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The American Iraq

John Byrne

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An anonymous expatriate harvests raw images of Iraq taken by American soldiers

Warning: The photographs that accompany this article are graphic and not for the faint of heart. If you wish to see some of the images but not the macabre ones, look at only the first two pages of photos. The link from the first sentence is very graphic.

A face, frozen in an expression of muted surprise, trails a wormy, bloodied vertebrae. Below it, a caption penned by an American soldier: “new meaning to giving head.” A bearded man, his bloody-crusted shirt accordioned below his neck, bears, “come on and give me some sugar.” Typed beneath a cross-eyed, lacerated corpse with one arm extended, are the words, “oo, ooo, pick me.”

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These are the raw images of Iraq, taken by American soldiers. Besides the underbelly of war they reveal a quintessentially American aesthetic: tourist snapshots, boys toting beers and smoking cigars, notes taped to slumbering soldiers’ backsides, mohawks on fire. They reveal a fascination with brutality and death: charred corpses, severed limbs, and an American soldier whose face has been blown in so far that his brain is exposed.

Some are intimate and at once quotidian. Scores of photographs document the dull hallways of palaces, gaudy jewelry, even crystal chandeliers. Dozens display helicopters hovering in bare blue skies and silhouetted against rich, pumpkin-colored sunsets. A palatial, empty room is festooned with the sign “GOD BLESS TASK FORCE IRON HORSE.” In another, a GI looks stolidly into the distance, his helmet hugged against his chest, vaunts the caption, “yes, yes i am a sexy man-beast.”

These images are collected at UnderMars.com, an online library dedicated to photographs taken and captioned by American soldiers who have served in Iraq. The site was created by an American expatriate and computer programmer, Mark, who spoke to RAW STORY on the condition his full name not be used.

“It’s a really fascinating mix of war gore photos and really beautiful shots. There’s this layer of boring travel photos as well, just shots of buildings I saw, ‘here’s me standing in front this monument,’” he said. “I hope that when people view it, people maybe get an insight that’s not captured on highly edited news or dramatizations or things like that. I get the impression that being over there is this strange mix of ninety percent boredom and 10 percent terror.”

Some of the photographs carry captions that could be seen as racist. On one, dead Iraqis are referred to as “stink bait;” another is captioned, “10 points fo[r] every pun-jab you hit.” Others exhibit a callous sense of humor.

Mark says he doesn’t see the photos as racist. Rather, he believes they are a natural human response to a horrible event.

“If you see a car accident, there’s a very good chance you’re going to crack a bad joke about it,” he asserts. “People make jokes or tasteless jokes in response to situations that are hard to deal with. I think it’s more a reflection of how people deal with stress than how they actually feel in terms of glorification of war or racial issues or any of the larger issues that people are ascribing to it.”

Such commentary, however, has drawn the wrath of readers. Mark shared some responses he’s gotten with RAW STORY.

“You really should get checked into a mental hospital before they take your health insurance away,” one visitor wrote. “At first I was like ‘This guy is a total piece of shit’ but then I realized that seeing what you’ve seen can’t possibly leave your sanity intact. Seriously. You need help.”

“You guys are assholes,” penned another. “I can't believe you post pictures of dead people maimed or decapitated or whatever. I don't care if they were trying to kill you. That is sick, to revel in such butchery. Are you really Americans? Or just a bunch of craven Nazis who get off on carnage?”

The site is devoid of politics; it lets the pictures speak for themselves. Mark says this is deliberate. He declines to reveal his personal feelings about the war, saying only that he hopes that his brother returns alive.

“If I was the one calling the shots -- my brother’s over there -- so I definitely would like him not to be injured or killed in it,” he says. “My goal is to keep my politics and anybody else’s politics out of the site; it’s definitely not what I’m trying to achieve with it. It’s just there to capture a snapshot of the moment and to give an honest an uncensored view of what they are seeing and I guess how they are feeling as well in how they caption the photos.”

Most responses have been positive, Mark maintains. He declined to provide the most stirring personal responses, citing privacy concerns. But he shared some of the positive emails with RAW STORY.

“Man...I can't find the words to express what I feel right now,” one visitor wrote. “...Just saw all the photos and read your text. I saw just a fraction of war myself 10 years ago in former Yugoslavia and it left me thinking and dreaming about it for a while...it was somewhat hard to get back to ‘normal’ life.”

Another reader cited God.

“The photos from US soldiers doing their duty in Iraq was both entertaining and enlightening,” she wrote. “God Bless our soldiers. I pray He brings our men and women, every one, home on His shoulders. And that the country of Iraq and the surrounding countries benefit from our presence there, thus securing our own peace and prosperity. Love you each and every one.”

Others, who said they enjoyed the site, questioned why Mark chose to include wounded and dead U.S. troops. Mark says he received several emails along this vein. He opted to keep the photos in.

“I wanted to ask why you have dead Americans depicted on this site? Is it a matter of balance, show dead from both sides?” Asked a reader who said he served in Iraq. “I think certain things should remain sacred, and a soldier that gave his life for our freedoms rates at least the privilege and respect from us to not be used as a billboard for our enemies. I respectfully ask that you remove these pictures on behalf of these men who gave there lives; they deserve more than this.”

Some have criticized the site because they believe it glorifies war.

“At first, people decided that I was putting them up and making a joke out of it,” Mark recalls. “They thought that I was writing the captions and that I was glorifying it instead of trying to take a snapshot of it. Once they were clued in to who I was, that only lasted a couple of weeks.”

UnderMars isn’t the first site to document the raw experience of war. Delta15.org, dedicated to Vietnam Marine contingent Delta 1/5, includes photos taken by various companies who spent time in Southeast Asia. The photographs have a similar flavor – and mixture of snapshots and internecine warfare.

Mark says little of his brother, whose service is clandestine.

“My brother’s in a position where he can’t talk about anything so I don’t push him on that,” he says. “When I talk to him about it, I just refer to it as his vacation -- what else can I say, really?”

“He seems to like” the site, he adds. “I got the impression that he enjoyed seeing it without a whole bunch of commentary. He, having been through those experiences, can say, ‘I get what these guys went through.’”

Asked how he thought the photographs on his site compare with the images of Iraq servicemembers’ coffins released under Freedom of Information Act requests, he said his photos offer less meaning, less heroism in how war is actually fought in the field.

“A coffin as sad as it is, it is a heroic image as well, it’s an image of strength,” he remarks. “If you’re talking of someone who’s really injured, it’s no longer an image of heroism in some people’s eyes, it’s a bit sadder and something with less meaning.”

Regular readers of Raw Story may recognize some of the photographs, which have been used as photos accompanying stories on our pages over recent months when covering the Iraq war.

A collection of the images, some of which (especially those on page 3,) are quite graphic, can be viewed here. Please be advised that some of the images may be considered highly disturbing to some readers.

Click here to go to the images.

Originally published on Friday October 7, 2005.

 


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