The Political Logic of Zionism

A Wide World of War Porn

Originally posted at TomDispatch.

In this century, Memorial Day, a civic holiday, has gained an almost religious
tinge. That third Monday in May is meant, of course, to honor the dead of
this country’s wars and has a history
that goes back to the period after the Civil War when, thanks to the bloodshed
of that conflict, America’s first national cemeteries were created.
A century and a half later, the president regularly goes to Arlington National
Cemetery and places a wreath on the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier. Donald Trump
did
so
, maskless in the midst of a pandemic nightmare, in 2020 and Joe Biden
did
so in 2021, the day after the anniversary of his son
Beau’s
death. (Beau served a year as a National Guardsman in war-torn
Iraq.)

Addressing
“our fallen heroes” and their families, who “live forever
in our hearts – forever proud, forever honorable, forever American,”
President Biden hailed the American war dead as “the sentinels of liberty,
defenders of the downtrodden, liberators of nations.” He then added,
“And still today, Americans stand watch around the world, often at their
great personal peril… They did not only die at Gettysburg or in Flanders
Field or on the beaches of Normandy, but in the mountains of Afghanistan,
the deserts of Iraq in the last 20 years.” Later, he offered another
quite explicit list of where those “fallen heroes” actually fell:
“The Americans of Lexington and Concord, of New Orleans, Gettysburg,
the Argonne, Iwo Jima and Normandy, Korea and Vietnam, Afghanistan and Iraq.”

But when you think about it, the all-American conflicts that followed World
War II’s D-Day (Normandy) haven’t exactly been the tales of liberty,
heroism, and glory that Biden hailed. Instead, they’ve been interventions
from hell that, Vietnam aside, the American people largely neither supported
nor protested, but paid remarkably little attention to.

Almost all of them were, in one fashion or another, failed wars that left
startling
numbers
of innocent civilians dead,
squandered trillions
of taxpayer dollars
needed at home, unsettled significant parts of the planet, and in this century
helped spread terror outfits across the Greater Middle East and Africa. In
short, they were wars that, in terms of democracy, liberty, and justice, were
horrors of the first order and nothing
faintly
to be proud of.

Today, TomDispatch
regular
, historian, and war correspondent Nick Turse, author of a riveting
account of one of those American wars from hell, Kill
Anything That Moves
, considers a subject we don’t often think
about – the way such wars and other conflicts around the world are now
producing what he all too accurately calls “war porn” in our overly
electronic moment. As I read his piece, I couldn’t help thinking that,
given a Pentagon budget that never goes anything but
up
and wars that never go anything but
down
, Memorial Day (like those endless flyovers
of sports events by the U.S. Air Force) has, in my lifetime, become a kind
of war porn all its own. Tom


How I Accidentally Amassed an Encyclopedia of Atrocities

By Nick Turse

Recently, I wanted to show my wife a picture, so I opened the photos app
on my phone and promptly panicked when I saw what was there. 

It’s not what you think.

A lot of people are worried about what’s lurking on their smartphones.
Compromising photos. Illicit text messages. Embarrassing contacts. Porn. 

What I noticed was a video in the photo stream between a picture of a document
I sent to an editor and a shot of my dog – a clip of a man in Burkina
Faso having his lower arm chopped off.

The still image of that act is bad enough. The video is far worse. The victim
lies on the ground, pleading, screaming as another man, swinging a machete,
forces him to place his right arm on a wooden bench. The attacker is trying
to make the amputation easier, allowing him to make a cleaner cut. But “easier”
is a relative term. The assailant hacks away, again and again and again, taking
time to taunt his victim.  You watch it happen.  Slowly.  You
see the anguish on the face of the man whose arm is bleeding but mostly intact,
then hanging at an odd angle, then barely attached. The video runs one minute
and 18 seconds.  It seems longer.  Far longer. You hear the tortured
screams.  You watch the final swing, then see the victim kicking his
legs back and forth, writhing in agony on the ground.

I shudder to think how many similar videos and images lurk on my phone –
saved in the photos, in the files, sitting in text chains from sources, colleagues,
fixers, contacts.  There’s the man lying in a street in the Democratic
Republic of Congo as an assailant with a machete attempts to cut off his leg
below the knee.  I still remember the exact sound of his cries even years
after first viewing it.  There’s the video of the captured Kurdish fighters.
I recall how the second woman to be killed – just before she’s
shot in the head – watches the execution of her comrade. She doesn’t
plead or cry or even flinch. Not once.

There’s the bound man shot at point blank range and kicked, still alive,
into a ditch.  There are the women and children forced to march to their
execution. “You
are going to die
,” says the Cameroonian soldier, who refers to one of
the women as “BH,” a reference to the terrorist group, Boko Haram. He steers
her off the road and a young girl follows. Another soldier does the same to
a second woman who has a toddler strapped to her back. The soldiers force
the women to kneel. One of those men directs the girl to stand next to her
mother. He then pulls the girl’s shirt over her head, blindfolding her. 
Gunshots follow.

