Illustration by Lance Page (Photo:

A US soldier who served in Afghanistan released photos to the Los Angeles Times which show American troops posing with the mangled corpses of insurgents or suicide bombers. The photos are not the first to show soldiers posing with dead bodies as if they were trophies; in fact, a spokesman for the Pentagon says these photos are “more than two years old.”

The LA Times reports on why a soldier decided to send photos to the news organization:

The soldier who provided The Times with a series of 18 photos of soldiers posing with corpses did so on condition of anonymity. He served in Afghanistan with the 82nd Airborne’s 4th Brigade Combat Team from Ft. Bragg, N.C. He said the photos point to a breakdown in leadership and discipline that he believed compromised the safety of the troops.

He expressed the hope that publication would help ensure that alleged security shortcomings at two U.S. bases in Afghanistan in 2010 were not repeated. The brigade, under new command but with some of the same paratroopers who served in 2010, began another tour in Afghanistan in February. [emphasis added]

Just as Lt. Col. Daniel Davis released a report on the Afghanistan War and how the reality on the ground does not match what military officers are saying publicly, the soldier appears to be concerned about the health of the US military. The soldier claims to be motivated by a genuine belief that making these photos public will help improve the military by forcing it to reform.

Here are a couple of the grotesque examples depicted in the photos and described in the LA Times report:

The 82nd Airborne Division soldiers arrived at the police station in Afghanistan’s Zabol province in February 2010. They inspected the body parts. Then the mission turned macabre: The paratroopers posed for photos next to Afghan police, grinning while some held — and others squatted beside — the corpse’s severed legs.

A few months later, the same platoon was dispatched to investigate the remains of three insurgents who Afghan police said had accidentally blown themselves up. After obtaining a few fingerprints, they posed next to the remains, again grinning and mugging for photographs.

Two soldiers posed holding a dead man’s hand with the middle finger raised. A soldier leaned over the bearded corpse while clutching the man’s hand. Someone placed an unofficial platoon patch reading “Zombie Hunter” next to other remains and took a picture.

Not surprisingly, US military officials requested the LA Times not publish the photos. Pentagon spokesman Capt. John Kirby suggested the conduct “does not represent the character and the professionalism of the great majority of our troops in Afghanistan.” Nonetheless, the “imagery—more than two years old—now has the  potential to indict them all in the minds of local Afghans, inciting violence and perhaps causing needless casualties.”

Kirby’s statement is, of course, routine. Any time someone brings transparency to depravity in the military the Pentagon hypes up some fear that casualties will escalate. And, it may be true the photos were taken years ago, but the release of the photos by the soldier suggests this ritual of taking pictures of yourself with the body parts of corpses like they are trophies continues in Afghanistan, and the soldier who blew the whistle is concerned.

In 2011, photos of a “kill team” in Afghanistan garnered attention. The “team” consisted of at least five soldiers that went around killing innocent civilians. They were found to have committed the war crimes between January and May 2010. They took photos of themselves as they stood over those they had killed, and they even took bones and severed fingers as “mementos,” according to the German news organization SPIEGEL. And, of course, the world knows that US soldiers sadistically posed detainees at Abu Ghraib prison in Iraq.

Ethan McCord, an Iraq War veteran who can be seen in the “Collateral Murder” video released by WikiLeaks, published photos and videos in October 2010 of soldiers in Iraq abusing detainees mentally and emotionally. They were dehumanizing them, but it wasn’t violent abuse. It was another degrading type of abuse that McCord felt needed to get more attention. He explained to me in an interview why he chose to go public with the photos and videos.

MCCORD: When I was in Iraq, I was witnessing these things happening. I was watching good men become somewhat of animals. And the dehumanization that was taking place in Iraq, of the people of Iraq, it was sickening. You know, again, it begins in basic training. You learn to despise these people, to hate them. And, you know I released these videos for the simple fact that I believe that every person should see what happens in war. The only way we are going to stop war is if people have to live it, if they have to see it thrown in their face—Just like the Afghanistan “Kill Teams.”

I believe everybody should look at those pictures. Everybody. Because, for too many people, the war is so far away and so distant that they go on about their normal lives and they don’t care about what’s going on over there. It doesn’t affect them. But, if you’re children are seeing these pictures and you’re looking at these pictures and you’re not feeling anything, then there’s something seriously wrong with you. You have to feel some kind of anger, remorse for what’s happening to these people.

McCord added, “Not only are you going to have to deal with the people who you serve with calling you a traitor and a piece of crap and everything else you know, you’re going to have to go through court-martials cause they can say that anything is classified.”

Just like the soldier accused of releasing classified information to WikiLeaks, Pfc. Bradley Manning, was taught in training, the soldier who released photos was probably told to not post photos, videos or any information on discussion boards, chat rooms or social networking sites where, as I write in the book I co-authored with Greg Mitchell on Manning, “information security” would be violated. He was probably told at some point to “avoid public conversations” or “talking to journalists” too.

US-Afghan relations have been devastated by video of US Marines urinating on corpses in Afghanistan that surfaced in January, the burning of Korans in February and a massacre of civilians by a US Army sergeant (and possibly others) in March. A “criminal investigation” into the photos has been launched, according to the LA Times report, but, given the fact that the Pentagon publicly believes these photos are a public relations issue, the military is likely to address most of this issue internally and secretly.

It is entirely possible the soldier who released the photos faces retaliation for blowing the whistle. He is lower in rank than someone like Lt. Col. Daniel Davis. The military is likely to at least privately scold the soldier. (Although, given that these are photos of soldiers with insurgents or suicide bombers, a group of people may not criticize the soldier because these are “terrorists” and taking macabre photos with them is part of the glory of war.)

Finally, the soldier’s motivation for sharing the photos with media may be limited to improving the military, but it should be noted that the soldier put the war in Afghanistan in the news again. A clear majority of Americans now want this war to end. If the US really wants to stop inflaming or offending Afghans, it can withdraw troops from Afghanistan and end a decade-long occupation that has transformed a country into a theater of war, which has brought horror to many in Afghanistan.

Kevin Gosztola

Kevin Gosztola

Kevin Gosztola is managing editor of Shadowproof. He also produces and co-hosts the weekly podcast, "Unauthorized Disclosure."