I’m interested in photographs because – surprise, surprise – of a Seymour Hersh claim that the humiliating photos taken in Abu Ghraib were part of a deliberate effort to blackmail the torture victims; who, as Arab men, were allegedly vulnerable to sexual humiliation. In “The Gray Zone,” Hersh wrote that a “government consultant” told him
… that there may have been a serious goal, in the beginning, behind the sexual humiliation and the posed photographs. It was thought that some prisoners would do anything—including spying on their associates—to avoid dissemination of the shameful photos to family and friends. The government consultant said, “I was told that the purpose of the photographs was to create an army of informants, people you could insert back in the population.” The idea was that they would be motivated by fear of exposure, and gather information about pending insurgency action, the consultant said. If so, it wasn’t effective; the insurgency continued to grow.As part of my research, I’ve been digging through the ACLU documents to see if I can find anything to substantiate this particular theory about deliberate photographic humiliation (I haven’t, yet). Along the way, what’s emerged instead is that the Army seems to have a difficult time controlling the use of cameras, and that photo taking, collection, and exchange are hardly isolated to Abu Ghraib. There’s something else going on here, something worth digging into – and in doing so, that’s how I came across the Lindh documents, which I’ve kind of detoured into.
Last week I blogged briefly about the Army’s investigation into potential charges of cruelty and mistreatment in the John Walker Lindh arrest. The investigation was spurred in part by discovery of an “inappropriate or unauthorized pictures of Johnny Walker Lindh taken by members of [Redacted; FOIA exemption b2-2] at Mazar-e-Sharif, Afghanistan, on or about 7 December 2001” (DOD015553). The photo – which isn’t available online, at least that I can find – depicted Lindh wearing a bandana with the word “shithead” scrawled upon it. I’m not sure if there were other photos, but this one seems to have been sufficient to get an investigation into prisoner mistreatment started.
DOD015552-DOD105647 in the ACLU FOIA collection is a 96-page compilation of the findings of the AR 15-6 investigation carried out by a Major General in the 2nd Battalion of the 5th Special Forces Group (Airborne), Ft. Campbell, Kentucky. It’s worth skimming for two items: the log describing Lindh’s detention and the sworn statements in which soldiers explain why the photo was taken.
Here’s a brief inventory of the set:
- The memo that appoints this individual as the investigating officer
- A chronology of investigation events, 10 April 2002-18 April 2002, which looks to be mostly a list of interviews (there’s a second and longer chronology later in the collection);
- A form for reporting the proceedings of the investigation – mostly blank, as the attached documents carry most of the information
- A memorandum summarizing the findings of the investigation
- A page noting that photographs were withheld under FOIA Exemptions 6 and 7, because they depict Americans;
- A photocopy of the log that Lindh’s guards kept while he was in captivity
- Multiple sworn statements taken from soldiers during the investigation. Some are typed and some are handwritten.
- A “Report of Medical Examination and Treatment of American Citizen.”
- A longer chronology of the investigation, covering the major investigation submissions and reviews between 22 April 2002 to 3 February 2003
- Another list of sworn statements
- And several pages indicating that some documents were withheld because they were apparently being used in a DOJ investigation.
But that’s something of an aside to my main interest, which is the problem of soldier photography. The sworn statements indicate that digital photographs present a challenge to the military because they are so easily disseminated – these are slippery forms of ephemera, unwieldy and hydra-like. Here are some quotes from the sworn statements – again, you can see these yourself if you go to the ACLU's FOIA site and enter DOD015552, the scroll for the page numbers I’ve provided you.
INT. Why did you take the photograph?DOD015594
RESPONSE. The photograph was taken as a final team picture with an American member of the Al Qaeda Terrorist Organization (sic)…
INT: What was written on the blindfold and why?
RESPONSE: SHITHEAD, because we though it was humorous and we thought he was…. the detainee was not aware of any pictures after he was blindfolded.
INT. How is it possible for the photo to be rediscovered if you deleted it on 9 December 2002 and did not disseminate it?DOD015598
RESPONSE. The camera had two flashcards. We attempted to open the photo on a borrowed laptop from the FOB (Forward Operating Base). The electronic copy was inadvertantly (sic) left on the laptop and possibly on one of the flashcards. The laptop was then connected to a LAN system at the FOB.
INT: What was written on the blindfold, why.DOD 015602.
RESPONSE: “Shithead,” Barracksroom (sic) humor.
(implied) INT: Why did you take the photograph?DOD015605
RESPONSE. The photo was taken simply because of who he is.
INT: Why did you take the photograph?It strikes me that we have here is something more akin to tourist photograph – the visual consumption of the exotic (an American Taliban); the exercise of power in the form of a Foucauldian gaze; the creation and dissemination of a souvenir that the individual being photographed is never allowed to see. The question is whether or not the Abu Ghraib photos really represent a botched blackmail attempt, or if they’re evidence of a much larger phenomenon – that is, soldiers capturing, collecting, and sharing forbidden digital photographs of their war experiences.
RESPONSE: For historical value because of who he was; an American fighting for the Taliban, and for humor.