Warning: This story contains links to unsettling images and sites where people glorify violence and pornography — and document the hell of war. If only life came with such warnings.
The Internet has proven to be a vast resource of information and knowledge, but it only takes one hyperlink to get from the profound to the profane. When reading an Egyptian blog a few weeks ago, I stumbled onto a bulletin board site called NowThatsFuckedUp.com (NTFU), which started out as a place for people to trade amateur pornography of wives and girlfriends.
According to the site’s owner, Chris Wilson, who lives in Lakeland, Fla., but hosts the site out of Amsterdam, the site was launched in August 2004 and soon became popular with soldiers in Iraq and Afghanistan. When female soldiers started to appear in the nude on the site, the Pentagon blocked access to the site from military computers in the field, according to the New York Post.
But the story gets more twisted. Wilson said that soldiers were having trouble using their credit cards in Iraq to access the paid pornographic content on the site, so he offered them free access if they could show that they were actually soldiers. As proof, some sent in G-rated photos of traffic signs in Baghdad or of a day in the life of a soldier abroad. Others sent in what appear to be Iraqi civilians and insurgents who were killed by suicide bombs or soldiers’ fire.
Now there’s an entire forum on the site titled “Pictures from Iraq and Afghanistan – Gory,” where these bloody photos show body parts, exploded heads and guts falling out of people. Along with the photos is a running commentary of people celebrating the kills, cracking jokes and arguing over what kind of weaponry was used to kill them. But the moderators will also step in when the talk gets too heated, and sometimes a more serious discussion about the Iraq war and its aims will break out.
Wilson told me in a phone interview that he is “not very” political and considers NTFU as a community site.
“People say, ‘This is a porn site so why are you talking politics?’ ” Wilson said. “But it’s actually a porn community, and any time you have a community with shared interests there’s going to be other interests. Just because somebody looks at porn doesn’t mean that they have a below-60 IQ and don’t know anything. I have doctors and lawyers and police officers and teachers, and it doesn’t surprise me that there are educated people who want to discuss things. It’s interesting, and I love reading it.”
Wilson has no qualms about running the gory photos of war in open forums that don’t require registration or payment.
“I enjoy seeing the photos from the soldiers themselves,” Wilson said. “I see pictures taken by CNN and the mainstream media, and they all put their own slant on what they report and what they show. To me, this is from the soldier’s slant. This is directly from them. They can take the digital cameras and take a picture and send it to me, and that’s the most raw you can get it. I like to see it from their point of view, and I think it’s newsworthy.”
Wilson says it’s a judgment call on whether the photos he gets are really from soldiers in Iraq or Afghanistan. After months of sifting through photos, Wilson has an idea of the quality of the digital cameras soldiers use and what the terrain is like in those areas of the world.
I couldn’t verify whether these gory photos were taken recently in Iraq by soldiers. But the U.S. military is currently looking into the site and trying to authenticate the photos — and take appropriate action if soldiers are involved. “We do have people who are specifically looking at that website, and I will talk to my colleagues and my bosses here and get back to you,” said Staff Sgt. Don Dees, a spokesman for U.S. Central Command (Centcom) in Baghdad.
Two people posting gory photos to the site responded to my e-mail query into their motivations for doing it.
“I access [NTFU] from my personal computer, the government computers are strictly monitored,” one person wrote to me. “I would never try to use this site or anything like it on a government computer. To answer your question about posting the gory pictures on this site: What about the beheadings filmed and then put on world wide news? I have seen video of insurgents shooting American soldiers in plain day and thanking God for what they have done. I wouldn’t be too concerned what I am doing on a private Web site. I’m more concerned of what my fellow soldiers and I are experiencing in combat.”
Another person whose e-mail identified him as David Burke was defiant about posting gory photos and said it was a tradition of all wars.
“Yes I have posted kill photos on other forum sites,” Burke wrote me in his e-mail. “The computers are military financed if not owned by the military. I think that with all the service members who are over here it was obvious that photos of dead insurgents would surface as time went on and it is not a new occurrence. There have been pics from all wars of the fighters standing over the bodies of the enemy. The insurgents are more than willing to showcase our dead and wounded so if people have issues with what’s shown on this site then they need to stay away and quit bitching about things they know nothing about.
“I made it real clear in most if not all of my posts how I feel about the Iraqi people in general and that feeling has not changed a bit in my time here. I [put] a good friend of mine [in a body bag] just a week ago and that really clinched it for me and my teammates. We will always shoot first and ask no questions, period. The military brass will always try to sanitize the effects of war, no matter when or where, and yes if it was possible they would censor all media coming out of this country, pics and stories.”
Condemnation for site swift
The story of NTFU and its unusual exchange of free porn for gory war photos was first picked up by an Italian blogger named Staib, and then the Italian news agency ANSA. Blogger/journalist Helena Cobban, who pens a column for the Christian Science Monitor, asked her blog readers for an English translation of the ANSA article and quickly received many versions that clarified what the site was about.
Cobban was horrified by the gory photos, but tried to make sense of the motivation of people who posted them — and tried hard to grasp the idea of a serious discussion of war on a porn site. She told me that taking and posting “trophy” photos of dead Iraqis was a gross show of disrespect and a violation of the Geneva Conventions. But she put the blame on the direction of military leadership.
“The important thing is for the U.S. military and political leadership at the highest levels to recommit the nation to the norms of war including the Geneva Conventions, and to be held accountable for the many violations that have taken place so far,” Cobban said via e-mail. “What I don’t think would be helpful would be further punitive actions that are still limited to the grunts and the foot soldiers, who already have the worst of it.”
