Today we’re greeted again by images desecration, brutality, and celebration as YouTube screenshots hit the news showing Marines urinating on dead Taliban soldiers — with other Marines out of frame filming it, of course. Hillary Clinton condemned the acts and claimed that they are utterly incompatible with the values of “the American people” and the discipline of the military. Consistently, the behavior is located in the aberrant soldiers that we as a nation can come together to declare as the exception that emphasizes our distance from this event.
What if making these films isn’t the exception? What if it is instead the symptom — the eruption — of a culture of media spectacles of domination by forces convinced of their opponents inhumanity — or their own righteousness? I submit as evidence the t-shirt declaring “God will judge our enemies * We’ll arrange the meeting.” I spotted this shirt on a flight from Newark to Orange County two months ago. I was shocked that somebody would wear that in public, that they would wear that in public in such a regionally heterogeneous place as an airport, and at the obvious conclusion to be drawn from the shirt — the this man is god’s sweeper.
The video of the marines urinating isn’t just evidence of men urinating. It is evidence of a social milieu where you can get those people behind the frame to film this thing. It’s evidence of a milieu where marines felt like this act should be commemorated in the larger public that is YouTube viewership.
In a Radical History Review piece on Abu Ghraib, Nicholas Mirzoeff points out that breaking people into lumps of bare life is a documented interrogation strategy for the CIA and the army: “Declassified CIA and Army interrogation manuals make it clear that the point of all humiliation was to break down what the military understands as the civilized veneer of the mind to break through to the supposedly primitive core, where resistance is less effective” (2005:52). Freud gone wild.
These strategies of breaking down and unleashing primitivism isn’t just reserved for the interrogated. I had a high school friend who joined the Marines who explained that part of Basic Training was to break soldiers down to a primal place. He told me about an exercise where the marine to be placed in a deep hole and left to scream at the sky as loudly and deeply as they could muster until their superior tells them they can stop.
Jennifer Terry, professor of Women’s Studies at UCI, has also shown that making such videos is also a routine part of military action for documenting operations, proving the effectiveness of particular violent techniques, to inspire adherents to one’s cause, and to mock opponents. “They are part of larger and psychological and affective dimensions of this kind of war,” (“Killer Entertainments” in Vectors Journal). You can view the US military and opposition force videos that Terry collects, curates, and juxtaposes in Vectors multimedia journal. Videography is routine.
I’m no fan of the Taliban, but it is downright deceptive to declare that these recurring videos of violence are just the work of bad apples.