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May 26, 2005

Marked Men


I don't even know where to start with this image. 

Should we begin with the military signaling that the U.S has a two-dimensional view of the Arab world by turning detainees into human writing surfaces?

Could we talk about how shockingly primitive and ill equipped our troops look for the lack of a more professional, systematic and unassuming way of accounting for prisoners?  (By the way, this photo was shot as part of the second large U.S. assault on Haditha in two weeks,  so you can't say the military didn't have a chance to consider a better way to keep track of captives.)

If you're going to mark, could we talk about the psychology (and humiliation factor) of marking the forehead instead of say, the more unobtrusive shoulder or ankle.  (Of course, I could understand them ruling out the inside forearm.  That would be too reminiscent of Auschwitz.)

And then, there is the writing instrument.  If I'm not mistaken, that looks a lot like a Sharpie.  Do you have any idea how hard that ink is to wash off? 

Frankly, I had almost given up hope of finding another example of tagging by our folks in Iraq.  I guess buildings aren't good enough anymore?


(In spite of my rant, it's actually hard to believe this isn't a standard military technique.  In all the news photos I've looked at of the Iraq and Afghanistan war, however, I have never seen this procedure before.  I can't say it was comprehensive, but I also couldn't find references to this method in a web search. 

...However, I did discover that civil war deserters were often branded on their foreheads with indelible ink, and that branding was also a favorite method of punishment used by Saddam Hussein.  Somehow, you would think that
just this latter fact would argue for a different method of prisoner control.)

If any of you are familiar with this method, could you leave a comment as to why this identification technique is used and what alternative methods are available?  Also, the USA Today story suggests that the U.S. Military was not well prepared for this assault.  Does the fact this method was used suggest something about our military situation in the field?  For example, are we collecting more prisoners than we can handle?

(Yahoo caption: A U.S. Marine writes an identification number on the forehead of an Iraqi man detained during a search in Haditha, 220 kilometers (140 miles) northwest of Baghdad, Wednesday, May 25, 2005. About 1,000 U.S. Marines, sailors and soldiers encircled Haditha, in the troubled Anbar province, launching the second major operation in this vast western region in less than a month.)

(image: Jacob Silberberg/AP.  May 25, 2005 in YahooNews and USA Today.)

(Thanks to BAG reader Robert)


This image is totally inconsistent with any efforts to win the hearts and minds of the Iraqi people. There are certainly more modern ways to track detainees than this which, with its indelible marker, aims more at humiliation than identification. I was also struck by the soldier's casual approach to the tatooing...almost like signing an autograph. I think this picture goes hand in hand with the AP photo of a group of Iraqi women that includes a mother pleading with U.S. Marines to free her blindfolded son Wednesday in Haditha. The son stands blindfolded in the background and if this is the same "prisoner," he was detained for having too much ammunition for his rifle. The story between the image of the mother pleading and this one of his being "branded" stirs the imagination.

Three cheers for you Bag…when I first saw this photo, two things screamed out at me:

“Who the hell is stupid enough to do this in public, at this point?” followed by, “man, what a field day the media and the blogs are going to have with this”. Your notable exception aside, I was wrong, so far, on the second count….so perhaps I am wrong on the first, as well. Perhaps, sadly, this has all become part of the norm.

Four cheers for bag, I viewed this shot on SFGate and thought I should send it your way, but you were already working it.

Yes, that's a Sharpie and yes it's very difficult/painful to remove from human skin. It's a "permanent marker."

The Sharpie, by Sanford, was first marketed as a "laundry marker" until the company realized it had many other uses. I wonder if when they marketed it to the military they suggested it for marking up prisoners.

Do you hear that sucking sound? That's the sound of humanity leaving the planet.

It is heartbreaking as many other pictures showing US' treatment of Iraqis.
The reality is worse, than what we can imagine of humans branding other human beings. What happened to the spirit of the people of US, letting their government lead without a challenge?


once again, i find myself in the unusual position of defending our troops' actions in iraq. perhaps because i know so many people who have beeen over there/are over there.

Could we talk about how shockingly primitive and ill equipped our troops look for the lack of a more professional, systematic and unassuming way of accounting for prisoners?

let's do some brainstorming for a moment. what are the needs of the troops vis-a-vis accounting for prisoners?

1) quick to administer
2) difficult to remove
3) easy to see
4) portable
5) idiot-proof
6) functional across a wide variety of expected and unexpected conditions can't say the military didn't have a chance to consider a better way to keep track of captives.

define "better."

