This week, a US judge ordered the release of a bushel of pictures documenting the abuse of detainees in Abu Ghraib. Meanwhile, a remorseful Private Lynndie England, the gurning star of some earlier amateur images from the prison, was sentenced to three years in a similar penal institution. By Thursday most of the media had told of a website where pictures of mutilated Iraqi corpses were being exchanged for pictures of naked girls. As net news goes, it rather trounces 'man with beard gets sack for blogging about manager's comedy socks'.
The site in question - nowthatsfuckedup.com - has been up and down all week under the strain of the attention, even though many news sources chose not to mention the actual URL. The site was set up a year ago as a sort of Readers' Wives exchange for amateur porn, by Floridian twenty-something Chris Wilson. It was a big hit with US soldiers stationed overseas, but they found it difficult to buy membership to access the whole site, what with credit card companies considering them high-risk. So Wilson made them an offer - send us your pics of life in Iraq or Afghanistan, and get free membership. The pictures flooded in. Some were humdrum, some were extremely graphic. Wilson set up a section of the site specifically for these last, sensibly entitled 'Pictures from Iraq and Afghanistan: Gory'. Soldiers posted pictures of mangled bodies, sometimes with themselves in shot grinning and pointing.They made comments such as 'this is what every Iraqi should look like' and 'DIE HAJI DIE', augmented by animated emoticons firing guns and sticking up fingers. Then there was the odd surprisingly calm and reasoned debate about what the hellthis shit said about people and America and war. A couple of months later some bold media outposts picked it up, others tentatively followed (at a delay suggestive of an almighty squeamishness and reluctance), and now here we are in the eye of the 'gore-for-porn' scandal.
It's almost too perfect, news-wise - all of human nastiness is there. The inevitably tossed-around idea that the soldiers are bypassing the wife/girlf pictures in order to furiously wank over high-definition brain leakage can be pretty much discarded on a literal level. But figuratively, it just won't quit; there's a similar air of gloating celebration to the comments on the naked and dead as there is to the comments on the merely naked. One picture segues the two; a woman with legs splayed, only with one mostly destroyed by a toe-popper landmine, with the caption 'Nice puss, bad foot'. It's as brutal and blunt as a rifle butt in your eye; sex and violence so intimate you couldn't get a premium content access credit card between them.
Questions are now being asked at the highest levels, if only for the sake of showing the populace that 'questions are now being asked'. At the lowest levels you can find all the answers you like. A swamp of wearying analysis has quickly coagulated on blogs and messageboards, most unable to see beyond the horrendousness of the idea, let alone the horrendousness of theactual pictures. These images are beyond potent - they're like pixellated damnation. Considering ourselves already pretty much damned, we gathered our faculties and looked. And yes, they areunspeakable. It's a parade of objects that you can hardly believe were once parts of living people, and of people you can hardly believe aren't about to get up and walk away. It's impossible to remain unaffected, unquestioning. It jolts you in a way that none of the droning news reports - bus bomb, 20 killed, car bomb, 30 killed - can get close to.
The question then is whether or not it *matters* that we're jolted, whether it's necessary, whether there's any point. Few fail to grasp that war on a day-to-day basis is sickening beyond words. Also, few liberals consider US soldiers to be anything more than pumped-up thug-morons, drunk on blinkered patriotism, jostling each other like jocks on a football field and shooting anything Muslim-looking. This is where the site may do the US military a backhanded favour - after the initial appalled anger at the offhand 'wow that's one crispy Haji' commentary, you start to consider that perhaps this is the only way to deal with such horrors when you are implicated in them. An inquiring mind is not much use to a dork with a big gun in a war zone. Indeed, one day science may prove that the human brain saves itself, maintains sanity, by automatically switching to 'awful humour' mode when subjected to excessive and prolonged horror. It's not just dumbass gun-toters - doctors doubtless have a similar mindset, make the kind of jokes that could get them struck off if overheard. On an individual basis then, it is tempting to think 'well, who could blame them?'
But then you realise there isn't *any* excuse, not for this, and that there's the small matter of the Geneva Convention, which states that enemy dead must be respected; and even if the behaviour of individual members of a country's military can at least be understood if not condoned, the country and the military must still be held accountable. The implications of sending a nationalistic, desensitised, binary-minded bunch of boys into a country have to be addressed; so do the implications of keeping them there, when the country is wounded and the patching-up job is manifestly so far beyond them it's almost funny. Almost.
Ultimately, all NTFU has done is make a wad for a canny, morally-lobotomised website owner; allow some grunts to blow off some steam; confirm a lot of suspicions about the attitudes of the American military; and perpetuate the Iraqis' sense of maltreatment. Which in turn will nudge more of them towards insurgency. We could hope that the whole thing has gone an inch towards embarrassing the US government into facing up to the real problems and dealing with them, but that too is almost funny. Mostly, it just means a lot of people will look and be sickened - by the pictures, as well as by the fact that they've had to visit a porn site to see the truth of Iraq - and that is all. No silver
lining. A gory dead end. A judge has ruled that pictures of prisoners being humiliated should be made public for the greater good, but this is a whole other kettle of dead people.