The digital war

Times Staff Writers

Besides exposing the abuse of military prisoners, the scandal at the Abu Ghraib detention facility has shed light on one of the novel realities of modern military life: the nearly ubiquitous use of personal cameras by troops, whose snapshots have brought the war home in ways that were unimaginable in past conflicts.

Digital cameras have allowed soldiers and Marines to document their experiences and send the images home within hours, if not minutes, and to view pictures sent back by spouses and children. Websites maintained by individual soldiers and units have blossomed all over the Internet, giving anyone with a computer and modem the ability to see an uncensored, informal, up-to-the-minute view of American soldiers at war.

The advantages for morale seem apparent. The unintended consequences for military policy are still unfolding, as the Abu Ghraib scandal has made clear.

Faced with a proliferation of digital cameras and cheap disposables, the armed services have scrambled to develop rules governing their use by troops.

Before Marines were sent to Iraq from Camp Pendleton, they were sternly warned by noncommissioned officers on the rules involving photographs: no pictures of dead or wounded Iraqis, no pictures of American casualties, no pictures of detainees and no pictures showing "force protection" measures such as barriers or sniper nests that might fall into the hands of insurgents and help them pinpoint locations and fortifications.

Beyond that, Marines said, is one overarching rule: no pictures that might embarrass the United States.

"The devil dogs know the rules," insisted Sgt. Maj. Randall Carter, senior enlisted man in the 2nd Battalion, 1st Regiment, 1st Marine Division, voicing a description Marines use for themselves.

Similar bans on photographing strategic and sensitive matters extend to the Army and all other U.S. military services, officials said. Violators may face criminal courts-martial.

Most of the photos posted on websites maintained by individual soldiers, Marines and their units -- including photos by California National Guard troops posted on the Los Angeles Times' website, latimes.com/guardgoes -- depict the relatively mundane moments of military life. Smiling, uniformed men and women pose in the desert, their arms around one anothers' shoulders. Some brandish weapons in mock-heroic poses. Iraqi children stand by roadsides, waving. Soldiers gawk at ancient sites or clown around in Iraqi playgrounds. There are close-up photos of military meals and shots of soldiers manning barbecues.

There is, on the face of it, nothing that obviously challenges the rules, reflects badly on the troops or gives away military secrets. But the shocking photos from Abu Ghraib -- which were not posted publicly but leaked by one of the soldiers -- hint at the larger consequences of having an army of shutterbugs.

Despite the embarrassing images, there are no plans to ban such cameras.

"You can't put the genie back in the bottle," said Brig. Gen. Mark Kimmitt, spokesman for the U.S. military in Iraq. "Soldiers have cameras in the battlefield. They have telephones in the battlefield. They have access to Internet cafes on the base. At a certain point you just have to trust them to do the right thing -- and punish them if they don't."

There's a venerable tradition, dating to the Civil War, of troops sending photographs home from the front. The practice has only become more extensive and faster in the digital age.

"We'd always get photographs of my brother and his buddies in Vietnam," recalled Lt. Col. Daniel Williams, an Army spokesman in Baghdad . "It's just one of the things that soldiers have done for years.... You don't want to kill the spirit of a soldier by doing something we may regret later."

In the case of Abu Ghraib, the people who took those pictures broke rules against snapping unauthorized pictures of inmates. Lt. Col. Timothy J. Ryan of the California National Guard, now home in the San Francisco Bay area, recalled seeing large signs at the prison warning that photographs were forbidden.

And yet, without the pictures, the scandal might never have come to light.

"Frankly, this is a case where the cameras made it more transparent and gave us an idea of the problem that we may never have known about had it not been for the digital cameras," Kimmitt said.

Cheap cameras are sold at all ad hoc post-exchange stores at larger military bases in Iraq. Marine officers encourage their troops to take pictures to send home, keeping families apprised of what they are doing.

"Mostly we just take pictures of each other to send home," Lance Cpl. Jacob Atkinson said.

Military families see the digital revolution as a godsend that allows them to see the reassuring face of a loved one on a nearly real-time basis.

"Being able to see his pictures just makes us feel so much more connected and gives us a visual impressions of his living conditions," said Annette Hanson, the wife of National Guard Staff Sgt. John A. Hanson of Salinas, Calif. "The kids love it, especially our 13-year-old son, who's into military equipment and all that. He can say, 'Look at Dad standing next to his jeep.' "

Hanson said her husband, who in civilian life works as a building inspector for the city of Carmel, sometimes has to stand in line for two to three hours to use the Internet at his base in southern Iraq. But that seems swift compared to the pace of past wars.

"My dad was in World War II," she said, "and my mother was lucky to get two letters a month from him."

There is another reason the Marines encourage their troops to have cameras: to document violations of the Geneva Conventions by insurgents, such as using mosques, schools and ambulances for military purposes.

"We know that goes on, but we need to catch it on film," said Capt. Kevin Coughlin, the 2nd Battalion's top lawyer.

For the 2nd Battalion's Carter, a Marine for 24 years, having cameras in the hands of troops is another communication innovation that has required rules, along with Internet connections and satellite phones.

Pictures are particularly risky because they can be altered easily and then spread immediately on the Internet. The case of a Marine reservist who sent a picture to his mother is being investigated; the picture was allegedly altered to include a sign with comments derogatory to Iraqis.

Troops are warned not to speak of casualties, troop movements or future operations in phone calls or e-mails. Computer software allows the brass to check for violations. When a death occurs, e-mail and phone calls are suspended until the family is notified.

Signs are posted forbidding pictures in certain key areas. The signs at detention centers were in place months before the prison scandal broke. Only an initial "booking" picture is allowed of detainees, Coughlin said.

The issue of pictures of Iraqi casualties is also sensitive. When several Iraqi dead were taken to a forward base after a firefight, Lt. Col. Gregg Olson, the battalion commander, forbade all pictures, even though their bodies were wrapped in rugs.

He then ordered a burial in accordance with Islamic custom. "Even the dead deserve dignity," he said.

Later, in a separate incident, he upbraided frontline Marines for attaching the nickname "George" to a body of a dead Iraqi lying in the street.

Perry reported from Fallouja and McDonnell from Baghdad. Times staff writers Rone Tempest and Mitchell Landsberg in Los Angeles also contributed to this report.

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