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Apr 21, 2005

Your Turn: War as Child's Play


Hearing about the disputed mass hostage taking and killings in Madaen, as well as the massacre of Iraqi troops at the soccer stadium near Hadith...

...You know, I was quick on the hunt for an image. 

Finding the documentation scarce, however, I decided -- finally -- to check back with Mosul.  Being one of those people who either double or halve when asked to recall lengths of time, I can't tell you how long it's been.  Even if it had been just a couple of months, however, I was surprised to find that the combat units had rotated -- and even the photographers were new.

In any case, going through the material, I was stopped still in my tracks by this. 

(Because there are a lot of new visitors to the BAG this week, it might be worthwhile to say a quick word about "Your Turn."  As the BAG has grown, more of you have literally picked up the thread and are now doing the analysis with me through your comments.  As a result, as much as I'm looking for material to discuss myself, I'm looking for visuals to submit for our mutual interpretation, or --as now -- that I can put in your trusting hands. 

One thing, though.  Please don't reproach me if I call this a loaded image.  I confess, I'm strongly drawn to take the edge off because of how terrible, and terribly uncomfortable it makes me feel.

(Here is the caption:  Mosul schoolyard : A US Army soldier from the 1-5 Infantry watches an Iraqi girl playing with a plastic handgun in a schoolyard in the town of Mosul. Click here for image in separate window)

(image: Cris Bouroncle/AFP in YahooNews)


Just last week I saw two young boys riding on a bicycle here in France. One was the 'driver', the other the 'passenger'. The passenger had a toy gun pointed at the driver's head and was clearly barking commands at him. He moved the gun from victim's his skull to his throat as they approached a turn he demanded be taken, as in "do this or you die bastard!".

This live image made me truly sick and sad. How can we 'let them be children' when all they see (and mimic) is human abuse?

A "zero at the bone" photograph. No way to analyze. Only to weep.

This photo is troubling to me for (at least) five reasons. First, and foremost, is the look on the child's face who is holding the gun. What could this child be thinking? (Who is the second child and what did he or didn't he do?) I am reminded of the famous Vietnam era photo wherein a man is seen shooting another man who is kneeling..... In juxtaposition to the children, what is the soldier thinking as he is passively witnessing this scene? His expression looks perhaps disgusted, perhaps amused (its hard to tell with the small photo). Does he recognize any connection between the "guns"? Third, is the relative color contrast of the two parts. The children are prominently dark, while the soldier is somewhat faded as if an extension of the background. This conjures a few dichotomies: active/passive, shadow/light, evil/good, even passion/justification... The minds of both gun holders are definitely conscious that they are holding guns--but in different ways. A fourth thing that has caught my eye is the gray line that visually separates the two parts. Does this draw a distinction between war and violence? Does it recognize a limit of the soldier's mission to intervene? (Afterall, it appears that its only kids "playing"....) Where does human responsibility end here and can the soldier do anything more than watch? Finally, what's with the shadow behind the soldier? Is that his concsience or his duty following him around....?

Great site!

I'll take a whack.

While at first glance, the actions of the children seem horrific, they are merely
acting to impress the soldier (or the photographer ?) so I am not appalled by the "subject", which may very
well be staged.

The thing I find most interesting, as cj pointed out, is the vertical grey bar which separates the
children from the soldier, and creates a barrier between.This emphasis on separation works on many levels: the obvious cultural
divide, the splitting of the imagery into pairs of opposites,and then the separation between child and adult.

Light and shadow further assist this theme of division.The soldier stands mostly in the bright sunlight of adulthood,duty and reality, while the children exist in a shadowy corner, illuminated by only a thin band of sunlight on the boy's head. The boy's head is also very close to the grey dividing line, this is as close as he can get to the soldier.

The soldier appears to be half smiling at the children, perhaps recalling his own childhood. Indeed his feet rest in the shadowland inhabited by the children,but he is an adult, and can never return childhood for he is blocked not only by the grey line, but also by shadow bars across his legs. The soldier and the children are aggressively separated by light and shade, culture and age.

But, observe the shadows.

In shadowland, the grey threshold has been crossed, the children move close to the soldier, but they are still separated by shadow bars, and more soldier shadows appear to join the scene.

Your comment has said it for me, Bluegrass Poet. My heart - my soul - weeps.

with grief, for opening the gates of hell in Iraq, Johanna

cj said:

...the famous Vietnam era photo wherein a man is seen shooting another man...

Perhaps you're referring the Pulitzer Prize winning photograph Saigon Execution by Eddie Adams, taken during Vietnam's 1968 Tet Offensive. With some regret, Adams discusses the after effects the photo had upon himself, American political opinion, and the South Vietnamese officer who wielded the pistol (Lt. Colonel Nguyen Ngoc Loan) in the following recording:

I've been doing this all my life, and even though with all the heartache this picture has caused me, it's also hurt me in a lot of ways.

I started hearing, once the picture was released, it would start causing demonstrations—you know, this was like in 1968—and it was creating all this upset here in America and I didn't understand it, and I still don't understand it, because during a war people die in wars.

