Dec 5, 2013
The Abu Ghraib Photos You Haven’t Seen
Posted on Apr 22, 2011
By Nick Turse
And sometimes we’re just left wondering. A large part of the book consists of pictures from one mass-casualty situation. Bloody shots. Gory shots. Shots of medical professionals moving with rapidity. “ ‘Holy shit. Is this really happening?’ So I just snapped pictures,” he writes in the midst of the morbid montage. Picture after picture. Pictures of parts of humans turned into chop meat. Unidentifiable bits of bodies torn open. Why is a nurse taking pictures through all of this? we’re left to wonder. Why, at one point, does Sharbonno even pick up someone else’s camera and start taking pictures with it? Why isn’t he doing something medical? If the emergency room tent is filled to capacity with staff, why is he there potentially getting in the way? And if he isn’t in the way, why isn’t he lending a hand? But then, if we look closely, we notice Sharbonno is apparently in some of the photos. (We can tell by his name tape on the back pocket of his pants.) So he was apparently lending a hand. Then who took these photos? Maybe someday Sharbonno will sort all of this out for us, but in this book he doesn’t. It’s another blank spot, but what we can be sure of is that if he hadn’t documented the mass-casualty event, then it would be one big blank. We’d probably never know what it was like to be inside that tent and see the things Sharbonno saw, so we’re lucky he was playing photographer and not nurse for at least part of the time. We’re luckier still that Haller provided a means to get those pictures into our hands.
In addition to grisly, mundane and inexplicable photos, sometimes there’s a repetitive photo, one that seemingly stands in for missing images. Over and over we see a shot of weapons laid out in precise formation alongside neatly stacked ammunition. Most belonged to Marines killed on an operation not far from Abu Ghraib and their fellow Marines who stood guard over their bodies, while a few weapons were taken from Iraqis who killed those Americans. After we’ve gotten through looking at Iraqi bodies that have been turned inside out —gruesome shots of wounded, dying and dead detainees—we repeatedly see this tasteful photo of weapons that seem to stand in for dead Marines. It wasn’t that Sharbonno didn’t have access and opportunity to take pictures of the dead Marines—he covered their body bags with ice all through the night—but for whatever reason he didn’t. Why not? We can speculate, but in the end we’re left to wonder why their bodies remain out of sight when so many Iraqis’ bodies don’t. These questions lurk throughout the book, and far from being a shortcoming, they are what gives the book its ultimate power. Countless questions about the Iraq War still remain to be asked, let alone answered. Haller and Sharbonno’s book helps to give voice to so many of them.
“These aren’t the photos we’re likely to find in grandma’s photo album 50 years from now. But it would be nice if they could just sit somewhere like that,” Sharbonno writes in the latter part of the book and then repeats it almost verbatim closer to the end. The sentence clicked for me on a lot of levels. In recent years, some Vietnam veterans have gone out to the backyard to burn the photo album or the shoebox of images that they don’t want their kids to find after they die—pictures of mutilated bodies and severed heads and unit members clowning with corpses. The men in these now fading photos look much like the modern-day U.S. soldiers mistreating Afghan corpses in the recently released “Kill Team” images.
Some Vietnam-era snapshots are turning to ash, but that won’t be the case for digital photos sent and shared and copied in ways that were impossible a few decades ago. “Riley and his story” contains very different types of photos than those of the Kill Team or the Abu Ghraib torturers or the more generic war porn that circulates online, but it’s just as integral to understanding “the awful stuff,” as Sharbonno puts it, namely the stuff of war itself.
Since creating “Riley and his story. Me and my outrage. You and us.,” Monica Haller has gone on to collaborate with many other veterans, survivors, victims and perpetrators of war. The results, many other “objects of deployment,” however, have not yet been published. But one hopes they will be. Soon. And in great quantity. Especially valuable will be projects with noncombatants—the population that knows the most about and suffers the most because of modern war; people who lost friends and family members, people who were physically and psychologically wounded, people who were made homeless and hopeless, people who were made refugees, people who already had hard lives before war arrived on their doorstep. These “objects of deployment” will offer an important means for Americans to begin to understand the true nature of their wars. And we need them now more than ever.
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