Afghanistan Photos, Gallows Humor

By | April 23, 2012 | 0 Comments

The Los Angeles Times published photos of American troops posing with dead bodies of suicide bombers in Afghanistan. In one photo, a smiling soldier posed with a severed hand on his shoulder. Obviously, such behavior is unacceptable, and everyone from Defense Secretary Panetta on down competed to find appropriate words to condemn it.

Nevertheless, certain points need to be made:

● The Los Angeles Times published the photos despite being told by the White House that doing so would endanger our troops, and despite the fact that the Washington Post refused to publish the photos. What does this tell us about the ethics of the editors of the Los Angeles Times? No, not “journalistic ethics” ‒ just ethics.

● The event reportedly occurred two years ago. In what sense is it news? In what way will it influence how we conduct the war? How will publishing the photos, rather than merely describing them, enhance our knowledge? What possible good can publishing the photos do to counterbalance the likely harm?

● The dead terrorists were suicide bombers. Their dismemberment was the result of their own actions, which were aimed at killing and dismembering others. The photos are revolting, but our revulsion should be directed at the suicide bombers themselves.

● Hatred of “infidels” is endemic in the Muslim world. What purpose is served by stirring up more? Our troops may suffer reprisals, and so may other “infidels” in Muslim areas, including innocent women and children. Did the editors of the Los Angeles Times consider this? If they didn’t, they are incompetent. If they did, they are irresponsible.

● The 82nd Airborne Division, to which these soldiers belonged, sustained 35 killed in action in a year in Afghanistan, and many more grievously wounded. Where are the photos of our dead and wounded? Where are the photos of our severed limbs? Of course, such photos should never be published. But without such photos, the photos of dead Taliban give an unbalanced view of what is happening. Don’t the editors know this? If they don’t, they are ignorant. If they do, they are anti-war propagandists.

● The question is not whether the editors had the right to publish the photos. Under the First Amendment, of course they did. The question is whether it was right to do so. What we have the right to do, and what is right to do, are two different things entirely. We used to know that. It’s time we remembered.

Clearly, the media should condemn terror bombing in much stronger terms than they condemn taking photos of the dead bombers. But instead, the media call the bombers “insurgents,” “militants,” or “fighters” ‒ terms devoid of ethical content. No.

Insurgents are people who fight for freedom, not against it. “Insurgentes” is a major avenue in Mexico City commemorating the Mexican War of Independence from Spain. Martin Luther King Jr. was a militant civil-rights advocate. Muhammad Ali was a great fighter. Let’s not debase noble words by using them for people who murder and maim girls for the “crime” of going to school. They are terrorists.

The actions of the soldiers in posing with the dead terrorists used to be called “gallows humor.” We no longer hang convicted murderers. In fact, we rarely execute them in any manner. But we remember that the expression means to joke about something serious, in an attempt to relieve tension.

That’s the key point: to relieve tension.

Similarly, police officers sometimes get into trouble when their radio microphone is inadvertently left open, and they are recorded making grim jokes about a serious crime they just witnessed. Most of us never patrol the streets in dangerous areas. But we should have enough imagination to understand how telling jokes can serve to defuse tension and relieve the pain of seeing the horrible things people can do to one another.

I served in the Army Reserve, but it was peacetime, and I never heard a shot fired in anger. Still, I do know a little about seeing bad sights, hearing bad sounds, and smelling bad odors. And I do know something about gallows humor. I did a year as a medical student, and another year of residency, at a large public hospital. The building was run-down, the equipment was old, and the staff was overworked.

The laryngoscope in the emergency ward was chained to the leg of an examining table to prevent theft. Our EKG machine had a cracked case and was held together with adhesive tape. The wards and hallways were crowded with beds and gurneys filled with seriously ill patients, many of whom were alcoholics or otherwise confused.

I was responsible for supervising four interns as we cared for patients filling two wards. I was on call every third night. Lack of sleep and constant tension sometimes impaired my judgment and made me irritable, or even silly.

After rounds one day, an intern grabbed a bunch of IV bottles (no bags in those days) and set off to give fluids to his patients. Most of them were senile, stroke victims, or chronic alcoholics. The intern remarked with a forced smile, “I’m off to water the vegetables.” Normally I would have corrected him, but by that point I didn’t realize he had said something improper until later.

Another day the assistant superintendent came by. He stepped into the small room where we doctors worked on keeping patient charts up to date. He made a sour expression and walked out. Uncertain of what had irritated him, I looked around. On the wall was a Playboy centerfold stuck up with Scotch tape. Shamefacedly, I pulled it down.

It had been there for hours, perhaps days, but I hadn’t seen it. Or rather, I had seen it but suppressed the image. I had grown so used to seeing unpleasant sights and ignoring them that now I ignored a pleasant sight as well. I resolved to try harder to really see what was going on around me. I hope I did so. But anyone who peered into the room that day would assume we doctors were sex-crazed jerks unconcerned with our patients.

The hospital served a fourth meal at midnight for the night staff. If we had time, we would sit around the table discussing our patients. One of the senior staff was a large man who did a superb imitation of Count Dracula. (Imagine a fat vampire.) No matter what type of patient we mentioned, and no matter what disease he had, this man would declare in his Dracula voice, “Let us drain his blaahd.”

We thought this was hysterically funny. Of course, when you are sleep-deprived and living on coffee and nervous tension, almost anything can seem funny. But if an outsider overheard our conversation, he would have concluded that we were cold-hearted and utterly indifferent to the lives in our hands. He couldn’t have been more wrong. Our off-beat attempts at humor were evidence that we needed something ‒ anything ‒ to relieve the constant tension and brighten up a really dreary existence.

I’ve never been in combat. But I have enough imagination to understand that what those soldiers were going through was ten times worse than anything I went through. So give them a break. Show a little empathy with those who risk death and disability in our name. Realize that what they did was inappropriate but understandable. Comprehend that if people don’t find ways to relieve their tension, they may snap. Recognize that sometimes all we can do is either laugh or cry, and laughing is slightly less painful.

If you must express disdain, save it for those who lack the humanity to understand that gallows humor is sometimes a necessary release. If you must express revulsion, save it for the roadside bombers and those who incite them to cause death and dismemberment. And if you must express indignation, save it for the so-called journalists who endanger human lives to further their own careers.

Dr. Stolinsky writes on political and social issues. Contact: You are welcome to publish or post these articles, provided that you cite the author and website.

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