If you're going to mark, could we talk about the psychology (and humiliation factor) of marking the forehead instead of say, the more unobtrusive shoulder or ankle.

as long as we also talk about the difficulty of seeing marks on the "unobtrusive shoulder or ankle." tagging prisoners isn't solely for accounting purposes -- it's also for ready identification. and yes, while it's humiliating for the prisoners to be tagged in this manner, this is a war we're talking about. think what you will of the merits of the war (personally, i think it's one of the most reprehensible actions of the most reprehensible administration in living memory), but the troops are acting under less than ideal conditions.

I think you're looking at this from the wrong angle.

The prisoner is probably happy his serial number wasn't something like "6079-WS" and included his DOB and full name on the second line.

Interesting photo. Ironically, I could see GWB and Co. extolling this photo as evidence of the humane treatment of "detainees." Consider this: The soldier applying the mark has a somewhat fatherly, if not priestly, demeanor, i.e., left hand on shoulder as if to reassure, applying the mark itself almost like a blessing (sorry, grew up catholic). The "detainee" himself, does not look particularly frightened, but he does look rather solemn, like he's ready to accept the mark. He's also wearing a clean (not torn, dirtied, bloodstained, Che Guevara emblazened, etc.) shirt. He does not "look" terrorist in the least. I suspect that he's just a guy who happened to live in the area when the military came through. This can almost be the poster for the "kinder gentler occupation force". "Look, we're not shootin' 'em, we're not beatin' 'em, he still has all his clothes on, no blood, NO GUN pointed at his head, and they seem ready to accept the right way...." The fact that the man is even standing says it all! Considering previous photos of prisoners, detainees, persons of interest, etc., I actually think psyops is scoring a propaganda coup with this one. Also considering the apparent lack of popular outrage in the US over the more horrendous photos of abuse, we'll all just go back to waiting for the Michael Jackson verdict as per plan......

As for the sharpie, now that's a cost conscious military. Probably got a good deal on 'em at Walmart......

There's something in the Bible I recall about the mark of cain, and that mark is actually presented in genesis as God's way of preventing everyone who sees Cain from murdering him. I always wondered when i read the story why said people would have murder on their minds if they did not see the mark, not to mention where did these people come from since the staory claims that cain and Abel are the first offspring of Adam and Eve, but never mind I've gone far afield. So, it could well be that this guy will get released with an apology and a box of chocolates, and will use up a bar of soap trying to remove the mark. And yes it's not as cruel as a branding-iron mark. And the guy looks way too well-groomed and well-dressed to be much of an insurgent, but what do I know. This picture deserves a lot of attention. Don Rumsfeld should go. We're going to be there for more than 20 years.

Medics write "TK" and the time on the foreheads of patients who have had a tourniquet applied. I wonder if that technique was adapted for use in this picture, in the absence of whatever other system normally gets used.

I wonder how long the prisoner will be a prisoner and what happened after the picture was taken. Unfortunately (or fortunatley, maybe) we will never know.

Good point about branding. My daughter writes on herself all the time (Mom won't let her get a tatoo) so I know Sharpie eventually comes off, it just takes some time.

I do agree that any pictures of UStroops and Iraqi detainees regardless of the humanity portrayed in them are potentially loaded with TNT especially after Abu Ghraib. I wonder how long it will be before we stop seeing pictures altogether.

It, in light of the current Supreme Court consideration of jury "tampering" by presenting defendants in shackles (as Clinton associate Susan MacDougal was shown in the press) is certainly stigmatizing. Having just came in from writing on plastic bags and survey tape with a "Sharpie" while in archaeological survey of a property where West Point graduates had their reunions, also owned by "Mama Leone's" next to their property, I am inclined to use "Marks-A-Lot" instead, less toxic. Perhaps this has gone on a lot (they are old brands) and Yippie Abbie Hoffman used to wear the F word as such on his forehead perhaps as a counter to the same procedure used in Vietnam. Better "kara" (Turkish "black") marked then dead. "Ah fah la fah ka" Soupy Sales used to sing, "I love you" they say all over Turkey.

laloca paraphrased:

"War is hard work and they're doing their best* under distress. I know, because I've met some soldiers. Marking the forehead with ink is a quick and effective way of warehousing. So, cut them a break." (emotional *Sigh*included....)

even better*

"war is hard work, defend america!"


*Remind self to define *best* & *better*
Is best right after better,
or right before bestest?

What stuck me first was the humanity expressed in the prisoner's furrowed brow.

Second; the shot is composed so that if we were to remove the U.S. soldier's head, we would be in the first person. Our arms would be holding a blindfolded and bound man while we mark him.

This photograph is sympathetic to the detainee. Which makes sense as to take a prisoner is an exercise in de-humanization. A prisoner is subjugated by definition which is aptly shown here.