Binging on War Porn

My career in journalism tracks the global proliferation of “war
porn
,” a subject that TomDispatch first covered in 2006

In the twentieth century, this particular genre consisted mostly of still
photos that only rarely surfaced. The Japanese “rape”
of Nanking
Murders
by Nazis
Decapitations
during Britain’s “Malayan Emergency.”  Most of those images were trophy
photos, taken by or with the consent of the perpetrators and they generally
received only modest circulation. In rare cases, as in an execution in South
Vietnam, they were documented by the press, made front-page
news
, and were sometimes even captured
on film
.

Such photos and footage have become ubiquitous over the last two decades.
As mobile phone technology has improved, cell-phone prices have dropped, and
social media and messaging platforms have proliferated, people in conflict
zones from Syria
to Myanmar
– often the perpetrators of atrocities, sometimes the victims –
have been increasingly able to share video and photographic documentation
of human-rights violations.  During the 2010s, the Islamic State flooded
the online ecosystem with gruesome execution
photos
and videos
. Israel’s most recent attacks on civilians
in Gaza
have also provided
a seemingly endless stream of traumatic images
and video.

While news consumers may increasingly be subjected to horrific images, exposure
to limited
amounts
is, in most cases, unlikely to cause lasting distress.  Binging
on such footage is a different story.  A 2014 analysis of exposure to
media coverage of the Boston Marathon bombings, published in the Proceedings
of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America
,
found that “repeated bombing-related media exposure was associated with higher
acute stress
than was direct exposure”; that is, those who consumed six
or more hours a day of news coverage experienced greater stress than those
who were at or near the actual bombing scene.

It’s clear that immersion in atrocity content is bad for your mental health. 
But what if your job is to binge-watch trauma?  The work of certain journalists,
social
media content moderators
, human rights researchers, and other analysts
now has them awash in graphic “user-generated content” (UGC) or eyewitness
video that can leave a lasting mark on one’s mind. The American Psychiatric
Association’s 2013 Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders,
its official
manual
, states that post-traumatic stress can be brought about by exposure
to the graphic details of another individual’s experience, including work-related
exposure to disturbing television footage, movies, pictures, or other electronic
media.

I’ve written articles
based on video footage of executions
and massacres
Sometimes atrocity
photos
figure in my reporting, so it’s not surprising that sources
often send me war porn. Still, I’m not immersed in such brutal scenes as regularly
as some of my colleagues.  In 2015, the Eyewitness
Media Hub
conducted a survey
of people who often work with graphic UGC. Even then, more than half of the
209 respondents reported that they viewed distressing media several times
weekly. Twelve percent of the responding journalists and almost a quarter
of the human rights and humanitarian workers said they viewed such traumatic
content daily.  

“You witness it a lot more with UGC,” said an anonymous senior editor at
a news agency. “You’re exposed to more intense visual material than battle-hardened
war cameramen sitting in Sarajevo in the middle of the 1990s because it’s
coming at you from everywhere – even more so than, say, in Jerusalem.
I was there at the height of the Intifada and there were body parts flying
in and out of the office like nobody’s business, but there’s now a lot more
of it.”

Forty percent of Eyewitness Media Hub survey respondents said that viewing
such traumatic content had a negative impact on their personal lives, leaving
them with feelings of isolation, flashbacks, nightmares, and other stress-related
symptoms.  One quarter reported high or even very high “professional
adverse effects.”

In 2018, an anonymous
staffer from Videre
, an international charity that provides activists
around the world with equipment, training, and support to gather video
evidence
of human-rights violations, offered a candid chronicle of the
effects of two days of “cutting and splicing, frame by frame” video footage
of a massacre of men, women, and children. “I went into auto-pilot: charred
bodies, severed limbs,” that staffer wrote.

“They ceased to be human. I needed not to think of their lost hopes
and dreams. And for two days I edited. Headphones stuck deep in my ears. The
sound of desperate cries crashing around my head… And then, I started sleeping
badly – waking in the night, bad dreams. I was distracted at work. It
all felt so futile. A couple of weeks later, I was out walking with my partner
and I started to cry.”

The next year, Casey
Newton
, writing for The
Verge
, offered a glimpse into the professional lives of Facebook’s
15,000 sub-contractor-employed content moderators.  After three and a
half weeks of training – immersed in hate speech, violence, and graphic
pornography – “Chloe” was asked to “moderate” a post in front of her
fellow trainees.  It was a video of a murder, a man stabbed again and
again as he begged for his life. Chloe, her voice quivering, correctly informed
the class that the post needed to be removed since section 13 of Facebook’s
community standards prohibits videos depicting murder.

As the next potential moderator took her place, Chloe left the room to sob.
After that, the panic
attacks
began. They continued even after Chloe left the job and hers is
not
an isolated case
.  Last year, Facebook agreed to pay $52
million
to 11,250 current and former moderators to compensate them for
mental-health conditions resulting from the job. There is evidence to suggest
that the situation may have worsened
since then as Facebook
has come under increased pressure to take action against online
child abuse
, forcing moderators
to watch greater amounts of disturbing content.

