Editor’s Note: We posted a version of this story online on September 21 and updated it for our 9/28 print and online editions, in which it appeared as Chris Thompson’s “City of Warts” column. This is the most up-to-date version.
If you want to see the true face of war, go to the amateur porn Web site NowThatsFuckedUp.com. For almost a year, American soldiers stationed in Iraq and Afghanistan have been taking photographs of dead bodies, many of them horribly mutilated or blown to pieces, and sending them to Web site administrator Chris Wilson. In return for permission to post these images, Wilson gives the soldiers free access to his site. American soldiers have been using the pictures of disfigured Iraqi corpses as currency to buy pornography.
At Wilson’s Web site, you can see an Arab man’s face sliced off and placed in a bowl filled with blood. Another man’s head, his face crusted with dried blood and powder burns, lies on a bed of gravel. A man in a leather coat who apparently tried to run a military checkpoint lies slumped in the driver’s seat of a car, his head obliterated by gunfire, the flaps of skin from his neck blooming open like rose petals. Six men in beige fatigues, identified as US Marines, laugh and smile for the camera while pointing at a burned, charcoal-black corpse lying at their feet.
The captions that accompany these images, which were apparently written by soldiers who posted them, laugh and gloat over the bodies. The person who posted a picture of a corpse lying in a pool of his own brains and entrails wrote, “What every Iraqi should look like.” The photograph of a corpse whose jaw has apparently rotted away, leaving a gaping set of upper teeth, bears the caption “bad day for this dude.” One person posted three photographs of corpses lying in the street and titled his collection “DIE HAJI DIE.”
This could become an international public-relations catastrophe. The Bush administration claims such sympathy for American war dead that officials banned the media from photographing flag-draped coffins being carried off cargo planes. Government officials and American media pundits have repeatedly denounced the al-Jazeera network for airing grisly footage of Iraqi war casualties and American prisoners of war. The legal fight over whether to release the remaining photographs of atrocities at Abu Ghraib has dragged on for months, with Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Richard Meyers arguing that the release of such images will inflame the Muslim world and drive untold numbers to join al-Qaeda. But none of these can compare with the prospect of American troops casually bartering pictures of suffering and death for porn.
“Two years ago, if somebody had said our soldiers would do these things to detainees and take pictures of it, I would have said that’s a lie,” sighed recently retired General Michael Marchand, who as assistant judge advocate general for the Army was responsible for reforming military training policy in the wake of Abu Ghraib. “What soldiers do, I’m not sure I can guess anymore.”
But for Chris Wilson, it’s all in a day’s work. “It’s an unedited look at the war from their point of view,” he says of the soldiers who contribute the images. “There’s always going to be a slant from the news media. … And this is a photo that comes straight from their camera to the site. To me, it’s just a more real look at what’s going on.”
Wilson, a 27-year-old Web entrepreneur living in Florida, created the site a year ago, asked fans to contribute pictures of their wives and girlfriends, and posted footage and photographs bearing titles such as “wife working cock” and “ass fucking my wife on the stairs.” The site was a big hit with soldiers stationed overseas; about a third of his customers, Wilson estimates, or more than fifty thousand people, work in the military. Wilson says soldiers began e-mailing him, thanking him for keeping up their morale and “bringing a little piece of the States to them.” But other soldiers complained that they had problems buying memberships to his service. “They wanted to join the site, the amateur wife and girlfriend site,” he says. “But they couldn’t, because the addresses associated with their credit cards were Quackistan or something; they were in such a high-risk country that the credit card companies wouldn’t approve the purchase.”
That was when Wilson hit upon the idea of offering free memberships to soldiers. All they had to do was send a picture of life in Iraq or Afghanistan, and they’d get all the free porn they wanted. All sorts of images began appearing over the transom, but he dedicated a free section of the site to the most “gory” pictures. Asked what he feels upon viewing a new batch, Wilson says: “Personally, I don’t look at it one way or another. It’s newsworthy, and people can form their own opinions.”
One person claiming to be a soldier, who would not reveal his name or unit, defended his decision to post pictures of the dead, which he says he did after returning from a tour of duty. “I had just finished watching the beheading of one of our contractors that was taken hostage over in Iraq,” he said via e-mail. “I figured since that was all over the Web, maybe these pictures would make some potential suicide bomber think twice after seeing what happens AFTER you pull the pin.
