Still from "Motorcycle Kill' footage of an Army patrol gunning down two men in Afghanistan."

A photograph is not only like its subject, a homage to the subject.  It is part of, an extension of that subject; and a potent means of acquiring it, of gaining control over it.

-Susan Sontag, “On Photography”

In March, 2011, Der Spiegel released photos and videos it had obtained showing a self-described “Kill Team” of American soldiers in Afghanistan posing with dead Afghans.  The incident promised to be incredibly damaging because not only were innocent civilians being murdered and then presented as trophies, but it put the Afghan president Hamid Karzai, who has little to no legitimacy as a representative leader, “in the awkward position of having to explain why the country’s allies are killing unarmed children and women.”  Although the crimes committed by the “Kill Team” are greater than those that were photographed in Abu Ghraib prison and released to international outrage in 2004, there is a contrast to that scandal and this latest one.  The difference is in the level of early and successful damage control that the US military was able to perform.  Any informal poll of the name recognition of Lynndie England vs. Calvin Gibbs or Jeremy Morlock would prove the point.  According to the New York Times, there was an immediate effort to “mute public anger by emphasizing that the soldiers were being brought to justice. The Army described the actions as “repugnant.”  Whereas with Abu Ghraib there were officials in the Bush administration debating whether or not the actions depicted constituted torture, here there is little gray area: Afghans are dead, and their killers pose proudly above them.

As the wars the US engages in continue, its military will inevitably be faced with damage control responsibilities following the release of information detailing other atrocities committed and recorded by soldiers.  As Susan Sontag wrote in her essay “Regarding the Torture of Others” on Abu Ghraib, “the media may self-censor but, as Rumsfeld acknowledged, it’s hard to censor soldiers overseas, who don’t write letters home, as in the old days, that can be opened by military censors who ink out unacceptable lines. Today’s soldiers instead function like tourists, as Rumsfeld put it, ”running around with digital cameras and taking these unbelievable photographs and then passing them off, against the law, to the media, to our surprise.”

Why does this particular documentation continue to occur during war?  Sontag gives us a number of clues including the acquisition value of a photograph, their ability to redefine and recast (a fifteen year old Gul Mudin can pass for the role of hardened Taliban insurgent), to “reexperience the unreality and remoteness of the real.”  War specializes in producing experiences of unreality and remoteness.  Sontag wrote in “On Photography,” that “war and photography now seem inseparable…the feeling of being exempt from calamity stimulates interest in looking at painful pictures, and looking at them suggests and strengthens the feeling that one is exempt.”  What began as reminders for these sociopaths in uniform that they are exempt from military protocol, from personal calamity and from the norms of human behavior, ended up being the very reason for their permanent, though ‘muted,’ infamy.

Speigel Online: "Body of Gul Mudin, the son of a farmer, who was killed on Jan. 15, 2010. A member of the 'kill team' is posing behind him."

For the meaning of these pictures is not just that these acts were performed, but that their perpetrators apparently had no sense that there was anything wrong in what the pictures show.

-Susan Sontag

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