Bagram Santa

Easily lending themselves to multiple forms of misunderstanding, the Pentagon nevertheless regularly produces images of military personnel dressed as Santa Claus. This too is a pattern, minor in terms of the number of such photographs, but still a recurring feature. The images in this third and final photo essay of this series, come out of a larger study I began early in 2014, on Pentagon photography, which first appeared in print and online in chapter 9 of Good Intentions. That in turn is part of a broader ongoing study of imperial symbolism.

While some of these images might seem a bit comical, that is not an unintended effect, I think. There are serious motives behind these light-hearted photographs. The function of the photographs is primarily domestic–aimed at prospective recruits–and internal, in terms of maintaining positive morale within the military.

These are examples of what the US Army, in its field manual on Visual Information Operations, terms “Military Life Imagery” (US Army, 2009, pp. 2-5—2-8). These are intended to be a selective portrait of “military life,” narrowed down to examples “such as Soldiers at work, physical training, new equipment usage, and enjoyment of life as a military family”. Enjoying life as a military family means enjoying Christmas together, hence Santa is present as a reminder of the season. (Rarely, such images may be examples of “Civil Military Involvement Imagery,” where a Santa-clad soldier distributes gifts to local children outside of the US.) They intend to produce a sense of cheer and levity. Joining the Army doesn’t mean losing out on Christmas. Santa has your back and has you covered on that front. Being in the Army will mean having a bit of home with you.

The function as intended may be for domestic recruitment purposes and internal morale boosting, but I would argue that there is another, broader, unspoken purpose, or perhaps more than one. One broader purpose, rooted in the official one above, is to stabilize and pacify emotions around the military and war. To do so, one has to create an unreality, a virtual utopia of merry soldiers dressed as Santas and elves. This is a very “American” principle, evidenced in many Hollywood movies that will, for example, show adults at NASA goofing off, rolling their eyes, acting like big children or cartoon characters, with a limitless supply of snark and appropriated black talk, “oops, my bad,” “oh hell no”. There is endless chatter and chattiness, cherished principles of “American” distraction and escapism: keep up the noise, lest a dreaded fog of silence creeps in and then you are forced to confront yourself, to realize what is really inside you, or to face the danger of realizing there is nothing inside you. Thus the Santa photos are a way to pretend to look human in contexts of massively practiced inhumanity against others.

Image 1

U.S. Marine Corps Gen. James F. Amos, left, the commandant of the Marine Corps, speaks to Service members during a Christmas Eve show at Camp Leatherneck, Helmand province, Afghanistan, Dec. 24, 2012. (DoD photo by Staff Sgt. Ezekiel R. Kitandwe, U.S. Marine Corps/Released)
U.S. Marine Corps Gen. James F. Amos, left, the commandant of the Marine Corps, speaks to Service members during a Christmas Eve show at Camp Leatherneck, Helmand province, Afghanistan, Dec. 24, 2012. (DoD photo by Staff Sgt. Ezekiel R. Kitandwe, U.S. Marine Corps/Released)

Image 2

U.S. Soldiers assigned to Combined Joint Special Operations Task Force-Afghanistan look out over the Afghan countryside from the rear of an aircraft Dec. 24, 2013, after dropping bundles containing care packages, Christmas stockings and mail to Soldiers stationed at a remote base in eastern Afghanistan. (DoD photo by Capt. Thomas Cieslak, U.S. Army/Released)
U.S. Soldiers assigned to Combined Joint Special Operations Task Force-Afghanistan look out over the Afghan countryside from the rear of an aircraft Dec. 24, 2013, after dropping bundles containing care packages, Christmas stockings and mail to Soldiers stationed at a remote base in eastern Afghanistan. (DoD photo by Capt. Thomas Cieslak, U.S. Army/Released)

Image 3

“Santa” realizes he almost forgot hearing protection prior to a jump conducted as part of the 5th Quartermaster Company’s Toy Drop here Dec. 7. More than 160 paratroopers, countless volunteers and two aircraft participated in the annual event, which delivered over 2,000 toys to needy children in the Kaiserslautern Military Community. (Photo by Sgt. 1st Class Michael O’Brien, 16th Sustainment Brigade Public Affairs)
“Santa” realizes he almost forgot hearing protection prior to a jump conducted as part of the 5th Quartermaster Company’s Toy Drop here Dec. 7. More than 160 paratroopers, countless volunteers and two aircraft participated in the annual event, which delivered over 2,000 toys to needy children in the Kaiserslautern Military Community. (Photo by Sgt. 1st Class Michael O’Brien, 16th Sustainment Brigade Public Affairs)

Image 4

U.S. Marine Corps Master Gunnery Sgt. Joseph Haggins, dressed as Santa Claus, presents a gift to a Filipino child during Operation Goodwill at the Manila Day Care Center in Manila, Philippines, Dec. 16, 2009. The operation gives U.S. Marines and their families stationed in Okinawa, Japan, an opportunity to spread goodwill in the region during the holiday season. (DoD photo by Sgt. Leon M. Branchaud, U.S. Marine Corps/Released)
U.S. Marine Corps Master Gunnery Sgt. Joseph Haggins, dressed as Santa Claus, presents a gift to a Filipino child during Operation Goodwill at the Manila Day Care Center in Manila, Philippines, Dec. 16, 2009. The operation gives U.S. Marines and their families stationed in Okinawa, Japan, an opportunity to spread goodwill in the region during the holiday season. (DoD photo by Sgt. Leon M. Branchaud, U.S. Marine Corps/Released)

Image 5

KABUL, Afghanistan - Santa Claus departs International Security Assistance Force Joint Command after visiting troops spreading joy and cheer. (ISAF Joint Command photo by U.S. Navy Petty Officer 1st Class Ryan Tabios)
KABUL, Afghanistan – Santa Claus departs International Security Assistance Force Joint Command after visiting troops spreading joy and cheer. (ISAF Joint Command photo by U.S. Navy Petty Officer 1st Class Ryan Tabios)

Reference

US Army. (2009). FM 6-02.40, Visual Information Operations. Washington, DC: Headquarters, Department of the Army.

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