Former Israeli soldier Eden Abergil touched off a storm of criticism in the Middle East this week after she posted Facebook photos of her mugging in front of bound and blindfolded Palestinian detainees.
An Israeli Defense Forces (IDF) spokesman described the photos as "base and crude," but Ms. Abergil and her friends seem to have gotten a kick out of the pictures before she says she took them down, sometime in the past 24 hours. When one of her friends wrote "that looks really sexy" of a picture of her posed in front of two Palestinian prisoners, Abergil responded: "I wonder if he is on Facebook, too – I'll have to tag him in the photo." She has defended herself in the Israeli press, telling Army Radio that the pictures were just "souvenirs."
So who's right here, the IDF spokesman or Abergil? As it happens, they both could be.
Some context: Soldiers, particularly young soldiers, the world over tend to be fond of black humor and of mocking the enemy – and can be less sensitive to pictures of detainees or images of violence than their civilian counterparts.
Sometimes it's fairly gentle – as in the common practice among soldiers in Iraq in 2005-2006 of calling Iraqis "durga durgas" a nod to the fake Arabic spoken by some of the puppets in the movie "Team America: World Police." Other times the mocking is even darker, as in the unwise slogan I once saw stenciled on a tank gun in Baghdad (not printable in the Monitor, but essentially an insult to the God of Islam).
But none of it is surprising, given the daily realities of combat and tense operations, whether it's IDF soldiers in the occupied West Bank or US infantry patrolling Baghdad.
When I covered the Iraq war for this newspaper, soldiers from multiple units showed me pictures of them posing with blindfolded detainees – photographs much like the ones Abergil posted on Facebook – and often standing over or near dead insurgents.
Every infantry company seemed to have one or two guys interested in movies who would compile still images and video footage on their laptops into short clips that included the chaos of combat, gruesome photos of defeated enemies, and more standard pictures of comrades-in-arms relaxing on a forward operating base before their next operation.
This "war porn," as some called it, was often passed around between units though most soldiers appeared to understand the US and international rules against posting such images. It's pretty formulaic: an accompanying speed metal or gangster rap track, shaky footage of combat from the ground and clips from the gun cameras of helicopter gunships wiping out insurgents on the ground with machine gun or missile fire.
The soldiers I knew were certainly desensitized to this stuff. The general reasoning among the infantry was they'd been trained to be aggressive, to kill their enemies or be killed, and to do so was honorable and just. But to be told that recording or broadcasting such acts was criminal or improper didn't sit well with the soldiers.
I was fortunate enough not to be involved in much heavy combat myself while in Iraq, but found after a few years that I'd become desensitized, too.
In 2005, I had a small part in a film about Iraq that a friend of mine had written. On the set one day, Connie Nielsen, one of the stars, approached me and said she had a scene coming up in which she'd have to show a lot of grief and emotion over the violence of the war. She asked me if I could talk to her about it. What is it really like?
I thought for a minute, and then told her I could go one better. I pulled out my laptop, where I had a 12 minute video a soldier had given me (on the proviso that I never put it on the Internet). I pushed play.
She watched, said "I had no idea" and went to perform in her scene with tears streaming down her cheeks.
Me? I'd been laughing about the choice of music and some of the over-dramatic touches in the brief clip a few days before.