NOTE: BagNewsNotes is now located at Please update your bookmarks.

You will be automatically redirected in a few seconds...

« Since November (#4): The Big Dog | Main | Since November (#6): Suspended Animation »

Apr 05, 2007

Since November (#5): The Look Of Lethality

Haditha Wuterich0611
Haditha Delacruz0611  Haditha Sharratt0611  Haditha Tatum0611
(click for full size)

What does a bad soldier look like?  And, what are the limits of reading into a photo?

Last December, in the holiday stretch, I became interested in photographer Lucian Read's 2005 World Press Photo winning portraits of U.S. soldiers in Iraq.  Without investigating too deeply, I actually used one of the images as the visual center piece of a post at Huffington about the approaching milestone of the 3,000th U.S. military death in Iraq.

Not having done my homework, the first commenter observed that the soldier's unit, Kilo company, was the outfit involved in the Haditha massacre.  Not only that, but a day or two later, four soldiers from the company (including unit leader, Staff Sgt. Frank Wuterich - top above) were indicted for murder.  (Although I didn't see it, Wuterich was on 60 Minutes about two weeks ago where he simultaneously defended and apologized for the rampage.)

The four indicted soldiers are among this selection of 13 portraits from Mr. Read's original portrait series of the entire company.

In my mind, these images speaks of the limits of extracting character information from a photo -- at least from total strangers.  On one hand, knowing Wuterich , De La Cruz, Sharratt and Tatum have been charged with murder, there are all kinds of things about these portrayals and expressions that might seem like clues to lethality.  At the same time, swap these photos with almost any of the other portraits from the company, and you could probably identify just as much "evidence."

Lucian Read website here.

This eight day series, titled "Since November," looks at images that have caught The BAG's attention over the past four months. Many are inspired by the change in political landscape following the Democratic Congressional victory in November. In this stretch, I am taking some time off, leaving the site -- and the conversation -- in your hands.

(images: Lucian Read.  Hit and Haditha, Iraq. September/October 2005. via Vanity Fair.  article: Rules of Engagement.)


The first thing I "read" when I saw the photos, before even reading the text and knowing who they were was "God, they're just kids..."

And Abu Ghraib were just some "kids" having a bit of high school fun which the rest of us did not seem to get! No, they are not kids.

No, they are us. When you put people into a situation where they have unlimited power over other people with no oversight, guidance, or reality checks, this is what will invariably happen. They will bond through bullying their powerless wards.

One of the 13 soldiers in the series, Tarrazas, was killed prior to the massacre at Haditha and his death was the reason the soldiers flipped out and killed all those innocent poeple according to Wuertrich.

really sad....

I'm sorry, but the photos are scary. Before I even read the article with them, before I knew they were the Haditha crew, I could see it all in their eyes.

In the first photo: Resignation. A person that has seen too much, been through too much. A vacant expression. A deadened soul. It actually jolted me quickly. The last time I saw those eyes, Mohommad Atta was staring back at me from a newspaper spread.

For hundreds of years people have taken portraits to be windows into character. Especially after the rise of photography, the pseudo-sciences of phrenology and physiognomy seemed to validate that -- the idea that photos could display certain facial characteristics and qualities and show that those qualities corollated somehow with morality. Dangerous, dangerous assumptions. That's why you can't simply examine the surface of the image; you have to learn something about context.

Young men with weapons have been a plague on humanity for thousands of years. They are easily convinced that killing, maiming and raping weaker humans is socially approved because we hire them to "defend" our property. All of us are responsible for My Lai, Haditha, Abu Ghraib. etc. These kids are merely our tools.

These photos show fatigue and a steeliness of attitude: what one would expect in a soldier fresh from combat. But, the tale of Haditha suggests, to me, that the medications supplied by the military for soldiers, the "uppers" and the "downers" might have played a part in their sudden rage. Something as supposedly "harmless" as Sudafed can make a person extremely aggressive and hyperreactive, and has been a factor in acts of violence. This is no excuse for murder, but it could be part of the problem. (Has anyone repprted on this angle?) I also wonder about this being a factor in the female astronaut's bizarre behavior toward her rival, coming at the end of her overnight drive from Texas to Florida.

When it comes to people with guns, anybody is a potential murderer. Soldiers are supposed to look scary, and I think we project some scariness onto them because we know they are trained to kill.

But, no matter how many photos of soldiers I see, I always see them like the people on the street I see every day.

