Natalie Solent

Politics, news, libertarianism, Science Fiction, religion, sewing. You got a problem, bud? I like sewing.

E-mail: nataliesolent-at-aol-dot-com (I assume it's OK to quote senders by name.)

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Friday, May 07, 2004
More on "What were they thinking of?" Jeffrey Murphy writes from Australia:

I'm reading Daniel Jonah Goldhagen's Hitler's Willing Executioners at the moment. He often mentions and discusses the delight with which German death-march personnel photographed their vile deeds. They had an attitude to this that almost resembled a hunting party's joie de vivre. These were not regulars, nor were they engaged in front-line responsibilities. Many, if not most, were ill suited for regular soldiering because of age or other factors.

Apart from the impracticality of toting cameras in actual combat situations, most regular soldiers speak for the rest of their lives about how they do not want to talk about, let alone revel in the photographic memorialisation of their service. I think this points to the psychology in play, as regards the actions of those callous German prison guards and the rear-echelon nobodies at Abu Ghraib.

Both groups knew that they were on the fringes of momentous historical events and that their service did not constitute, and would not be regarded by others as being, front-line fighting. I believe the compulsion to record their actions was driven by the desire to make sure that they were immortalised as participants in a great campaign. I therefore presume their intended audience was regular soldiers, with whom they hoped to form some kind of espirit de corps through their documented hatred for the enemy. Humiliation was an ersatz version of killing. Perhaps also, it was hoped the pictures could be sent back home to like-minded friends of similarly deprived moral sensibility. Lacking the fraternity and expedited maturation that attends combat, the sad thing is their soldierly audience would have regarded them with contempt as mere poseurs.

Why did they take the pictures? In short, to say what humans have been saying with hand-prints in caves and by any number of other means for millennia: "I woz 'ere." In war, most soldiers would prefer not to be there, then spend a lifetime forgetting they actually were. These foolish people at Abu Ghraib were there alright and they'll live with the memory and be aware of their deeds always.

I think they'll enjoy that, punishments notwithstanding.

I agree with every word, except perhaps the last line. I suspect that people often live in several different worlds, each with its own ethos, and keep boundaries between them. Hence the phenomenon of the ruthless criminal who is also a devoted family man. For some, if not all, of those who carry out brutal acts in the heated camaraderie of a military unit "gone bad", when the boundary round the little world of that unit is ripped open and the bad air let out then they will suddenly see themselves as the world sees them.

However Mr Murphy's general argument, and in particular his suggestion that the intended audience for the pictures was (looking up the status hierarchy) combat soldiers and (looking down) drinking buddies back home, strikes me as extremely convincing.