Disturbing footage (… do not turn away)


Brad Ayers
Brad Ayers

Published on this page in early November was my commentary on the culturally sanctioned, unnecessary taking of life in any form, including hunting for sport, and the moral-religious hypocrisy and contradiction associated therewith.

In light of the recent elementary school massacre in Newtown, Conn., I’m compelled to follow with these thoughts. I preface my words with an admission I’ve legally, personally and professionally carried and used lethal weapons since my youth and have witnessed, first hand, the resulting mayhem. To some degree, as a consequence, I cope with service connected post-traumatic stress. With that as context, I share this perspective.

In Summer 1961: As a 26-year-old Army Ranger captain, I returned to the United States after a three-year tour near the German-Czech/Iron Curtain border where I commanded a frontline infantry rifle company. As a career officer, I was selected to attend the yearlong Infantry Officers Advance Course at Ft. Benning, Ga. Many of my classmates were high caliber West Pointers, and a number of carefully chosen officers from foreign countries. Norm Schwarzkopf, then a captain as I, (later four star general, a.k.a. “Stormin Norman” of Desert Storm fame) sat a few rows from me. Norm and I became friends but competed vigorously for class standing. There were no women in our 100-officer class.

I found the course challenging, intellectually and professionally stimulating. There was one aspect I will never forget.

Many of our lectures and exercises were classified “Secret” and the subject not specifically identified, in the posted class schedule. But, when we came into the large, soundproofed lecture hall, MPs present at the entrance and heard the doors locked as we took our seats, we knew what to expect. No notes to be taken, no materials outside the room, no trips to the latrine until the hourly smoke break.

Except for a few of the foreign officers, the majority of us had yet to experience actual combat and the wounding, death and destruction of the battlefield. My own experience to that point was dealing with casualties resulting from military-civilian vehicle collisions on the autobahns and narrow Bavarian roads. Most traumatic was the loss of one of my noncoms who was struck in the chest by a .50-caliber ricochet round during one of our training exercises. We tried to save him, but he didn’t make it. I had to write to his family.

Nevertheless, as professional soldiers, the Infantry School apparently assumed we were psychologically equipped to deal with the brutal realities of ground, close combat.

The majority of our instruction at Ft. Benning was state-of-the-art infantry tactics and doctrine, easy to digest.  But, about two-thirds through the course came a series of presentations that were truly disturbing. These were sessions of exceedingly graphic actual combat films, showing the effects of a variety of weapons on human victims — our own soldiers, enemy casualties, civilians including women and children. These screenings were not typical newsreel films. Nothing had been edited, technically obscured or censored, and they visually documented in close-up detail the victim’s wounding, the agony, suffering, medical procedures if any in the field, and frequently the last moments of those that would not survive. It was gut-wrenching stuff and I wondered how the Army photographers mustered the courage to operate their cameras.

There was footage from the most recent wars — World War II including the carnage at Hiroshima and Nagasaki (captured Japanese films), Korea, early Vietnam. Particularly striking was live-action photography of medics, field hospital doctors and chaplains try to administer to the injured, occasionally overwhelmed and collapsing at the scene.

The word from the lectern when these films were introduced was, “Gentlemen, this is disturbing footage, but do not turn away.” I knew I had to watch and tried to steel myself. As a Ranger, I could handle anything, so I thought.  Bring it on.

Nevertheless, I sometimes felt faint and nauseous. I watched others tear up, bury their faces in their hands, some vomited on their desks or urinated where they sat.

When the sessions ended and we went outside for a break, a lot of officers, ashen faced, cigarette in shaking hands, still tearing, tried to walk it off. There was little talk. I couldn’t sleep or eat for several days after one of these, but I came away with a visceral understanding of the battlefield environment and the horrific human consequence when you pull the trigger, throw a grenade or order men into a combat situation. The true impact of violence was driven deep into my psyche by the gut-wrenching, graphic Fort Benning films.

Obviously, with the Infantry School curriculum, it was the Army’s purpose to make officers acutely aware of the realities of ground combat and what we would face on the field of battle. (It’s my understanding that except for special operations, this form of indoctrination has now been tempered, for better or worse). I was to get my share of real life exposure, up close and personal, later in my service with CIA and DEA. I now hold an absolute abhorrence for killing and violence for any reason other than self-preservation.

Today in America in a so-called “safe” civilized socio-cultural environment, we ever more frequently find ourselves trying to cope with seemingly inexplicable, unspeakable tragedy not unlike the carnage and trauma of the war zone. Our political, social and religious institutions seem paralyzed and perplexed in dealing with the phenomenon. Can something be learned from old school Fort Benning?

This may, at first blush, seem too over the top, but I’ve been there before in early writings.

I contend, as with our recent wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, the American people, except for about one-percent of the population directly involved in some way, are almost totally isolated, detached and thus, ignorant of the underlying cause and ultimate consequence of the mayhem that takes place in our society on a regular basis. There is outrage over incidents like Newtown, Conn., but there is no fundamental change in our cultural attitude and socio-political construct that will prevent another gruesome slaughter from happening somewhere else. We must do whatever is necessary to interdict the carnage.

I believe if the public at large — especially the youth of our country — were visually exposed to an actual crime scene just as first responders are when they arrive — multiple murders for example — the penchant for violence in our culture would be cooled appreciably. See close-up the spattered blood, bullet-riddled bodies, sometimes charred remains, dismembered body parts, broken bodies of the victims and facial features at the moment of death. Law enforcement, forensic, medical and investigation professionals deal with this on a regular basis and I believe it is a disservice to society that what they witness and endure is essentially cloistered and hidden from public view.

The media, particularly television news, avoids presenting the grizzly reality of a violent crime scene. Print and radio do not have the same impact as unedited, onsite video documentation. When on-scene TV footage is aired, it’s sanitized, and even then the newscaster will announce something like “the following may be disturbing, you may want to turn away.” Thus, the public is essentially shielded from seeing, absorbing and evaluating the full gruesome, evil dimension of the violent act. Maybe it’s time to change FCC and TV network and cable broadcast policies, remove the veil and permit the public at large, to see what real mayhem looks like.

Human behavior is motivated by psychological factors that are externally influenced, for better or worse, in making individual and societal choices, and achieving outcomes. Visual impact has powerful emotional and intellectual impact. This can be exploited, although the idea may be radical, to alter cultural perceptions and values. Although it might be repugnant, collective visual exposure may be one way to deal with the pervasive, obscene glorification of violence in entertainment, bring sanity to gun control policy, and shock mental health specialists into critical identification and treatment of potentially dangerous individuals. Only public opinion and a collective revulsion of violence can bring this about.

With the New Year upon us, and the Sandy Hook Elementary School massacre fresh in our minds, this is a good time to do collective soul-searching and think outside the box about how we might deal with the violence epidemic in America.


            Bradley E. Ayers is a regular Viewpoint contributor. A 77-year-old semi-retired military, CIA, DEA veteran, he began writing for the Gazette as a fledgling reporter in 1952 while a student at Stillwater High School. He’s written several non-fiction books. More information can be found on the Internet.