One of the more disturbing aspects of my research has been the plethora of death and trophy photos that i have accidentally stumbled upon. Some of them were un-cataloged photos in an obscure NARA box that was labeled something else entirely. Others have been from military memorabilia websites – an IRB nightmare i haven’t even begun to address, but which i think may add dimensions to our understanding of early small-wars tactics that have not yet been addressed outside of military studies. I won’t post any here. I’m not a fan of reprinting these images, regardless of their worth in understanding white supremacy in early-20th century imperialist projects.
What i am finding curious is how to discern between pictorial practices that travel as a socio-cultural phenomenon and those which are simply practices of war, more generally (or is there even a difference?). I bring this up because when i found the first of many of these photos, they were of Charlemagne Peralte. He was an elite, of Dominican heritage (family name: Peralta), but of Haitian nationality at the time of the US occupation of Haiti. He refused to bear arms for the US in the guise of the new Gendarmerie (which unclassified military documents clearly show to be nothing more than US trained anti-insurgency brigades in the service of the occupation), and disappeared into the mountains to amass somewhere between 5,000 and 40,000 cacos (Eduard Glissant, in his ethnography of the occupation during the 1960’s and 70’s found the cacos to number closer to 40,000, while the US estimated them to be only 5,000 at most) to fight what would be the US Marines’ first guerrilla war.
Out of desperation, the Marines mounted their first machine guns on airplanes and attempted their first arial bombing raids – both mostly on villages. Bombs were dropped from mail sacks through wheel wells through an elaborate pulley system of ropes – extraordinarily inaccurate and crude, but effective, nonetheless. They would drive the cacos into the jungle in what was also the first air-to-ground defense attacks. This training in Haiti between 1918 and 1920 prepared them for what would ensue in Nicaragua and eventually in WWII.
But less than the military tactics employed in these campaigns, what i find more interesting and perhaps disturbing, was the habit of taking photos with dead Haitians. Major Smedley Butler (who assigned himself rank of Major General in the Haitian Gendarmes, and was eventually assigned Brigadier General by the US military) himself, gloated that he and his men “hunted the cacos like pigs.” His sentiment of “hunting” was not his alone – it came from above and trickled to the bottom most ranks. Cacos were viewed as “bandits” in need of hunting. Indeed, in the first caco uprising, Caperton received a telegram from the Navy stating:
the Department was impressed with the number of Haitiens [sic] killed; that it feels that a severe lesson has been taught the Cacos and it believes that a proper patrol can be maintained to preserve order and protect innocent persons without further offensive operation
What, exactly, constituted an “impressive number of Haitians killed” – enough “that a severe lesson has been taught”? Clearly, from many of the photos i have come across, the number was elusive. According to the official count allowed by the US Senate and through the JAG, 2,500-3,250 Haitians were killed between 1915 and 1920. According to Haitians, another 5,745 prisoners died at Chabert, an American camp, and another 4,000 died in prisons of Cap-Hatien – all over the course of just three years. Eduard Glissant places the number of deaths over the course of the entire occupation at closer to 15,000. US armed forces complained that it was difficult to get a complete count because Haitians would clear battle fields quickly, whisking away the dead and wounded before they could be officially counted. They pleaded a kind of exasperated ignorance – one that was placed squarely on the heads of Haitians, not on their own murderous tendencies.
But it is the photos that i struggle with the most. Were they simply a transplant from the “southern soldiers who knew best how to handle the negro” that were imported during WWI? (Many of the military’s finest begged to be sent to the front, drawing many of the drafted men into the service of officer-positions for the Haitian Garde during WWI; see: Posner 1964, and others) or are these photos simply extensions of US Southern lynching photos? or are they something more akin to the kinds of trophy photos we see today from Abu-Ghraib and Afghanistan? And what is the difference (or is there one)?
Regardless of their legality or intent, the photos exist. My question, more generally, is “What work did they do?” Many of the photos i have found in recent searches have been from grandsons of marines in Haiti during the occupation, found in closets and attics after the death of family members. These were not published and were probably just shared amongst others in the company. But the fact remains, they exist. What was (is) the impetus of these death photos?
In the case of the death photo of Charlemagne Peralte, there is no question. His photo was circulated by the US military to discourage the cacos, to show them he was dead, and to serve as a warning. Did this impetus arise from the power of lynching photos to act as a deterrent? oFive separate “funeral processions” were held to prove Peralte’s death (just in case the photo was not enough). And then he was actually buried in an unmarked grave so that his grave would not become a site of pilgrimage. And yet, upon the the removal of US forces from Haiti, the Haitian government held a final funeral for him, honoring him as a hero. Indeed, today he is a national hero in Haiti and the Dominican Republic. Contrary to the intentions of US forces, the photo of Peralte actually gave Haitian elite and peasants a shared purpose for the first time since the revolution for independence (see for instance: David Nicholls).
Perhaps they’re not related, ideologically. Perhaps the death of Peralte, and the photo of his body, were simply ploys of the military to weaken Haitian defenses and trophy photos were simply personal mementos. Or, perhaps each kind of photo was reflective of a broader discourse of the worth of the death of Haitians. Why are some dead bodies photographable? And not simply as Death Photos, but as photos of dead bodies – unnamed and unknowable? They were certainly not in honor of their deaths (one photo, for instance, has etched into it, “A good Haitian”).
It draws me into the present, particularly with the new, stronger, ag-gag laws which disallow the photography and video of animal slaughter and the illegality of taking photos of caskets of US soldiers returning from the war (perhaps more an outcropping of the Vietnam War more than anything – i remember this refusal in the first Gulf War). Today, these are considered issues of Homeland Security, while photos of dead Afghanis are simply DoD offenses that get handled by the JAG. Indeed, in Haiti during the occupation, only 57 courts martial went before a JAG and nearly all of them were exonerated. I found only a handful of the actual court cases in the NARA files (curiously, the bulk of the 57 were simply not in the JAG records and even more curiously, the case that prompted the May Commission in 1920 was missing entirely). Indeed, the Mayo Commission gave pardon to Marine crimes in Haiti, wholesale, for the first five years of the occupation.
To understand the power of silence and erasure is to begin to understand true ignorance. It is a carefully crafted ignorance the erases histories and allows creative imaginaries in what has been called the US’s Orient (see: J. Michael Dash).