“Even when the events depicted are far away, journalists and forensic analysts,
deeply immersed in a flood of explicit, violent, and disturbing photos and
video, may feel that it is seeping into their own personal headspace,” reads
a fact sheet on working
with traumatic imagery
provided by the Dart Center for Journalism and
Trauma (where I was once a fellow) at Columbia University’s Journalism School. 
Intrusive
recollections
– re-seeing traumatic images one has been working
with – are not unusual,” wrote Gavin Rees, the Dart Center’s senior
advisor for training and innovation in a 2017 guide for journalists. “Our
brains are designed to form vivid pictures of disturbing things, so you may
experience images popping back into consciousness at unexpected moments.”

A Hammer to the Skull

Days before I saw that traumatic arm-amputation clip on my phone, I was rummaging
around for an old file in the digital folders of a cloud-storage service. 
I noticed a folder of mine labeled “Graphic photos DRC.”  I had uploaded
those images – dozens of people butchered as if they were meat –
while I was in the Democratic Republic of Congo in 2018. Back then, I needed
to get the images off my phone but carefully labeled the folder as a warning
to my editor back in the US, who was monitoring the material, about what lurked
in that innocuous-looking digital version of a manila folder.

Not long after finding that cache of Congo carnage, I needed to contact a
source via a messaging platform. I didn’t realize that it was several years
since we had communicated via that app and that our last “conversation,” still
sitting there, included a photo of the corpse of a colleague who had been
shot through the head.

I have many other atrocity photos on thumb drives, portable hard drives, and
external hard drives that sit on my desk.  I know some of those photos
by heart.  A few from the research I did for my book Kill
Anything That Moves
on American war crimes in Vietnam have resided
somewhere deep in the recesses of my skull for close to 20 years.  Several
of them that I found in the US National Archives were glossy photos of the victims
of an American ambush.  The dead were officially reported as enemy troops,
but the investigation and those photos made it clear that they were just average
Vietnamese civilians – men, women, and children.       

One image burned into my brain is of a young Vietnamese boy lying lifeless
on a forest floor. His glassy eyes, still open, evoke an enigmatic sense of
serenity.  It could be an art photo if you didn’t know that parts of
his body had been obliterated by bullets and landmine fragments.   

Newer photos stick with me, too, like one of a heap of mostly headless bodies
that no one could mistake for art, for example. I could go on, but you get
the picture – or rather, I got the pictures. 

I once interviewed a Vietnam veteran who had kept grisly war trophies –
a small collection of atrocity images – corpses of those his unit had
killed, some visibly mistreated. 

In Vietnam, a surprising number of American troops amassed such photos and
made grim scrapbooks out of them.  Some also collected actual body parts
– scalps, penises, teeth, fingers and, most commonly of all, ears.  For
others, like this man, the preferred anatomical souvenirs were skulls

That veteran had held onto those war “trophies” for most of his
life but, ever more aware of his advancing age, he confessed to me that one
day – soon, but not yet – he needed to burn the photos and take
a hammer to the skull. He didn’t want his daughter to find them when, after
his death, she came to clean out his home.

For years, I wondered what it must have been like for that man to live with
the skull of a Vietnamese man or woman, to wake up every morning with that
specter of atrocity in his home. Only years later did I begin to grasp that
I might have some idea of what that was indeed like.

I’ve never actively collected war trophies, of course. I’ve left every
skull
, every
corpse
that I’ve encountered as I found it. But I’ve nonetheless
amassed a horrific collection of war porn, far larger than anything that Vietnam
veteran had.

While I don’t have a human skull in my closet, my atrocity collection is
arguably far more gruesome. That veteran’s collection is still and silent,
but the screams of the victims, people being butchered alive on video, are
part of my collection. His trophy skull sat on a shelf hidden from view, while
my compendium of horrors is scattered about my computer, cloud storage, my
phone, my message chains – the totality of my digital life.  

That man’s collection was finite and contained, the product of one war and
one year of military service many decades ago. Mine lives with me and grows
by the week.  While I was writing this article, another video clip arrived.
It’s horrific.  At first, I couldn’t tell if the woman was dead or alive. 
The answer only became clear when… On second thought, you’re better off not
knowing.

Follow TomDispatch on Twitter
and join us on Facebook.
Check out the newest Dispatch Books, John Feffer’s new dystopian novel,
Songlands
(the final one in his Splinterlands series), Beverly Gologorsky’s novel
Every
Body Has a Story
, and Tom Engelhardt’s A
Nation Unmade by War
, as well as Alfred McCoy’s In
the Shadows of the American Century: The Rise and Decline of U.S. Global Power

and John Dower’s
The
Violent American Century: War and Terror Since World War II
.

Nick Turse is the managing editor of TomDispatch
and a fellow at the Type
Media Center
. He is the author most recently of Next
Time They’ll Come to Count the Dead: War and Survival in South Sudan

and of the bestselling Kill
Anything That Moves
.

Copyright 2021 Nick Turse



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