Feb 11, 2010

Uses and policies for pictures of dead men

In 2005, eight Army soldiers stationed at one base in Afghanistan were demoted and denied some pay because of “trophy photos” they took, which included photos of themselves pointing guns at the heads of "detainees" and photos of dead Afghan men. It is not quite clear, though, that the act of taking such photos or having such photos is, in itself, against the rules. It seems that the military reserves the right to approve all soldiers’ photos, and the so-called trophy photos violated the policy of the process, not any specific regulation regarding the contents of pictures.

The military and U.S. government have, at least in some cases, wanted photos of the dead and made use of them. In 2001, for example, a Bush administration, counter terrorism adviser told CIA covert operatives being deployed to fight al-Queada in Afghanistan, “I want to see photos of their heads on pikes." This might have been a bit hyperbolic, but that was the tone in the early part of that administration and, when it came to certain corpses in Iraq, this was actually the policy. Pictures of Sadaam Hussein’s dead sons were released by the military and promoted as part of a propaganda effort in 2003. In 2006, when Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, an insurgent leader believed responsible for hundreds of bombings, kidnappings and beheadings in Iraq, was killed, a photo of his lifeless head was distributed and put out by military officials, and, in at least one press conference, the military increased the size of the picture of the dead man’s face so it was larger than life. The argument for the publication of the photos was basically the same in both cases: first, the photos served as proof of death, and second, Bush administration officials believed and specifically said the photos of the dead men might cause Iraqis to be demoralized and give up insurgent fighting against Americans, or the photos could perhaps even motivate some to switch sides.

The same was apparently not thought to be true of the photos taken of tortured prisoners in Abu Grahib or the photos of the dead lying in the streets in Iraq and Afghanistan.