I agree with lalcoa. Marking like that with Sharpies is what they do at the local swim meets here. I hadn't realized that it was an oppressive, humanity destroying way of rendering the kids as 2-dimensional objects. And here I thought that all writing was 2-dimensional, but the BAG has shown me that 2-dimensional writing is in only done by the brutal. Oh wait - the BAG's caption is 2-dimensional! Michael, how can you be so cruel? (On a side note, I've not found the marking from a Sharpie all that hard to remove, especially if you just wait a couple of days)

asdf, lalcoa was asking for a definition of a better method, not the literal word "better". It's noteworthy that you failed to provide one, although hardly surprising. I suppose you'd recommend we follow the practice of the other side and just decapitate them all?

As for humiliation and winning hearts and minds, why is that you all don't consider randomly blowing up large crowds of women and children (as the caliphascists are doing) as not winning hearts and minds? Do you really think that the average Iraqi considers this worse treatment than he got from the Ba'athists or is getting from the people the Coalition is fighting? Moreover, the Iraqis might well compare this to what happens in other Arab Muslim countries when people oppose the government, which is outright massacres by government forces. I suppose that in order to be truly culturally sensitive, we should do the same, right? Or we could leave them to be slaughtered by the caliphascists instead of writing numbers on prisoners.

You treat this kind of activity as if it were taking place on Rodeo Drive, Hollywood, instead of a country being attacked by a well financed group of fanatical terrorists, which is far more delusional and parochial than anything the military can be accused of.

Hey AOG, maybe if we had a concrete reason for going in there in the first place instead of the "pack of lies" BushCo$ used to sell this disaster we'd all feel better about the methods our military is using to fight this "well financed group of fanatical terrorists." While were at it, we invaded their country, smashed their infrastructure – what little was left after an 8 year war with Iran which killed a million plus, after 12 years of brutal sanctions that are directly attributed to the death of hundreds of thousands (mostly children) - killed 100,000 of their people (and counting) - but since they are fighting back, they are the terrorists? That's some logic.

(Annoying Old Guy wins the Most Appropriate Screen Name Award for 2005.)

That said, no one here has mentioned that the Islamic religion forbids tatoos or any kind of mutilation to the body. (This does not include suicide bombers as they are the extreme.) It seems "those people" treat their bodies as temples while we do not. We will pierce anything. And then ink in "MOM" over the nipple ring.

This was discussed in another forum when the first photos of the Abu Ghraib abuses were released and I remember seeing a photo of one of our soldiers (supposedly) showing off a tatoo spewing Jewish symbols. This was rationalized as having some demoralizing effect on the Muslim prisoners.

You know, AOG, when we do this kind of trash to other human beings, what will stop them from treating our young men and women in uniform the same way? Have you thought about that? And since when was it okay to "brand" people like USDA certified sides of beef?

Everything about this war is WRONG. IMMORAL. This is way worse than Viet Nam. Mr. Asta asked me last night how was it different. And I said, Viet Nam was fought on a misguided philosophy about the evils of a growing "menace" called Communism. While our attitude about it may have been flawed, Communism WAS spreading.

In the case of Iraq, we were lied to concerning PHYSICAL EVIDENCE. There WERE NO WMDs. Nada. Nill. Zilch.

Oh, and AOG, if you're so gung-ho about this war, sign up your grandchildren for the next wave, because we will probably still be there long after the next solar eclipse. That's 2012 FYI.

Of course, I could understand them ruling out the inside forearm. That would be too reminiscent of Auschwitz.

I wonder how many people even know what "Auschwitz" is anymore.

I carry a sharpie to ink drawings, and if I get bored, I draw on myself all the time. If it's on your palm, it's gone in two hours. If it's on the outside of your arm and you're outside on a hot day... illegible in under a day, gone completely in two or three unless you reink it. On the forehead, I assume it would last longer, but could still be washed off with plain water and a little scrubbing. (I was on swim team too, we did the same thing Kelly mentioned on our hands so we knew when we were swimming. Add in a time or two through water and a towel, and it was usually gone by the end of the meet.)
Sharpies aren't permanent markers on skin because that's not what they were designed for. And since that's what the soldier is using, the forehead makes more sense than about anywhere else-- it would wear off on to the prisoner's clothing if written on their shoulder or ankle.
From the army's POV, it makes sense. Cheap, fast, easy.


