The Appeal--and Danger--of War Porn

The video isn’t quite clear. Three Iraqis stand in a field, unaware that a U.S. Apache helicopter is eyeing them from afar. Two of the men are handling what looks like a weapon, but there’s no time to check. The Apache pilot gets an order: hit them. The 30mm bullets go clack-clack-clack. “Got [one],” says the pilot. “Good, hit the other one,” says a voice on the radio. Clack-clack-clack. No. 2 goes down. The third man tries to hide behind a truck as bullets slam into the vehicle. After a few seconds a figure crawls into the open. “He’s wounded,” says the pilot. “Hit him [again],” says the voice. Clack-clack-clack. When the dust settles, the third man is dead.

Some 7,000 miles away, Nate J. sat in front of his computer, mesmerized by these images. It was 2006, and Nate, who owns a decal company, got his first taste of what soldiers and scholars call war porn. Although he’s never been a soldier, Nate loves all things military. But this was better than anything he’d seen on the Military Channel. “I was just like ‘Wow,’ ” he recalls. “ ‘I have to find more.’ ”

That was easy enough. Although the recently released footage of U.S. Apache helicopters gunning down two Reuters journalists appalled many, similar war videos are plentiful on Web sites like GotWarPorn.com and YouTube. Nate, who asked NEWSWEEK not to use his last name because he’s received death threats, has uploaded more than 800 to his own channel on LiveLeak.com and other sites.

When the Afghanistan and Iraq conflicts broke out, the military officially released some of the raw combat footage now on the Internet to build a stronger bond between the home front and the battlefield. Soldiers also took their own videos or pulled them from cameras on military systems like Predator drones. But almost as soon as these images became available, civilians and soldiers alike started splicing the clips together, often adding soundtracks and spreading them across the Web. Today there are thousands of war-porn videos, and they’ve been viewed millions of times. Like sexual porn, they come in degrees of violence, ranging from soft-core montages of rocket-propelled grenades blowing up buildings to snuff-film-like shots of an insurgent taking a bullet to the head. And even as the U.S. begins its march toward the end of two long conflicts, these compilations continue to attract viewers. With a videogame sensibility, they fetishize—and warp—the most brutal parts of these high-tech wars.

Historically, combat images have been captured and disseminated by a handful of professionals, such as the photographers Mathew Brady during the Civil War and Robert Capa during World War II. Now the immediacy of the Internet, coupled with the spread of cheap video technology, allows anyone to document war as they see it. “There’s a new order,” says James Der Derian, a professor at Brown University’s Watson Institute for International Studies. “Unlike the photograph, the moving image creates a feeling that it more accurately depicts what it is representing, whether it does or not.”

Academics date the origins of war porn to the scandalous images from Abu Ghraib Prison, in which Iraqi prisoners were stacked on top of each other to form naked pyramids, forced to simulate sexual acts, or otherwise abused. The snapshot of Pvt. Lynndie England holding a naked prisoner by a leash became an iconic representation of the war. The acts were born of an aimless power and a pornographic sensibility, argued the French social theorist Jean Baudrillard, who defined this form of “war porn” in a 2004 essay in the French newspaper Libération.

After Abu Ghraib the floodgates burst, with U.S. soldiers even trading war porn for real porn. Chris Wilson was running a user-generated porn site when he started getting requests for sexual material from soldiers in both war zones. But when paying via credit card proved problematic, Wilson let them swap war footage for access to the site’s sexual content. The first images he received were fairly tame. But as the Iraq War took a turn for the worse in late 2004, the photos and footage got bloodier and included shots of headless corpses and body parts like intestines, brains, and what appeared to be limbs. By 2005, Wilson had an estimated 30,000 U.S. military personnel as members. “It was a view of war that had never been seen,” he says.

Eventually the Office of the State Attorney in Polk County, Fla., charged Wilson with 300 obscenity-related misdemeanor counts and one felony count. A Pentagon investigation into the war footage on his site led to no charges against him or military members. (The Department of Defense says it is against its policy to show “recognizable photos of wounded or captured enemy.” The Marines, Air Force, and Navy haven’t prosecuted anyone for such posts; the Army says it has no way to track this.) Wilson did plead no contest to five of the misdemeanor charges; he served no time, but his site was shut down. He believes that decision had more to do with the war porn than the sexual content. “If you’re curious, and you’re an adult, and you live in a free country, there should be no reason why you can’t look at this stuff,” he says. “I don’t think there’s any harm in it.”

Critics disagree. The videos, after all, depict attacks only on enemy combatants and civilians—never American troops. (In many ways they’re strikingly similar to jihadist propaganda.) Aside from providing a one-sided perspective of conflict, war porn soft-pedals the horrors of battle. “People watching it on their iPhone or on their home computer don’t generally do it for the information; they do it because it’s entertainment,” says P. W. Singer, author of Wired for War. “That’s the porn part of it. The soldiers use the word because they know there’s something wrong with it.”

What gets lost in the highlight reels of explosions and bodies is the moral complexity of war, says Bryant Paul, an expert on the psychological and sexual effects of media. He points to a video of American soldiers making fun of a dog eating a dead Iraqi. “The behavior may be a coping mechanism for war, because they might have to normalize what is not normal in order to survive,” he says. “But the people who watch this stuff can’t know that, so they can’t understand the entirety of what they’re seeing.”

Yet these images will perpetuate a particular version of these wars, says Paul. It is a version that does not treat the enemy as human, or life as valuable. It is a version that does not recognize the pain of some of the U.S. soldiers who pull the trigger. And as realistic as these videos might seem, they do not show war for what it actually is: terrifyingly real.

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