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Joshua FoustBack to OpinionJoshua Foust

Rolling Stone and the politics of war porn

Rolling Stone wrote another explosive story about Afghanistan: a small team of soldiers went on a murderous rampage in the south of the country, and the military leadership refused to stop it until a public outcry forced them to. The crimes are heinous: killing civilians, mostly unarmed farmers, cutting off body parts for trophies and posing with the corpses like a certain ex-governor posing with dead herd animals. In every sense, it is an outrage, and the American people must know that it happened.

But the story itself is actually not a new one. Even the “kick” of the story — that the Army leadership knew illegal killings were happening but declined to do anything about it — was detailed in the news reports about the kill team’s arrest last September. Last October, the Project on Government Oversight conducted a podcast interview with the parents of one of the soldiers charged with murder, whose pleas to the military to put an end to the murders fell on deaf ears. That is indeed a story — sadly, the latest in a string of the military leadership covering up outrageous behavior until a media spotlight is shined upon some atrocity or cover up — but it is not the story.

Reading the Rolling Stone piece, a reader walks away thinking that the killing of civilians is widespread and not at all limited to the troops associated with the “kill team.” The article paints the killings as the inevitable consequence of low morale and a rejection of counterinsurgency, and worse – it implies that murder is, in some way, a fact of being a soldier.

These sorts of implications, however, are difficult to square with the truth. Attention was first shed on the killings by fellow soldiers disgusted at the “kill team’s” alleged actions. Army rules — and U.S. law — considers such actions grievous crimes and stipulates immediate and harsh punishment for them. While the Army bureaucracy was slow to move — sadly, all too common regardless of the issue, whether an illegal killing, a problem with healthcare or even adapting to a rural insurgency in a war most people had forgotten about — that doesn’t automatically mean there is a cover up. Incompetence is a far more reasonable explanation than malice.

But beyond these concerns about the honesty of Rolling Stone’s coverage is the imagery it chose to feature alongside the story: shocking photos and videos showing, in extremely graphic detail, the killing of Afghans in various settings. These photos are garnering much of the buzz surrounding the Rolling Stone piece. Some of these photos are of the Afghans allegedly murdered by this kill team: their lifeless and bloody bodies propped up as war trophies. Some of these Afghans were killed under circumstances that have nothing to do with the “kill team.” The author, Mark Boal, writes, “The deaths may have resulted from a legitimate combat engagement,” and meekly points out that “sharing” these images and video is a “violation of Army standards.”

So, we have several photos of deliberately murdered Afghans — evidence of a crime — but also videos and more imagery of Afghans killed in the course of messy and uncertain combat, which are not, in fact, evidence of a crime. Showing this latter group to outsiders, however, is against the rules (and good taste). That Rolling Stone makes no distinction between the two groups of images is a problem.

There is a term for the sort of journalism Rolling Stone is engaging in here: war porn. In 2005, George Zornick wrote of the growing trend of many people both in and out of the military treating images of the war — weapons, death, combat and so on — in the same way one would treat pornography. The people posting these images, Zornick explained, “appear to regard the combat photos with sadistic glee, and pathological wisecracks follow almost every post.”

Indeed, images of dead foreigners never seem to faze U.S. news organizations. While Rolling Stone is merely the latest to publish photos of “dead brown people” to drive page views and newsstand sales, they are not the first. Just last week, The New York Times ran photos of dead Libyan soldiers sprawled out and rotting in the sun, for example. Al Jazeera routinely shows photos of corpses in the course of their coverage of rebellions, demonstrations and war.

However, it is extraordinarily rare to see a photo gallery of dead U.S. soldiers, even though more than 5,000 have been killed in Iraq and Afghanistan over the last decade. Two years ago, when the Associated Press ran a photograph of a dead Marine, no less than Defense Secretary Robert Gates lambasted the news organization, at length, for the insensitivity they showed in broadcasting images of the dead Marine’s body over the objections of his family (who, understandably, were hurt by seeing his dead body in the news). I doubt anyone consulted the families of these dead Afghans to see if publishing the images of their lifeless bodies being mutilated for sport by U.S. soldiers would pain them. (In a tiny concession to this idea, the German magazine Der Spiegel blurred the faces of the dead Afghans when it ran photos of this same “kill team.”)

The New York Times’ photo editors have publicly meditated on the balance of newsworthiness and good taste when it comes to publishing photos of the dead. They are right to be conflicted when deliberating the publication of such horrific imagery. They have also acknowledged that the Pentagon actively tries to suppress imagery of dead and injured American troops, which leads to an imbalance in coverage: The people in the war zone have their brutalization blasted across the front page, while the horrors visited upon Americans often get relegated to text, buried in a paragraph in the middle of a story.

Broadcasting the brutal, horrifying imagery of war is a principled thing to do, and laudatory. But only publishing a one-sided account is misleading and dishonest. By not showing the horrors visited upon our own soldiers in the war, Rolling Stone is failing to show the true human cost of the conflict borne by all parties involved. It is also the third time that the magazine has twisted a story to sound more sensational than it is: first with a hit piece on General Petraeus, then on General Caldwell (and even, in many ways, with General McChrystal). Most egregiously, so long as its editors rely on shocking images to grab headlines, they’ve done little more than exploit a terrible tragedy for pageviews.