You say "no concrete reason" and then proceed to list two major ones:

  • Toppling a regime that fought a vicious war that killed millions, constituting a continuing threat to its neighbors, some of them USA allies.
  • Putting an end to sanctions that were killing hundreds of thousands

It's always amusing to see sanctions cited as a reason against the invasion, since it indicates a clear lack of thought on the issue. You also might want to check here for reasons why the 100,000 dead claim doesn't stand up to even a little bit of logic. Further, you could always look here for a nice list of concrete reasons. But you might want to be careful, you could pick up actual facts from reading things like that.


I'd be willing to consider the argument about the sanctity of Muslim bodies if Muslims themselves followed it. But one needn't read very far to find numerous examples of how it is violated (you might check out what's going on in Sudan, where one group of Muslims is committing mass rape and genocide, along with bodily mutilation, against another group of Muslims). This is not to say that that makes such actions moral acceptable, but it does show that complaints of that nature are simply rhetoric, not to be taken seriously.

I find it pathetic that you exclude the caliphascists operating in Iraq for no reason other than it ruins your point. And of course the standard hyperbole of referring to writing on someone with a marker as "branding". I know people who got real brands, and others who got written on with Sharpie markers, and really it's not at all the same. Try it yourself if you don't believe me.

Further, we have only your word that this in fact upsets Iraqis for being to too rough. On the other hand, while the looting was going on, many Iraqis thought the problem was that the Coalition wasn't shooting looters on sight. Is it so inconceivable that Iraqis might well react to the terrorism with support for some hard core law and order, just like frequently happens here in the USA? I'm not making that claim, but I seem to have more evidence for it than you do for your claim.

As for the possiblity of the other side treating our troops the same way, I have considered that although apparently you didn't before posting. Do you really think that our troops would find it worse to be written on with markers than beheaded and burned alive? That's what the other side does now. What exactly could they do in response to this that is worse?

As for being gung-ho about the war, does that mean you can't be

  • Gung-ho about fighting fires unless you're a fireman?
  • Gung-ho about fighting crime unless you're a policeman?
  • Gung-ho about fighting disease unless you're a doctor?
  • Gung-ho about building tall buildings unless you're a cosntruction worker?
  • Gung-ho about electricity unless you're a coal-miner?

If not, why is fighting a war any different? People get killed in those jobs all the time. Your question is simply a cheap way to rule out majority support for any war, since only a minority actually serves in the military. Or do you mean that our military decisions should be turned over entirely to the Pentagon? That's the logical conclusion to the basic principle implied in your question. Of course, the military voted overwhelming for President Bush. I think that means you should support the invasion as well if your question isn't just a cheap rhetorical trick.

It seems we can rationalize long as we are good at it!
I see it done here with the defense of markers used on swim teams, somebody writing messages on palm...etc...
All this rationalization falls short of making the picture right!
We could defend a pipe line delivering blood to ill patients who need it, yet if we learn that the blood was taken forcibly from people for the benefit of others, it does not make it right.
Bottom line, war on Iraq was wrong and still is; Occupation is wrong and will be even if the puppet government and Bush announces there is "peace".
Imposing US "freedoms" on others is wrong.

AOG, guess what? The majority in this country do not support the war. Go check out the numbers.

Your long-winded response was predictable. If you were a person of honesty and integrity, and not a hypocrit, you would have simply said that you support the war as long as someone else fights it for you.

About Sudan. Well, that's Muslims killing other Muslims. A LOT like what we were told was going on in Iraq, that Saddam was a murderous dictator killing his own people. Well, tell me why, then, that we haven't sent troops into Sudan to stop the killing there? Oh, wait, I think I, the Sudanese aren't oil-rich?

I am going to IGNORE all future posts of yours. This is not a political debate forum. I come here to enjoy others' comments about the psychology behind media images, and the hidden propaganda messages we are being fed daily. If you simply want to argue and try to intimidate people, I suggest Democratic Underground or Bartcop.

Once again, I feel as though I am crying out in the proverbial wilderness when I repeat post after post, that I feel that this is part of a deliberate action to desecrate and humiliate Arab/Muslim men.

Here are some thoughts that came to me last night regarding Arab/Muslim heads:

At first soldiers called them rag "heads"

Then they put hoods on their heads and tortured them.

Then they saved up their coke bottles in their humvees to crack over the heads of Arab/Muslims.

They blind fold heads of "captured" suspects.

They write on their heads.

And in return:

The Arab/Muslim jihadist removes heads.

All of this is extremely troubling and heart-wrenching. I personally feel that many of our soldiers are not fighting in this occupation with righteous nor with dignity and unfortunately we don't hear about it until sometimes a year later and we then wonder of the strength of the Arab/Muslim will to rid their land of our presence.