And what I ask people a lot, too, "If you're this man, the general, and you just caught this guy after he killed some of your people, you know, it's a war. How do you know you wouldn't have pulled that trigger yourself?"

A lot of times pictures do lie. Let's condemn this guy: he was a general, I mean at that time was a full colonel, he was the national chief of police of Vietnam. He graduated from a United States command staff college, first in his class. I got to know him, I mean I got to respect him.

But I think that two people died in that picture. It's not only the man who was shot, it's him. You photograph these stories—here's why—and this was not the intention, to destroy his life. The intention was to show what happened. And the thing is, I don't like the responsibility on my shoulders of destroying anybody's life.

Adams explained elsewhere that the timing of this particular image (one out of a sequence of 14) was due to pure luck and was in no way posed. He just happened to click the shutter by instinct. A gallery of Eddie Adam's work is here: he died in September 2004.

Horst Faas, a noted war photographer and Adam's Associated Press editor in 1968, offers other insights about the photo, including:

  • The realization that he had "the perfect newspicture."
  • Adam's desire to capture one image "expressing the frustrations, the bravery, the suffering of the war."
  • The circumstances around the capture and execution.
  • Frustration at being initially unable to run enough pictures to "tell the full story."
  • Subsequent shots of similar executions by lesser-known, Vietnamese photographers.
  • The severe wounds suffered by (now General) Nguyen Ngoc Loan a few months later, and his rescue by another AP photographer.
  • Faas' 2000 meeting with the widow of Nguyen Van Lam, the Viet Cong who was executed: "she does not have and does not want to see the photograph of her husband's death."

Considering the unintended consequences of this powerful, infamous image, it's not an exaggeration to say that photography is never black and white, and sometimes the camera does indeed lie in wait, even for the person behind it.

Perhaps the pictures we see, and capture, are more of a mirror than we want to admit.

what amazes me is how passive/amused the soldier appears. you can see that he feels totally comfortable with the actions of the children, failing to comprehend the sickness of their role-play. this photo aptly illustrates the dehumanising quality of war, on the victims, and the perpetrator.

Google Image Search ("Safesearch is off"):

children guns ... 819 results
play guns ... 1,130 results
soldiers ... 228,000 results
guns ... 321,000 results
death ... 778,000 results
war ... 1,590,000 results
Kids just get themselves into more trouble these days, don't they?

Oh, pleeeeeeze! This was obviously taken from Starship Troopers-- "A System That WORKS!"

Look twice at the BNN main page with Child's Play posted at the top. Compare it to the photos in the Double Takes column (here's a screenshot).

Within this context, it's striking how closely the young Iraqi girl resembles the protester in the foreground of the Gag Reflex photo (with "LIFE" taped over her mouth). The soldier's deadly gun, sans barrel, also points directly at her. Mahmoud Abbas, clad in black in Fitting the Fabric, stands underneath as a mute guide, like Charon waiting at the river Styx. The only human face we cannot see belongs to the young victim at the end of the gun.

Echoes of life and death, law and order, power and submission, frames within frames...

Truth? you can't handle The Truth

i had a difficult time with this image, BAGman (aethorian, et al) Of course my first reaction was, "Oh, My!" but then something happened...

...all these other notions and feelings happened. and these ran counter to The Thread's flow (never a comfort :) so, i thought (and am thinking still) about how to put some words to it (and to myself, thus)

it's too pat. it's deja vu. it's... banal (!)

i take away the text context FRAME. There is a soldier, adult white male ~ but he bears no instantly recognizable insignia. There are two ragamuffin children, darker-skinned ~ playing with what we presume to be a toy gun ~ though it certainly feels real enough!

There is nothing in this image FRAME to tell us Time & Place; ie., it could be almost anywhere, anytime, really: Iraq? Afghanistan? Latin America?

...East Los Angeles? are we to presume some cause:effect relationship between The Soldier and The Children? is that the conceit implicit? because, hey ~ they seem dis-connected to one another, save...

...the 'third person' in this frame, The Photographer; ie., his presence is obvious (reflected as he is, in The Soldier's attention). i can hear his motor-drive, whirring away, click-click-click; i can see all the multiple images of this set-scene as they evolve, to what ~ some Cartier-Bresson moment? on his proof strip; i can hear him and his editor saying, "run this one".

they've seen this; we've seen this; we've all done this before. the zillion hits on aethorian's search tell us just how common this children + guns / war context, really is.

of course, it shocks. it's supposed to... the image itself is telling you: this is how you should feel. why is it, i wondered, that this is not all that i am feeling?

So, is it news? no.

is it... Truth?

now, i read the text / context: this is Iraq; The Soldier is Coalition, thus. does This Knowledge really make any difference?

the Iraqis are... as children. they're not adults (to Americans), they're children: THEY have no scholars, or suburbs; they don't have modern offices with people sitting at computers, talking about images in erudite ways; they don't have artists or writers or doctors or lawyers or, plain old working Joes sitting on their couches, clicking their remotes. THEY are children. THEY can't get their shit together, without US. I... despise this conceit.

