/ 20 January 2012

Urinating troops ‘democratise’ evil of war

It is as much a document of the information age as a horror of war. A video anonymously posted on YouTube apparently shows four United States marines urinating on the corpses of Afghans.

They pose for a video camera held by a fifth marine and perform their great deed against the dead with what looks like self-consciousness. They are doing it to be seen, fully aware that they are being filmed. Being filmed — and posting it for the world to watch — might actually be the point of the exercise.

Comparisons with previous incidents involving US forces, such as the torture in Abu Ghraib prison in Iraq, seem unavoidable, although there is a difference between torturing and abusing living prisoners and desecrating the bodies of the dead.

Surely the truly striking parallel with Abu Ghraib is not in the nature of the crimes, but the urge to photograph them and therefore to share them. Perhaps in future guns will come with a built-in camera and a button that lets you instantly share the moment of battle. These images of a ritual insult to the fallen make their appearance in a world even more plugged into communication than it was in 2004, when the photographs of Abu Ghraib prison guards posing with persecuted prisoners emerged.

Now it no longer seems surprising that violence and cruelty are self-documented in this way. What is not shared nowadays? What is too private to put on YouTube? The video of urinating soldiers does not even seem that shocking — it just takes its place among all the other videos everyone is watching.

It is true that soldiers documented their crimes with a camera long before the invention of digital video. Jurgen Stroop, the Nazi commander who led the crushing of the Warsaw ghetto uprising in 1943, kept a photograph album that visually celebrated his achievement. What did the first “professional” photographers of war think they were doing anyway, for that matter, in the 19th century? When Matthew Brady and other photographers followed the armies into battle in the American Civil War, they were not sent by newspapers or the war office. They simply saw an opportunity and took it.

Right from the start, you could argue, war photography was disreputable, a dirty business, tainted by voyeurism. The desire to see the dead of battle was starkly served by Brady. War photography has become a profession since then, even an art, regulated unofficially by editors’ decisions of what is and is not to be shown, but the voyeuristic impulse is still there in our appetite for photographs of war.

In that sense, what we are seeing here is the democratisation of photography and film in the digital age. Just as anyone caught in a revolution or riot can take a picture on their phone and get it circulated before professionals are on the scene, so it seems these soldiers filmed their own ugly deeds for themselves.

For Brady, war was a fact of horror to be shown. This video suggests it is now a scene of horror to be enacted so that it can be shared and talked about. —