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Jan 27, 2005

Our Gang

Yesterday, I saw an image from Iraq that really struck me.

It was a stencil -- almost like a gang insignia -- on the wall of a petrol station that had just been raided by U.S. soldiers.  The symbol was a skull with the the number "24" inscribed in it. 

 Us.Yimg.Com P Ap 20050125 Capt.Mac10301251028.Iraq Mosul Mac103

Having looked at a good number of newswire photographs, I've started to recognize the work of particular photographers and even some outfits in which they've been embedded. In this case, I won't mention the infantry unit that conducted this raid, but the caption identified it as having a "24" in it. 

One thing I've been grappling with lately is how young American (and British) soldiers could have come to abuse Iraqi prisoners.  Yesterday, I happened to hear Seymour Hirsch on the radio.  He thinks it's ridiculous the military is blaming prisoner abuse on "a couple bad apples."  Hirsh described our troops as mostly young and naive. He explained that many are from small, out of the way places, or from guard units with virtually no training in handling suspects, let alone prisoners.  He felt the military was denying its natural "in loco parentis" responsibility -- providing for its soldiers in a similar way a university provides for the guidance and supervision of its students.

Not having a military background, I can't functionally explain this skull symbol.  It could have a completely practical purpose, perhaps signifying the building has been inspected for weapons.  Even if it's functional, though, I can't help but believe it has a dual role.  Graffiti, as I understand it, typically involves the marking of territory by groups or individuals who feel dispossessed.  If this is even partially the case here, then my question is:  What instinct would cause this unit to leave its signature (such a macabre one, by the way) on this building?  What does it say about the mind of the "24" that they would want to mark (you could also say, deface) property they are charged with protecting?

Because I knew the designation of the regiment, and because I was curious, I decided to search for more images of this unit.  I found out that these guys are stationed in an extremely volatile Iraqi city, and have been tasked -- for the last month, at least -- to search homes, businesses and buildings for insurgents and weapons. 

If you've been following this blog, you know I've done a few (somewhat controversial) posts about the imposition of U.S. troops into "the Iraqi domestic space."  Maybe the overlap was inevitable, but I discovered I had even shown this unit in one of my write-ups (See:  -- Someone's Been Sitting in my Chair ...and They've Broken it all to Pieces!.  It's the shot where the soldier is coming through the door and the little boy is in back past the green curtain.)

Looking at a few weeks of images from this regiment didn't lessen my skepticism about its mission, but it gave me much greater sympathy for the young men carrying it out.  The degree of anxiety and unpredictability, and the level of constant suspicion directed toward mostly innocent people, is almost beyond comprehension.

 Us.Yimg.Com P Afp 20050117 Capt.Sge.Cij95.170105232658.Photo04.Photo.Default-253X380

Here, one of the soldiers has to guard for attack at the same time a "public affairs mission" is taking place at a primary school.

 Us.Yimg.Com P Ap 20050117 Capt.Mac10501171207.Iraq Mosul Mac105

Here, a couple of men are having to storm someone's house.

 Us.Yimg.Com P Ap 20050127 Capt.Mac10201271316.Iraq Mosul Mac102

Not that far removed from wearing the yellow hat, these guys have got to feel like intruders and ghosts at the same time.

The farthest back I was able to go with the images was about a month.  Toward the end, I came upon another shot that jumped out at me. Besides capturing the incredible stress of actually finding and disposing of weapons, this picture seemed to also say something about the desperate attempt to have the last word in a dialogue of insanity.

 Us.Yimg.Com P Afp 20050109 Capt.Sge.Uvv19.090105005050.Photo04.Photo.Default-384X257

Again, the skull might have a totally practical function.  I look at that tag, however, and it also says a number of other things.  It says we are marked men surrounded by darkness. It says how angry we are.  It says were are no longer names, but a number.  It says we are the deliverers of death, and also its recipient. 

To me, the symbol also makes prisoner abuse a little more comprehensible.  If this Pentagon is going to drop young people into hell with not enough tether, I can see how -- after a certain amount of time -- those kids might want somebody to pay for it.

(image 1: AP Photo/Jim MacMillan; image 2: AFP/Mauricio Lima: image 3: AP Photo/Jim MacMillan; image 4: AP Photo/Jim MacMillan; image 5: AFP/Mauricio Lima.  All images via YahooNews.)


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hey juan,

i read you daily

anyway. i dont always agree with you however i was provoked by the story on the skull 24 tag. it was truly powerful and shocking and so many things. thanks for helping others see what they may normally not see.
anyway take care


hey juan,

i read you daily

anyway. i dont always agree with you however i was provoked by the story on the skull 24 tag. it was truly powerful and shocking and so many things. thanks for helping others see what they may normally not see.
anyway take care


You may notice, maybe you didn't, that the skull is actually the insignia for marvel comic's "The Punisher", who was an ex special forces vigilante. I don't know about you, but I find this hiliarious, in between bouts of feeling sick of course.