The Geneva Conventions include Protocol 1, added in 1977 but not ratified by the U.S., Iraq or Afghanistan. It mentions that all parties in a conflict must respect victims’ remains, though doesn’t mention the photographing of dead bodies. This could well be a judgment call, and the celebratory and derogatory comments added on NTFU make the case more clear.
When I contacted military public affairs people in the U.S. and Iraq, they didn’t seem aware of the site and initially couldn’t access the site from their own government computers. Eventually, they told me that if soldiers were indeed posting photos of dead Iraqis on the site, then it’s not an action that’s condoned in any way by the military.
“The glorification of casualties goes against our training and is strongly discouraged,” said Todd Vician, a U.S. Defense Department spokesman. “It is our policy that images taken with government equipment or due to access because of a military position must be cleared before released. While I haven’t seen these images, I doubt they would be cleared for release. Improper treatment of captured and those killed does not help our mission, is discouraged, investigated when known, and punished appropriately.”
Capt. Chris Karns, a Centcom spokesman, told me that there are Department of Defense regulations and Geneva Conventions against mutilating and degrading dead bodies, but that he wasn’t sure about regulations concerning photos of dead bodies. He noted that the Bush administration did release graphic photos of the dead bodies of Uday and Qusay Hussein to the media.
Karns said that commanders in the field do have latitude to make their rules more stringent than overarching military regulations, but he didn’t expect that cameras would be banned in the field.
“I don’t think it will get to that point [where cameras would be banned],” Karns said. “All it takes is one or two individuals to do things like this that cast everyone in a negative light. The vast majority of soldiers are acting responsibly with cameras in the field. But on the Internet there aren’t a whole lot of safeguards and the average citizen can create their own site.”
Karns did say that if soldiers were posting these photos online, that it would have a negative strategic impact, especially when the enemy relies so heavily on the media to win the battle of perception.
Ibrahim Hooper, spokesman for the Council on American-Islamic Relations, saw the gory photos as another black eye for the U.S. military after the Abu Ghraib prison torture photos.
“This is just another form of pornography,” Hooper told me. “I think this is something that should be strongly discouraged by military authorities. It’s going to give military personnel a bad name, it’s going to harm America’s image in the Muslim world and it’s just plain wrong. You have to wonder what this says about our military personnel, if first of all they’re dealing with pornography and why they would be reveling in the deaths of individuals in Iraq.”
Respected media outlets?
NTFU site proprietor Wilson says that the military blocking of his site upset him, but that traffic actually went up after it was blocked. He told me that if the military brass did get in touch with him, and had a good reason for him to remove the gory photos, he would.
“I get many requests for removal,” Wilson said. “I get 30 to 40 requests per day for removal for everything across the board on the site. I take each on a case-by-case basis. If [the military] wants something deleted because they think it’s a threat to national security or it’s showing too much, then obviously, yes, I’m going to get that out of there. But if they’re asking me to remove it because they just don’t like it, then no.”
Wilson says he supported Bush in sending troops to Iraq, but thinks it’s long past time that they need to be brought back home. He says he supports the soldiers, and thinks they are pretty split on whether they should be brought home or kept on the job in Iraq. Wilson has tried to obtain a less profane domain name for the site, NTFU.com, but that the domain’s owner was asking for way more money than it was worth.
Of course, the NTFU community is not alone in its fascination with the darker, more grotesque side of life. The site Ogrish.com has been around for six years, and includes photos and video of murders, cannibalism, and war kills. The owners of the site explain in the FAQ that they do not enjoy seeing this violent material, but that they are trying to provide an uncensored view of reality.
“Ogrish does not provide a sugar-coated version of the world,” the FAQ says. “We feel that people are often unaware of what really goes on around us. Everything you see on Ogrish.com is reality, it’s part of our life, whether we like it or not. We are publishing this material to give everyone the opportunity to see things as they are so they can come to their own conclusions rather than settling for biased versions of world events as handed out by the mainstream media.”
The site’s goal is pretty ambitious: “to become a respected media outlet for uncensored, unbiased news… [with] much more background and educational value to our content.” The site uses citizen correspondents in law enforcement and in medicine, much the way that NTFU depends on soldiers in the field who are armed with digital cameras.
Dan Klinker, who formerly was a co-owner of Ogrish.com and now handles PR, told me via e-mail that the site is not about glorifying violence, unlike NTFU.
“As far as I know Ogrish is one of the only sites in this niche that have been focusing on the facts rather than presenting things in a glorifying way like a lot of other sites do (including NowThatsFuckedUp),” Klinker said. “Just the name of that site makes it clear that there’s only one goal, which is to shock, glorify and entertain. The combination with bloody pictures in return for naked girls makes them lose all credibility.”
While it was difficult for me to ascertain the motivation for people who were posting gory photos to NTFU, I did talk to Steven Most, a psychology postdoctoral fellow at Yale University who has studied the effects of violent and sexual images. He helped explain what these horribly violent images had in common with the nude photographs of women.
“They both seem to be particularly arousing in an emotional way,” Most said. “Emotional stimuli can be rated in different ways. You could see something and rate how positive or negative it is. But separate from that is how arousing the image is. A positive picture of a cute puppy dog could be positive but not that arousing, whereas a picture of an opposite sex nude could be just as positive but be rated as extremely arousing. And a picture of a mutilation could be rated as extremely negative but highly arousing. Lately there’s been a lot of theories saying that what we’re drawn to is the arousing nature of an image regardless of whether we see it as negative or positive.”