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Posted by?Seymour M. Hersh

The New Yorker

  • 110328_soldier-corpse-one_p465.jpgLa Mohammed Kalay, Afghanistan, 2010.
  • harman1.jpgAbu Ghraib, Iraq, 2003.
  • my_lai_soldiers.pngSoldiers rest just after the My Lai massacre, 1968.
  • My_Lai_massacre.jpgMy Lai 4, Vietnam, 1968.

It?s the smile. In photographs?released by the German weekly?Der Spiegel, an American soldier is looking directly at the camera with a wide grin. His hand is on the body of an Afghan whom he and his fellow soldiers appear to have just killed, allegedly for sport. In a sense, we?ve seen that smile before: on the faces of the American men and women who piled naked Iraqi prisoners on top of each other, eight years ago, and posed for photographs and videos?at the Abu Ghraib prison outside of Baghdad.
It?s also the cameras.?Der Spiegel reported this week that it had obtained four thousand photographs and videos taken by American soldiers who referred to themselves as a ?kill team.? (Der Spiegel chose to publish only three of the photographs.) The images are in the hands of military prosecutors. Five soldiers, including Jeremy Morlock, the smiling man in the picture, who is twenty-two years old, are awaiting courts-martial for the murder of three Afghan civilians; seven other soldiers had lesser, related charges filed against them, including drug use. On Tuesday, Morlock?s lawyer said that he would plead guilty.

We saw photographs, too,?at My Lai 4, where a few dozen American soldiers slaughtered at least five hundred South Vietnamese mothers, children, and old men and women in a long morning of unforgettable carnage more than four decades ago. Ronald Haeberle, an Army photographer, was there that day with two cameras. He directed the lens of his official one, with black-and-white film in it, away from the worst sights; there is a shot of soldiers with faint smiles on their faces, leaning back in relaxed poses, and no sign of the massacre that has taken place. But the color photos that Haeberle took on his personal camera, for his own use, were far more explicit?they show the shot-up bodies of toddlers, and became some of the most unforgettable images of that wasteful war. In most of these cases, when we later meet these soldiers, in interviews or during court proceedings, they come across as American kids?articulate, personable, and likable.
Why photograph atrocities? And why pass them around to buddies back home or fellow soldiers in other units? How could the soldiers? sense of what is unacceptable be so lost? No outsider can have a complete answer to such a question. As someone who has been writing about war crimes since My Lai, though, I have come to have a personal belief: these soldiers had come to accept the killing of civilians?recklessly, as payback, or just at random?as a facet of modern unconventional warfare. In other words, killing itself, whether in a firefight with the Taliban or in sport with innocent bystanders in a strange land with a strange language and strange customs, has become ordinary. In long, unsuccessful wars, in which the enemy?the people trying to kill you?do not wear uniforms and are seldom seen, soldiers can lose their bearings, moral and otherwise. The consequences of that lost bearing can be hideous. This is part of the toll wars take on the young people we send to fight them for us. The G.I.s in Afghanistan were responsible for their actions, of course. But it must be said that, in some cases, surely, as in Vietnam, the soldiers can also be victims.
The?Der Spiegel photographs also help to explain why the American war in Afghanistan can probably never be ?won,? in my view, just as we did not win in Vietnam. Terrible things happen in war, and terrible things are happening every day in Afghanistan, as Americans continue to conduct nightly assassination raids and have escalated the number of bombing sorties. There are also reports of suspected Taliban sympathizers we turn over to Afghan police and soldiers being tortured or worse. This will be a long haul; revenge in Afghan society does not have to come immediately. We could end up not knowing who hit us, or why, a decade or two from now.

Author: Shahidul Alam

Time Magazine Person of the Year 2018. A photographer, writer, curator and activist, Shahidul Alam obtained a PhD in chemistry before switching to photography. His seminal work “The Struggle for Democracy” contributed to the removal of General Ershad. Former president of the Bangladesh Photographic Society, Alam set up the Drik agency, Chobi Mela festival and Pathshala, South Asian Media Institute, considered one of the finest schools of photography in the world. Shown in MOMA New York, Centre Georges Pompidou, Royal Albert Hall and Tate Modern, Alam has been guest curator of Whitechapel Gallery, Winterthur Gallery and Musee de Quai Branly. His awards include Mother Jones, Shilpakala Award and Lifetime Achievement Award at the Dali International Festival of Photography. Speaker at Harvard, Stanford, UCLA, Oxford and Cambridge universities, TEDx, POPTech and National Geographic, Alam chaired the international jury of the prestigious World Press Photo contest. Honorary Fellow of Royal Photographic Society, Alam is visiting professor of Sunderland University in UK and advisory board member of National Geographic Society. John Morris, the former picture editor of Life Magazine describes his book “My journey as a witness”, (listed in “Best Photo Books of 2011” by American Photo), as “The most important book ever written by a photographer.”