I recently covered a small anti-war protest at the college I used to attend. At one point an ROTC student engaged in an argument with the protesters. I got the impression he was a decent guy, but the things he said blew me away. He was confused about Iraq's involvement with 9/11/01, he was convinced Iraqis would not respond to peace so there was no choice but to wage war. He failed to recognize that the Iraqis have legitimate reasons to be pissed off at the Americans, he failed to think about the people just like him over there who are convinced Americans don't respond to peace, who are sick of the chaos America brought with this illegal war. He refused to acknowledge that maybe by inadvertantly bombing civillians, the insurgency in Iraq was gaining strength.

Certainly, this fellow does not represent all the people in the army, but it seems to me most people would be complicit with this mindset if his superiors are teaching him these things. It is another dehumanizing tactic, saying another person is incapable of responding to peace. Some people tried to point this out to him but he just got angry and changed the subject.

And...they will be coming back to live among us...let's hope there's enough money in the pot so they can get treated for psychological problems like PTSD and Psychosis. Another Viet Nam...

Not all who have that kind of unlimited power do such horribly inhumane things - I think you need to have something else in you to act out like that - perhaps having been abused in any way as a child...

It is sad.


U.S. Military & Officer Corps.


Whose responsibility?
Some here want to make it a collective responsibility.
To a degree all of us are responsible, but given a chance, would all of us follow the orders and:
go to Iraq to kill and occupy the country?
fly a plane and direct the bombs to fall down on Iraqi city?
work in a job producing hummers and other military vehicles, bombs, guns, missiles, and other destructive arms used against Iraqi?
produce security gadgets used to subdue prisoners?
produce night vision goggles to spot and to insure killing of Iraqi?
load the boats with all the "freedom equipment" used in Iraq?
listen on private phone conversations and make reports?
intercept emails or letters for FBI and CIA?
wave flag in support of the troops in Iraq?
suspect others of being terrorists just because they look like Arabs?

My other comments:
Interesting no one here blames bush
Pedro: If you call these "just kids"
What would you call the child soldiers in Africa?

"young men with weapons have been a plague on humanity..." This kind of infantile pacifism is what gives liberalism a bad name. Young men with guns liberated Europe. No wait, if Hitler hadn't been provoked.........

I think the most important part of these photos are the objects with which they adorn themselves - different guns, choice of body armor, whether you can see their eyes, and how those create meaning around the people themselves. The fact that you can see the index finger on the gun in the top photo gives the soldier a more explicitly violent cockiness compared with the other soldiers.

Johanna: Hitler was the young man with guns. Search: "Stanford Prison Experiment" or "Phillip Zimbardo" This kind of facile acceptance of political reality/history as-is is what gives liberalism(?) its divisive and ineffective mantle.

They look hostile enough, they have the look of men who would not hesitate to shoot you on the face if ordered to. Is that "bad" enough?

I think collective responsibility is unavoidable.

There are many ways in which these photographs can tell the truth. But they lie insofar as they make the viewer believe that one truly can look into an individual soldier's soul and locate the "killer" or "hero" or what have you. Any horrific acts that these soldiers perpetrated took place against an *individual* backdrop of criminal psychology, but against a *social* backdrop of deliberate dehumanization: the first thing that soldiers are put through in boot camp is the tearing down of their own individual desires, destinies, dignities, so that they can be built up again as a single, indivisible unit, in the service of the Army's goals. They are socialized to create in their minds an unbridgeable gap between "us" and "them," friend and enemy.

I think it is a dangerous move to isolate individual soldiers for this kind of rough-and-ready psychologizing, in the same way that it was dangerous to allow our disgust for Private England's actions to efface the systemic nature of what happened at Abu-Grahib.


"took place *not* against an individual backdrop of criminal psychology..."

I am very proud of these men.

I see the face of a courageous America.

That bush jr. is willing to sacrifice them as pawns, is a war crime. And I contrast them to the cowardly traitors, the 15 British 'semen' who sold out their country to the Iranian's for a soft bed, warm food and a goody bag.

That was repulsive.

Armadenijan made a mockery of the British just the way Pelosi made a fool of bush.

For hundreds of years people have taken portraits to be windows into character....Dangerous, dangerous assumptions.

An observation also hundreds of years old. "There's no art / To find the mind's construction in the face."

All the comments so far seem to focus on the bad things that can happen when you give people unlimited power. But let's not forget that you've also put them in a situation where they are in constant fear of being killed themselves. (I'm referring to the Haditha massacre here, not Abu Ghraib.) I've never been in combat, but I can imagine that rather ordinary people, put in that situation, could snap and respond with excessive violence to what they perceive as a life-threatening situation. I don't know how we can put young men into these insane situations and then expect them to always act with thoughtfulness and restraint. We've put them in a place where they're being shot at and blown up and it's impossible to tell who the enemy is. And then we blame them for panicking and shooting at everyone in sight. We should not have put them there.