“What you interpret [as] maliciousness and bravado may be how [soldiers] react to situations where they almost die or they just saw their buddy get killed,” he continued. “I will not defend the people who have posted pictures of dead, innocent Iraqis, but in my opinion, the insurgents/terrorists that try to kill us and end up getting killed in return have absolutely no rights once they are dead.
“Obviously these postings do not help our public image at all,” the soldier concluded. “However, I believe the US has been far too concerned about our public image as of late. … We need to take a much harsher stand against these Islamic fundamentalists and stop giving them the royal American treatment. They need to be taught a lesson, a lesson hard enough that they will think twice before waging a jihad against us.”
Wilson’s Web site has made the news before – but not for posting pictures of murdered people. Last October, the New York Post reported that the Pentagon was investigating him for posting naked pictures of female soldiers in Iraq. After a few months, the Post reported that the Pentagon had blocked access to the site from US military facilities in Iraq. In the wake of the Post‘s stories, Wilson says, he was bombarded with requests for interviews from newspapers and radio stations. Even after he began posting photographs of corpses late last year, media inquiries focused exclusively on his nudie pics. It wasn’t until reporters from the European press contacted him in early September that anyone took notice of Wilson’s snuff-for-porn arrangement with American troops.
“The soldiers thing, I think the Italians picked it up first,” Wilson says. “I’ve done interviews with the Italians, the French, Amsterdam. … They were very critical, saying the US wouldn’t pick it up, because it’s such a sore spot. … It raises too many ethical questions. … I started to laugh, because it’s true.”
When contacted for this story, a White House spokeswoman said, “If we have a comment, we’ll call you back.” They never did. But according to Defense Department spokesman Lieutenant Colonel Chris Conway, Pentagon policy may be ambivalent when it comes to soldiers posting pictures of mutilated war victims. “There are policies in place that, on the one hand, safeguard sensitive and classified information, and on the other hand protect the First Amendment rights of service members,” he says, adding that field commanders may issue additional directives. “In plain English, if you’re on the job working for the Department of Defense, you shouldn’t be freelancing. You should be doing your duty.”
If American soldiers in the field are always considered representatives of their government, international law clearly prohibits publishing and ridiculing images of war dead. The First Protocol of the Geneva Conventions states that “the remains of persons who have died for reasons related to occupation or in detention resulting from occupation or hostilities … shall be respected, and the gravesites of all such persons shall be respected, maintained, and marked.” The first Geneva Convention also requires that military personnel “shall further ensure that the dead are honorably interred, if possible according to the rites of the religion to which they belonged.”
According to Army spokesman Paul Boyce, this prohibition “applies to prisoners in a prisoner of war camp scenario, not photographs of people on the street.” In late September, Army investigators conducted a preliminary inquiry into the matter, but failed to determine who took the photos, or whether any felonies were committed in their posting. On September 28, investigators suspended their inquiry, outraging representatives of the Council for American-Islamic Relations, who had demanded an investigation after reading an earlier version of this story online. The national press, which was slow to pick up the initial story, also appears to have lost interest.
No one can reasonably expect a war without war crimes. But thanks to modern communications technology, photographic evidence of its brutality will always be with us. Roughly two hundred soldiers in Iraq and Afghanistan document their experiences in online “milblogs,” and digital cameras are ubiquitous. No one can stop soldiers from posting pictures of eviscerated corpses for all to see, and no one should ever again be able to feign ignorance of war’s human cost.
Americans have thousands of media outlets to choose from. But they still have to visit a porn site to see what this war has done to the bodies of the dead and the souls of the living. One of the pictures on Wilson’s site depicts a woman whose right leg has been torn off by a land mine, and a medical worker is holding the mangled stump up to the camera. The woman’s vagina is visible under the hem of her skirt. The caption for this picture reads: “Nice puss – bad foot.”
We have decided to make available some of the photos originally posted on NowThatsFuckedUp.com, along with the soldiers’ original subject headings. This decision was not made lightly, but we concluded that the graphic nature of the photos, juxtaposed with their flippant treatment by members of the US military, is newsworthy. WARNING: These are brutally graphic war images that many readers will find disturbing. They should NOT be viewed by children or the faint of heart. That said, you may find them here. Click on the small photos to view the larger photos with captions.