  1. Adding the comments on the New Yorker Blog:
    “This is part of the toll wars take on the young people we send to fight them for us.” Clearly there are millions of ways to cope with the realities of war (at least one for every soldier), and it’s equally clear that the kill-for-sport-and-pose-for-a-laugh method is reprehensible and hardly ubiquitous. But that quote above is still the one that will stick with me after reading this piece. We send, they fight. You can try to “stay decent” in war (as most soldiers do and succeed); but at the core of it, war is the indecency.
    Posted 3/23/2011, 6:02:11am by JO_MARCH
    There is no point in trying to explain the actions of these killers. These are simply evil acts, pure and simple, just like the actions of the 9/11 bombers. The only difference between these killers (luckily who are very few and far between) and the al qaeda goons who videotape their beheading is that the former ironically wears a uniform that is supposed to represent civil society and freedom.
    Posted 3/23/2011, 1:10:51am by g_man
    Just thought I’d add something for Mr. Hersh. You interviewed me and several of my Vietnam Veterans Against the War buddies in 1971, I think it was. I’ve been following your writing ever since. Thanks for keeping the world aware.
    Posted 3/22/2011, 11:15:35pm by capnjack
    Thank you for your insight, Mr. Hersh. It is invaluable, as always. We are, as you rightly pointed out, revisiting this sad episode again, represented once more in trophy photos. Yet I wonder how many more of these stories haven’t been revealed, or seriously explored in the public domain, precise because they lack a photographic impact. I was reflecting on this sad state when I read the book None of Us Were Like This Before – – which examines many of the same group dynamics that led to abuse, and the last effects of torture that is meted out on the prisoners as well as the soldiers. It is a book that is well worth reflecting on as this story emerges into public light. And the enduring theme about the residual effects of this abusive violence (some would say atrocity) are well worth considering as well. We will inherit this violence, in one sad form or another.
    Posted 3/22/2011, 9:43:08pm by BA492
    This is the new normal. Endless war, endless brutality, and the combatants on the frontlines are reduced to killing machines who, if among the lucky, come home with only mental scars. There is no answer, sadly. The century will be consumed by this. Better to admit it and move forward with that out there than to exclaim, “How shocking!” A century ago, war was much more brutal. Everyone involved wasn’t carrying a freakin camera in their back pocket, though. So to this latest round, bring those soldiers home and get them psychiatric care & counseling. Quick.
    Posted 3/22/2011, 8:25:51pm by dwaynemembrane
    I do not wish to justify or excuse the dehumanizing of civilians, or enemy combatants. But those who have never seen combat can never understand how it can warp the most basic human sensibilities. Maintenance of sanity, or near sanity, can encourage the acceptance of behaviors far from the norm. I doubt that I am the only veteran who remembers doing things, laughing at things, which would have horrified our non-serving peers. And the recollection of which horrifies us decades later.
    Posted 3/22/2011, 7:39:45pm by capnjack
    @KALINAH Are all these soldiers really professional? At least in the case of My Lai, with 16 yo. draft recruits? And are all these young men and women joining the infantry today really professionals, or are they–at least some of them–just in it for the kicks in the first place? “War. War never changes.” -Fallout II opening video.
    Posted 3/22/2011, 7:07:15pm by lemi4
    If Mr. Morlock had been blown up by an IED between then and now would he have been hailed as “an American hero?” With 4,000 of these photographs added to Abu Ghraib, how are we not to believe that such behavior is an aberration?
    Posted 3/22/2011, 6:04:02pm by AnneRhys
    “But it must be said that, in some cases, surely, as in Vietnam, the soldiers can also be victims.” Must it really? I find it incredibly tacky. Here we have a picture of a professional soldier who has just killed an innocent person needlessly, neither in defence of his country nor in defence of his life. Must this article really concern itself with his victimhood? Have some perspective. These victims you speak of have been tasked with hacking down Afghani civilians. And they pose for pictures with the corpses. I find it hard to sympathise.
    Posted 3/22/2011, 5:58:28pm by kalinah
    @CHRISTIANS: Interesting how you wrote “those soldiers *who try to stay decent* in war.” The whole concept of war is “dark ages.” That’s the point, isn’t it? Go out and slaughter thousands of people, but oh, be SURE to be a gentleman while you do it. btw, I didn’t say “all” soldiers behave this way, just some of them, and no I’m not condoning it, I’m saying we shouldn’t be shocked when the media splashes horrific images of war all over the place. Maybe these barbaric images will make the men who wage wars stop and think about what they are doing.
    Posted 3/22/2011, 4:43:05pm by venmans
    Mr Venmans – how insulting your comment must sound to all those soldiers who try to stay decent in wars and who don’t go about slaughtering the civilian population with a grin on their face. This is NOT the “only way” soldiers can handle war, otherwise this would be “normal”. It’s not, it’s a CRIME. If you keep lowering standards about murder and torture in the US, your country is indeed only one step away from the Dark Ages.
    Posted 3/22/2011, 4:14:00pm by ChristianS
    Of course the civilian population will be aghast and horrified at these photographs. This is war, and while their behavior is horrific to most people it’s probably the soldiers only way of dealing with a situation they have been put into, and that is to kill the enemy. When has war ever been pretty? In Europe they used to nail the enemies’ heads to the city gates for all to see. War hasn’t changed, but the way we document it has.
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