London -- Saturday August 12 2006
The US army announced on Wednesday that it had arrested four Iraqis in connection with the abduction of the journalist Jill Carroll this year. Before she was released in March, Carroll had been filmed weeping and pleading for her life, in a series of straight-to-internet productions posted by her captors.
A week before, the same army took the unusual step of demanding that its soldiers stop posting video clips on the web. And with good reason - last year, a minor scandal broke when it emerged that GIs were sending pictures of dead Iraqis to a website called Nowthatsfuckedup.com in exchange for naked pictures of other people's girlfriends.
Little wonder, then, that the military men should be getting hot under the collar. Quietly, via the vast panoply of cables and copper wires that make up the world wide web, and under the noses of the broadcast media, sites such as MySpace and YouTube are becoming the repository for gruesome images of war shot by American soldiers in Iraq and Afghanistan.
The traffic in gory pictures is in both directions. Specialist sites such as Ogrish use sophisticated programs to monitor extremist jihadi websites to provide their customers with a vast supermarket of images of death and dismemberment; at their most brutal, these clips show carefully choreographed execution videos such as that made of Ken Bigley. Most of us would rather not see such things, but many are taking a sneaky peek while no one else is around. On an average day, Ogrish claims to receive between 125,000 and 200,000 unique hits on its website; on a major news day, that can rise to 250,000.
What are we to make of this new battle over images? Fifteen years ago, the French social theorist Jean Baudrillard argued - with his tongue partly in his cheek - that the first Gulf war did not really exist but was a mirage conjured up by the broadcast media. More recently, in his 2004 essay War Porn, Baudrillard drew attention to the way in which the garishly explicit images of barbarity arriving from Iraq borrowed from the aesthetics and production values of modern porn.
The posing of Iraqi inmates for those famous pictures in Abu Ghraib prison, he pointed out, shot on digital camera and originally intended only for private distribution, smacked of a kind of specialist, niche pornography. The photos, he argued, constituted "the degradation, atrocious but banal, not only of the victims, but of the amateur scriptwriters of this parody of violence". There was no longer any need to "embed" journalists in armies, declared Baudrillard, because the soldiers themselves have become so immersed in the media war. "Due to their omnipresence, due to the prevailing rule of the world of making everything visible," he intoned gravely, "the images, our present-day images, have become substantially pornographic."
War porn is designed not to titillate, but to humiliate its victims and horrify its audience. Like pornography, its producers heighten their sense of reality by videoing themselves in the act, while its audience does the same by ogling the videos. Grotesque new horror film franchises such as Hostel and Saw might be movies imitating war porn, which in turn has been inspired by movies. If the previous Gulf war seemed to exist only as a television spectacle, the new Iraq war can claim to be the first war fought by protagonists armed with digital cameras and access to the web. If the first existed only as a media-generated fantasy, this new one looks more like a pornographic nightmare.