Should it come as a shock that this isn’t the first, and likely not the last, incidence of U.S. servicemen documenting the atrocities of war? If we look back at past civilizations, from the Mayans to the Native Americans, soldiers have often taken trophies post-combat to serve as tokens of military victory. Do troops’ digital mementos represent today’s version of bringing home cult objects to show triumph over the enemy? According to some soldiers, that’s exactly why they do it.
“It’s like a remembrance thing. You look back and you’re like, f*** yeah, I did that,” said a U.S. Army sergeant who served in Afghanistan in 2009 for Operation Enduring Freedom. He asked to speak on the condition of anonymity because of military regulations prohibiting active duty soldiers from discussing such matters.
The behavioral science behind why this happens leaves much room for speculation. The field of military psychology lacks comprehensive data on how often soldiers take or pose in explicit photographs depicting dead bodies, according to Dr. Elspeth Ritchie, Chief Clinical Officer at the Department of Mental Health for the District of Columbia. Ritchie was a top army psychiatrist for 28 years.
For clues, experts point to the data available about post-traumatic stress disorder and the less well-known acute stress disorder (ASD), which occurs within 30 days of the stress stimulus, including deployment.
“The term PTSD first came after Vietnam. It came post-conflict and was diagnosed years later. But now you have a combination of frequent deployment and people going back and forth so the lines between ASD and PTSD get blurry,” said Ritchie.
Ritchie urges the consideration of combat stress reactions, which can either be positive in the form of acts of heroism, or negative: war atrocities.
“We know soldiers get desensitized to violence and they are also trying to make sense of grisly things. Sometimes they use gallows humor,” Ritchie said. “Soldiers who have been around so much carnage and body parts, sometimes they get a little blasé.”
There is no evidence that PTSD and ASD cause the conduct demonstrated by the troops, but those kinds of reactions are associated with being in combat, Ritchie said. Troops are trying to make sense of what they’re seeing and might think about how to make people at home believe what happened.
“I’ve seen so much shit it doesn’t gross me out,” said the army sergeant. “You look back or you show your buddies like yeah, look at what I did.”
The sergeant admitted to having photographs on his digital camera from his time in Afghanistan that he would not share with anyone. He didn’t reveal if those images included poses with insurgent remains like the soldiers in the now infamous photos, but he did say he had many depicting body parts and examples of the violence of war.
When asked why he took the photos he simply said: “You’re never going to see it again, so it’s something to remember by.”
But determining the rationale behind these actions may add value in examining controversial examples of combat behavior like digital scalping, Ritchie said. “One of the reasons it’s important to try to understand is you do want to prevent it.”