I thank "lytom" for his/her post and Asta for the passion that comes with his/her commentaries. And I am so grateful for those who posted commentaries that expressed a sense of shared humanity. I come here to read of what others are thinking and feeling and am always grateful when I come across commentaries that express a sense of humanity and insight.

Peace. Johanna

Johanna, that was elequent.

I sincerely agree with you that this war is, as you so well said, a "deliberate action to desecrate and humiliate Arab/Muslim men."

I'm willing to take it a step further. To desecrate and humiliate the entire Muslim world. Bush let his "agenda" slip in Freudian fashion when he said, shortly after 9/11, that he was on a "crusade". I believe he truly is.

(And nothing would make me happier than to see him suit up in knight's armor, mount his trusty steed Barney and go charging into battle. Yep, the War President should see some action on the front line.)

It seems we are sliding back into the Dark Ages.

(BTW, your presence here is also appreciated by me. It is so heartening to meet another human being in a world I believe is rapidly losing its humanity. Thank you so much for your comments here. When I read them, I don't feel quite so lost in the Proverbial Wilderness. Peace be with you, too.)

i am going to volunteer as a human chalkboard, whose with me ?

It seems like a lot of the comments to this post are reading WAY too much into the image. I'm also seeing a lot of comments that follow this sort of logic: "the war was wrong so everything done in the war is the worst possible thing that could be done".
Here are some relatively simple questions that address various points:
What should the soldier do instead?
Should he use his portable inkjet printer and laptop (which I'm sure are standard military gear) and print out a bunch of "Hello My Name is..." stickers and meticulously place them on the shirt of each prisoner? Should he whip out his magical pouch that carries a universe of objects at an infintessimal weight and start strapping magic bracelets to peoples wrists that light up when he's looking for a particular name? You all seem to be smart people ... what is the PRACTICAL solution to this problem?
Did you ever think that maybe the soldier hates HAVING to do it this way because there IS NO OTHER practical solution? That man has just as much human dignity as the prisoner. He's probably serving so he can support his wife and kid and is doing the best he can in the most humane way he can with the materials at hand. I mean, sure, I GUESS you can only empathize with the prisoner, but lets be fair and honest about the situation while we empathize.
Further, does writing temporary (yes, sharpees are temporary on flesh) information on a prisoner violate any law or basic human right? If the prisoner is released, the mark will wash away in a day ... not much humiliation if you ask me. One day, in a full life, with some sharpee on your forehead. Not only that, but sharpees are not considered to be unclean from any cultures viewpoint. It would probably wash away in the young man's daily ablution.
Listen, I may be just simple minded or something ... but it strikes me as odd that everyone says, "there ought to be a better way" but no one has posted a better way yet.

"a country being attacked by a well financed group of fanatical terrorists"...that would be the U.S., right?

and what was the one about this type of marking being appropriate for "warehousing"? I'm so glad we think of the Iraqi's in this way...

we've already lost.

I agree with Johanna and asta about the deliberate act to debase and humiliate the arab nations. It is not new consider the previous conflicts that America have been invoved with where the enemy were given names such as Gooks (korean ) nips (japanese) Towel heads (afghanistan) Commies ooops too political sorry dubjah......come on if we depersonalise the enenmy it makes killing them easier..............thats the bottom line

AOG, you posted this in regards to eja:

You say "no concrete reason" and then proceed to list two major ones:

Toppling a regime that fought a vicious war that killed millions, constituting a continuing threat to its neighbors, some of them USA allies.
Putting an end to sanctions that were killing hundreds of thousands

First of all, have you any recollection as to whom your government was backing in the Iran/Iraq war? I suspect it surely wasn't Iran.

Secondly, which country was it which spearheaded the sanctions after the first Gulf War to punish Saddam for his audaciousness?

Thirdly, let me extend my sincere acknowledgement of the supreme sacrifices represented by your Memorial Day; would that we lived in a world in which such reverance were a thing of the past, permanently.

AOG: "...a country being attacked by a well financed group of fanatical terrorists...".

Don't you mean "a country being occupied by a well financed group of fanatical terrorists"? (And I don't think the soldiers are fanatics, just their chickenhawk commanders-in-chief.)

AOG: "Well, tell me why, then, that we haven't sent troops into Sudan to stop the killing there? Oh, wait, I think I, the Sudanese aren't oil-rich?"

You better re-check those facts because they are dead wrong, Sudan has oil and plenty of it. That is partly why China (which has a veto in the UNSC) is so opposed to any intervention, they need the oil from Sudan.

By the way, it wasn't the US that stole from the Iraqi people through sanctions, it was Saddam and the corrupt UN that allowed it.

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