You wont get many pics because these guys just got there, they replaced us in NOV. For pics from earlier in this city, look for the Indian head patch (you should have a field day with that;)
Just wondering, if a group of people are trained to(among other things) have to take life, what symbols would you expect them to use?

Strange, you're a cartoonist but you're not familiar with one of the most iconic symbols in comics? That's like not recognizing the Superman "S" to me. The patch on their shoulders signifies they are with the 24th Infantry Division which is probably why 24 is on the skull. Many military unit insignia involve some form of negative imagery and I'll bet its been that way for thousands of years. It's about as functional as territorial pissing. It conveys the message to your enemy, "this is ours, don't fuck with us" so it's not so different from gang graffiti.

Like others have stated, that insignia is from "The Punisher" comic. Alongside Spiderman and the Xmen, it's instantly recognizable by most people, especially since a movie came out for it about 18 months ago.

Obviously these soldiers have adopted the insignia, attached their own unit number, and are simply exchanging a little tit for tat versus the grafiti left by the insurgents. I'm not sure this helps win over hearts and minds since most Iraqis probably don't see the mark as anything but a skull and therefore a threat.

I'm not sure this helps win over hearts and minds since most Iraqis probably don't see the mark as anything but a skull and therefore a threat.

Explaining that it is a symbol for "The Punisher" may not help.

The skull is certainly a tag, marking territory. I wouldn't expect the Iraqi people to appreciate it, since supposedly it's their country. As for the bright yellow hat, although it looks like a bike helmet, it's purpose could be the same as an orange hunting vest (i.e. please don't shoot my kid while we go to the park).

Any comment on the Vietnam era "tag" of playing cards left on suspected VC ("suspected" as in dead) bodies?

Tagging is typical of gang-related activities as a means to mark territorial divisions; usually territories are actually drug-trading spheres of influence more than "'hoods". More often than not those territories are long-lasting and require a relatively small amout of violence to maintain in spite of rival gangs' stated hatred of, and willingness to kill one another out of pride. People who join gangs are usually socio-economically "deprived", feel threatened, or feel alienated from the predominate societal norms in which they live. Nearly all gang members though share the personality trait of being a "follower" or "sheep"; they find comfort, security, respect, friendship and a leadership structure in gangs. Gangs also use revisionist (at best) historical mythology to build a sense of racial/cultural/national pride and romantic purpose (see: Aztec mythology as used by Mexican gangs).
...any connections to the visual post and to the plight of American troops in Iraq?

Rob, I think the use of "death cards" in VN was probably a rare thing, "Apocalypse now" notwithstanding. By 1969-70, anyway, the practice already had the status of folklore, along with a lot of even more bizarre things, but I didn't ever see any used. Interesting you mention it, though, in this context because both the ace of spades and a skull (not nearly as sylized as the Punisher's)--and often together--showed up a lot in "soldier art" (helmets, flak jak, rat boxes, walls, etc.) Seems to me it was probably less about territoriality and more a sideways doff of the hat to the Random Gods Of War...intended as good juju much the same way, I guess, as the appearance of dice and other gambling-related symbols in WWII nose art.


I think the most interesting aspect of your commentary is the recognition of the irony in the use of the skull symbol - and as several people of have correctly noticed - it's not just any skull, but that of "The Punisher". The layered complexity of symbology grows ever "deeper" I suppose. An outsider, such as an Iraqi in this case, certainly would certainly not appreciate the irony, even if they did on average recognize the pop-culture reference. In fact... that would just make it even more insulting. That aside...I bet the people who paint these tags aren't doing it for anyone's understanding but their own. I think the symbol allows the soldiers to have something to blame for what they feel they have to do. They are still human afterall, and we have to believe are good people in bad situation (at least on average). Any evil left in their wake can therefore be transferred to the skull. From an Iraqi point of view -it's just another confusing icon from America.

The skull is from the comic the Punisher, which seems appropriate.

What I think is interesting about the military "tagging" is that it is a defensive manuever. Tagging is done to deliniate the space that your gang controls -- a mental fence. There is no green zone where these guys are, so they've put up a visual fence to keep others out.

If you are in complete control of an area, a fence isn't necessary, a tag isn't necessary.

It also shows how they define themselves: only as the 24th (death) regiment, not as allying with those Iraquis not involved in the resistance. They are very alone out there.

Very nice punisher tag, go tropic lightning!

in the other pic with the skull what is written in Arabic? can someone translate? it's done by the same unit, prob. by their interpreter. can someone translate?

Not likely done by their translater. The insurgents constantly spraypaint grafiti threats and warnings everywhere. Most of them consist of threatening death to the infidels and/or American collaborators, etc.

