Published on Friday, September 23, 2005 by The Nation
The Porn of War
by George Zornick
On November 15, 2004, a report on CNN.com briefly described a clash in the Iraqi city of Baquba, including an insurgent attack with rocket-propelled grenades on members of the First Infantry Division, in which four American soldiers were wounded. CNN did not post any images of the battle, and the incident wasn't given much attention in other media.
But visitors to the amateur porn website nowthatsfuckedup.com were given a much closer view of the action: "today in baquba we got into the shit again and got some of it on vid.....this is me and my wingman fuckin some shit up when these fucks shot 3 rpg's at us so we took down the whole spot.....look for yourself...the fight lasted like 85 mins total and they are still counting up the bodies."
The poster, an anonymous soldier identified only as "Stress_Relief," uploaded two videos of the clash onto the website, drawing enthusiastic responses from patrons: "nice work, guys. Keep blasting those mujadeen [sic] bastards."
Originally created as a site for men to share images of their sexual partners, this site has taken the concept of user-created content to a grim new low: US troops stationed in Iraq and Afghanistan are invited to display graphic battlefield photos apparently taken with their personal digital cameras. And thousands of people are logging on to take a look.
The website has become a stomach-churning showcase for the pornography of war--close-up shots of Iraqi insurgents and civilians with heads blown off, or with intestines spilling from open wounds. Sometimes photographs of mangled body parts are displayed: Part of the game is for users to guess what appendage or organ is on display.
One soldier who goes by the alias "shottyintheboddy" said in an e-mail exchange with The Nation that he posts combat images on the site because it gives civilians a more accurate view of his life in Iraq. "I mostly take interest in the response of civis back home. Most know what CNN tells them and couldn't hack it here," the soldier wrote. He added that he recommended the site to his fellow soldiers, and knows others who post.
Chris Wilson of Lakeland, Florida, said in an interview that he created the site in 2004 as a simple Internet pornography venture: Users post amateur pictures--supposedly of their wives or girlfriends--and for a $10 registration fee, others can take a look. He claims there are about 150,000 registered users on the site, 45,000 of whom are military personnel. Of the 130,000 unique visitors who come to the site daily, Wilson estimates that 30 percent of the traffic, or 39,000 unique users, are US military personnel.
Early on in his Internet venture, Wilson said, he encountered a problem--potential military customers in Iraq and Afghanistan couldn't pay for membership, because credit card companies were blocking charges from "high-risk" countries like Iraq and Afghanistan.
Not wanting to shortchange US troops, Wilson established a rule that if users posted an authentic picture proving they were stationed overseas, they would be granted unlimited access to the site's pornography. The posting began, sometimes of benign images of troops leaning against their tanks, but graphic combat images also began to appear. As of September 20, there were 244 graphic battlefield images and videos available to members.
Why would a site devoted to sex also reduce the horrors of combat to a spectator sport? According to one expert, this confluence of pornography and violent combat images may have roots in the way the human brain processes high-arousal information.
"For some people, any arousal--it doesn't matter if it is a negative image or a pornographic image--if it takes away the boring humdrum of everyday existence, it's all the better," says David Zald, a Vanderbilt University psychologist who studies how the brain processes emotional stimuli.
Some of the images on nowthatsfuckup.com appear to be of Iraqi insurgents--one soldier posted eight graphic photos of a person he claimed was a suicide bomber who accidentally detonated before he got close to US troops. "Wow. Nice set of pics. Amazing how the face just wrapped off," is the response from another user.
Other images appear to be of Iraqi civilians. A series of photos showing two men slumped over in a pickup truck, with nothing visible above their shoulders except a red mass of brain matter and bone, is described as "an Iraqi driver and passenger that tried to run a checkpoint during the first part of OIF." The post goes on to say that "the bad thing about shooting them is that we have to clean it up." Another post, labeled "dead shopkeeper in Iraq," does not explain how the subject of the photo ended up with a large bullet hole in his back but offers the quip "I guess he had some unsatisfied customers."
Officials at the Defense Department and at US Central Command in Tampa Bay, Florida, shied away from any direct comments about military personnel posting combat images on Wilson's porn site, claiming a firewall blocks viewing of such material from their office computers.
But Centcom spokesman Matt McLaughlin said that, in general, "Centcom recognizes DoD regulations and the Geneva Convention prohibit photographing detainees or mutilating and/or degrading dead bodies." He added, "Centcom has no specific policy on taking pictures of the deceased as long as those pictures do not violate the aforementioned prohibitions."
The fact that US military officials refuse to denounce combat photos posted on a porn site is troubling, since the very act of posting pictures of dead civilians for entertainment value is degrading. In addition, one photograph of detainees sitting on the back of a flatbed truck with burlap sacks on their heads does appear to break even the narrow rules on photographing detainees set forth by the Defense Department.
Christopher Conway, a Defense Department spokesman, noted that Internet technology has been beneficial for combat troops; according to Conway, troops link up via the Internet to share information about "lessons learned" on the battlefield.
"They're very adept at using technology," Conway said. But he acknowledged that "technology is a double-edged sword."
As the Internet has given bloggers powerful tools of communication outside the realm of the mainstream media, it has also given soldiers the ability to relay their experiences in ways Americans will never get from traditional news sources.
But the posts on www.nowthatsfuckedup.com are not meant to subvert the sanitized mainstream media with the goal of waking the general public up to the horrors of war. Rather, all of the posters--and many of the site's patrons--appear to regard the combat photos with sadistic glee, and pathological wisecracks follow almost every post.
If there is any redeeming value to such a clearinghouse for images of destruction and death, it would rest in the site's ability to offer an unflinching look at the obscenity of war--and war's impact on the psyches of the soldiers called to fight it.
George Zornick, graduate of the University of Buffalo, was a 2005 summer intern at The Nation.
© 2005 The Nation