The Truth is, The Children are playing a GAME. The Truth is, all The Children you have blown to bloody bits ~ and this GAME is puny metaphor, for that Truth :-/

The Truth is all the images that flood THEM, these "children", every day, on al Jazeera and al Aribya ~ not what YOU see, whatever you see, in this image. at least, you feel something, and that's a good start. but you're gonna have to dig a little deeper than this, mes amis.

The Truth is NOT in this frame.

The Truth is... if this image shocks you Americans: you can't handle The Truth

I think this picture is quite interesting to analyze. First, the soldier is carrying a M249 "SAW", which is the largest machine gun that is routinely carried around by infantry. By contrast, the girl's gun is a laughable pistol, showing a technological as well as a strength gap.
Moreover, the girl is significantly taller than the boy, is holding him and threatening him with a pistol. This, I think, also illustrates what happened in Iraq; an overwhelming force just crushed the pathetic resistance (Picking on weaker targets).
I noticed that the "grey bar" that people were referring to seems to be a balcony forged iron post. Given the "balcony" height and the photographer shadow, I would say he was crouching. This brings an other interesting parallel; one of a media separated of the action by steel bars. These bars prevent the observer from moving forward, but still allow it to be targetted, which is pretty representative of the medias in Iraq.

In the mid-60s I was a kid on an Army post in Germany playing "Escape from East Berlin" in the nearby woods.

I'm not sure why we never played "My daddy's goin' to VietNam".

Iraqi photo-journalist, Ghaith wrote of kids "playing Army":,,1357438,00.html

..."It is not very nice here. Aren't you afraid that you might get hit?" I asked baseball hat, who was now on the ground, gathering up hundreds of the tiny things. "Yes, we get hit many times, but this is the best game," he said. "We call it the Mojahedin and the National Guards game," said the elder boy with the ski mask.....

From Najma (Iraqi teenager blogging as "A Star from Mosul"): cousin who's 6 years old plays a special game with his friends. A kid stands up carrying a piece of paper, other two stand next to him pretending to be holding guns, another lies on the ground, and the last sits next to him.
The one with the paper starts giving his speech, the other two shout Allah-Akbar and the one who's sitting on the floor pretends to be beheading the one who's lying on the floor.. That's it!...

I think the message we are supposed to internalize is that Iraqi vs. Iraqi violence is inbred; it starts as children. American soldiers are disinterested observers present only to make sure it doesn't get out of hand.

The fact that the girl is dominating the boy is no accident. I think it reveals this is a psy-ops photo to further make Iraqi men feel impotent.

The photographer and the soldier probably don't speak Arabic because if they had I bet they would have discovered the children's game was different than the image is supposed to tell us. I would bet they are playing a game of "Raid!" and the girl is playing the American soldier.

Alternatively, the game isn't "Raid!" but "Abu Ghraib!" and the girl is playing the American contractor.

alternative "abu ghraib"--- and the child is a private contractor (mercenary, ie solider of fortune) from israel.

oh, the reality of the controversy.

This one is really disturbing to me.

The more I thought of -- no, the more I _allowed_ myself to think and to feel, the tears began to run down my cheeks. Possibly one of the most disturbing images of the occupation I've seen yet. It has so many horrible implications. "Walking in the footsteps of giants," indeed.

The soldier almost has a smile on his face. A half-smile maybe. He thinks what the kids are doing is funny or cute. (And granted, without context you can't know... sometimes a thing can be both awful and make you smirk at the same time, like Dennis Miller.)

Also, she really looks like she's caught in the middle of pulling the trigger. Her finger seems to be in the right place for it, and her neck and mouth make her look as if she's shouting something... presumably along the lines of "BANG!"

My first thought was the same as George's, that the kids were playing "Raid!" and the girl was playing a soldier terrorizing the boy. But it seems just as likely that she's playing "Iraqi cop" and he's the evil terrorist scourge being brought low. In fact, that second explanation is the one that resonates best with all the elements in the picture. Since they're playing right in front of an American soldier and a photographer, it seems likely that they're comfortable with that fact.

Still, a very ugly picture. Even if it was ever funny in context, it's more than a little horrifying to any parent. The kids won't be scarred by it or anything -- kids are much more resilient than protective parents give them credit for -- but it has all these echoes of school shootings and children being killed by gunfire which push all the wrong buttons.

This is not even an Iraqi girl. She is Kurdish. It may be hard to tell the difference, but Iraqi girls and boys do not play together. An Iraqi girl would not be dominating a boy, toy gun or no toy gun.

cj -

I see two shadows - one behind and one beside the soldier. The one beside looks like it is behind bars. It appears that it has on a boonie cap. God in fatigues? Saddam at the gate? Some commander on high? Or is it just a structure's shadow that lends itself to the imagination?

Good post, cj. I would have added that what we knew of these children before was that they were caught in a bad bargain of oil for food, and they were afraid of their own shadows. It seems that war has turned fear to anger.

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