The site often served as a community forum for the soldiers, even going so far as to host earnest political debates on the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.

In spring 2006, the operator of NTFU agreed to shut it down after pleading guilty in Florida’s Polk County circuit court to five counts of possession of obscene materials. NTFU is now part of media history, but its case raises important questions about the production, circulation, and reception of contemporary war imagery.

Historically, images of war taken by soldiers are fairly common; Wehrmacht soldiers took thousands of photos during World War II, often of their own war crimes. What is new and controversial today is that graphic, digitally distributed, soldier-generated images “offer the public uncensored insights into the dark, violent and even depraved faces of warfare.” While some feel the images go too far, desensitizing the public instead of triggering proactive responses, Andén-Papadopoulos is more interested in examining how posting the images, and commenting on them, serve the soldiers.

She does not propose any single explanation for why soldiers take and circulate photos of war, but offers multiple reasons: breaking media taboos by portraying the horrors of war, documenting their experiences, reliving war trauma while simultaneously distancing themselves from it, and creating a community with other soldiers who share similar traumatic experiences. As Andén-Papadopoulos writes in her subtle and probing article, the public postings also invite in the outside world and therefore become part of the ritual for the soldiers: “to vent their violent reality within the context of an informed community, while knowing that someone else is looking and listening.”

The opportunities in the Internet age for the public to bear witness to and eavesdrop on open forums once unavailable, in fact, unimagined, present new challenges, especially in the case of soldiers sharing graphic images of war’s brutality. How much do we want to see? How much do we want to talk about what we see? For Andén-Papadopoulos, sites like this one give the media and the public at large a chance for greater understanding.

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Michael Schudson and Julia Sonnevend write The Research Report for CJR.