Please remember that these are not candid photos, after all. They are posed. We do not know how many photos the photographer took of each soldier, from which these were picked. We do not know what the photographer asked of them for the pose. That also speaks to the limits of extracting character information from photos. Candid shots are one thing. Posed photos open up a whole can of uncertainty.
One thing I feel certain of - from my own combat zone experience - is that the photographer here did not prepare them by saying "Let's take one to send to your honey back home."

Without anyone taking much notice, Americans forfeited ownership of their Army.

=> The SemiWarriors

Credit the original insight to Nixon during Vietnam's latter stages: reliance on citizen-soldiers can impose constraints when it comes to using force; an Army made up of ‘professionals’ ~ a military detached from society ~ could well enhance presidential freedom of action. Nixon's creation of a so-called all-volunteer force met with the enthusiastic approval of Americans eager to shed any responsibility for contributing to the nation's defense--especially if that responsibility carried with it the prospect of being shipped to some God-forsaken outpost...

...This might be tolerable if presidentialism yielded effective policy. But it doesn't: The overall performance of semiwarriors since the rise of the national security state qualifies at best as mixed; Since 9/11 it has been nothing short of disastrous.”

My first (admittedly wrong) reaction was that, well, they don't exactly look like the most prime specimens of the gene pool, do they?

But I think this reaction came less from an idea of genetic inferiority being expressed in their phrenology (which is a mistaken idea, they could look the same and be nice sensitive lads who raise roses for a hobby, for all we know--of course then they probably wouldn't be toting guns and wearing helmets) than from some vague sense that something is, indeed, wrong. Lyndie England was, if not special needs exactly, rather learning disabled and supposedly "very easily led", and I think that "showed" when you looked at her expressions. Some of the problem here may be that these guys aren't smiling but projecting a "tough" look.

My wonder is how the Army's lowering of acceptance standards across the board will affect the makeup of the forces. By this I mean taking in kids with criminal records and kids who weren't able to graduate from high school and so on. I don't think it's terribly untoward to say some of these are going to be subpar mentally and not able to process the realities of combat. And that is going to cost lives, namely their own, their buddies', and the Iraqis'.

I was away for a while and I guess my comment needs some clarification...

The "just kids" thing is _not_ exculpatory. I meant kinds on just so many levels...

a) First of all, they just look young.

b) Check out how they hang on to their props... The guns, the glasses, the gear... Their props make them strong. Imagine them without that and they seem meek.

c) The smug looks. Like highschool-kids who know it all, without knowing anything, just waiting for reality to slap them in the face.

Why do "just kids" go on a killing spree? I guess that's what happens to most kids if you give them guns and let them go unchecked. That's why most societies _don't_ give their kids guns and send them off to the other end of the world to kill people of whom they know nothing and against whom they hold no real grudge.


P.S. What do I think about African child-soldiers? The same. They're just not wise enough to do the right thing, and I can't blame them for it... But I do blame those who put them there.

"I don't know how we can put young men into these insane situations and then expect them to always act with thoughtfulness and restraint."

I agree to an extent, but remember that we didn't "put" them there. They joined up, and my assumption is that they joined due to something existing in their personality which made them feel comfortable in a uniform, made them feel suited to such line of work. I doubt if they joined up to act "thoughtfully" and with "restraint." War itself is insane. But warring is fun, and the comradery is satisfying.

I don't discount patriotism, or sense of duty, and I'm sure there is some percentage of high-character soldiers who act with valor and responsibility, people you'd be proud of. But on the whole, you're taking a group of bored young people, handing out firearms and telling them to go kill people they've never met. And mostly, that's fine with them.

In Iraq, the stresses on the soldiers have increased to ridiculous levels, imo, so as you said, we're creating a disaster. But I also think about the stresses on a young man in america who grows up in a crack neighborhood. Or who is neglected and abused or without a father figure. A young man who gets caught up in gangs or throws his infant against the wall because it is crying and he's going insane from the noise. I think....we call these young men criminals, slap hard time on them, and sniff that they should be "strong" enough to survive their environment and not resort to immoral behavior. We say they are making excuses when they try to explain it away.

What, I wonder, is the difference?

In response to what Dunc said about the finger on the gun in the first photo, you are wrong to assume this is an act of cockiness. Marines are taught to keep their trigger finger straight and off the trigger when they are holding their rifles and are not in a situation in which they will be firing. By putting his finger straight and off the trigger, SSgt. Wuterich was practicing safe weapons-handling, and being responsible. Please do not let an ignorance about weapons and the Marine Corps let you judge someone in that way. He's holding his barrel to the ground, also a non-aggressive position, and in general he is carrying it in the same way any soldier or marine would in a relaxed situation.

The comments to this entry are closed.

My Photo

My Other Accounts

Blog powered by TypePad
Member since 07/2003