The Punisher symbol says "I was here". As a practical measure, the symbol may be a means of marking buildings that the unit's soldiers already raided, for logistical purposes. As soldiers move building to building throughout a section of town, it'd be easy for different teams to hit the same building twice. Arab towns aren't arranged in convenient grids like most American towns. Their buildings are pretty much erected haphazardly wherever there was space at the time.

Besides being a Vietnam veteran, it's important (maybe) to note that the Punisher's family was gunned down by mobsters, and he spends his life fighting crime with lethal force. Maybe these soldiers see a parallel, with them in the role of the Punisher and Islamic militants in the role of gangs and drug dealers.

Of course, then it's just weird because they're basically a "gang" of sorts, tagging walls and the like.

As liberal as I am, I've always found the Punisher to be a great character. He's a great escape when you just want to say goodbye to reason and embrace the "screw all these criminals, just kill 'em" mentality. I'm sure being in the hellhole they're in, the Punisher is a comforting symbol and icon.

Great piece.

If anyone out there is familiar with computer games, this is rather similar to the "spray" that you can do in the multiplayer game Counterstrike, in which terrorist and anti-terrorist forces are pitted against each other...

Well... CounterStrike isn't a good example - the "Spray" in counterstrike was just a holdover from the "Spray" in Half-Life DM, which Counterstrike's code is based on. So its not like the CounterStrike designers actively made the decision to implement "spray" decals, it just got grandfathered in from a rather normal FPS with a few neat features.

At any rate, the many other posters are quite right: this is obviously the "Punisher" skull. The stylization is the same, the black background is the same. Actually, its so crisp it looks like they just use a stencil to paint it.

At any rate, I can understand the troops - they're in a situation where a comic-book superhero like The Punisher is an idol for them - the guy who wins and does good things just because he's got the most guns. Its still phenominally stupid - this is not a way to be "winning their hearts and minds".

O.T.: I've always fealt that The Punisher wasn't a good character on his own, but that the fun of him came not from his own character, but how he played off of the other, more traditional superheroes in the Marvel Universe. Good, clean guys like Spider-Man having to deal with the ethical issue of working with a many who's obviously just a psycho with guns.

2 comments. Firstly, Iraqi towns are actually nearly all arranged in convenient grids, at least, in the desert, flat part of the country. Secondly, the graffiti is obviously American, it indicates that the building is a "hanging line" (as in a clothes line) for terrorists (binaya mashjab alirhabiyin). Cheers keep up the good work

Perhaps the "24" has the meaning not only of the number of the regiment, but some kind of reference to the TV show "24" . I'm not familiar with the show other than seeing some commercials for it. Kiefer Sutherland is always screaming, and they're trying to find "terrorists"....

Maybe I didn't make myself very clear-- I'm suggesting that the American soldiers played Counterstrike when they were younger, and are acting like gamers playing counterstrike.

Great analysis. Feel so bad for everyone involved. Who is behind BushCo? Skull and Bones and their Bildenburg secret society, Trilateral Commission, etc.

Support Sen. Boxer and Rep. Conyer's for their very brave actions against Bush and Company mad World Dominion plan. Go to their sites and offer thanks for standing up to the continuation of the Third Reich.

A veteran here (OK so it's been 22 years) and I think that Rich came the closests to explaining it properly. Yes it certainly would be that the 24 is for the unit and skulls and deaths heads are known to be quite common for military units over the years. A great many unit ensignia contain destruction and/or death. It is possible that one reason for the stencil is to designate the building as having been searched and by who. At the same time however it does serve a "psy-ops" function in the same why as the gang grafiti by saying this is our territory and "fuck you". It certainly doesn't help the 'war effort' unless the one objective is to destroy.

Is this common in urban areas in Iraq now, and/or in the past?

you liberals will never grasp the simple fact that our military is trained to kill our enemies. that's their job. they provide peace through death. hopefully minimal body counts but any enemy that stands in our militarys path will be greated with unrelenting force until they are disposed of permanently. we aren't there to "play nice" and hold hands. we are there to kill insurgents....period. peace and democracy are simply the benefits of the job. they are not the job. killing is the job. get it?

This goes out to "[email protected]". Yeah I think everyone understands what armies are for. You are the one missing the point which is: what are we using our army for and is it justified? This debate continues and maybe only future historians will be able to accurately answer that question. If engaging in that debate makes your head hurt then zip it and go watch wrestling or whatever it is you do to drown out the pain of analytical thought.

it seems ironic foot soldiers of imperialist ventures find some type of alliance with "the punisher", who by all purposes, was an anti-hero: a rogue who didn't do the bidding of corrupt rich corporatists-- represented in the comic as the mafia....hmmm.

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