Why Did Mali's ‘Soldier of Death’ Go Viral?

Since the start of Operation Serval in Mali, this photo has been seen and shared around the world.


The photo in question: a French soldier in Mali wearing a scarf with a skeleton motif. Public domain image from odieux connard.

In fact, this image of a French soldier wearing a scarf with a picture of a skull has become a symbol to mark the start of French military operations in Mali. But why has this soldier made such an impression on the imaginations of Net surfers?

Reasons for the Controversy

Operation Serval is unfolding to a mixed reception of welcome greetings from the majority of the Malian population and accusations of neocolonialist intervention from others. Its goal is two-fold: protect the civilian population and take back cities being held by Jihadist groups. This explains why the French army is facing a huge challenge in terms of a communications strategy. But should we really be scandalized by a scarf when an armed conflict that will claim many victims is taking place? This is what the author of the blog “Odieux Connard” points out in his post, “the scarf of war”:

Aussi, l’indignation a fait son chemin, et l’un après l’autre, de courageux militants du web se sont sentis dans l’obligation de hurler au scandale et de demander à l’état-major de réagir pour que soit sanctionné l’individu dont le choix d’imprimé sur le foulard le faisait ressembler à « Ghost », personnage portant un passe-montagne à l’imprimé proche et tiré du jeu vidéo « ultra violent » Call of Duty. [..] Heureusement, nombreux ont été celles et ceux à tenter de désamorcer la polémique en affirmant que le militaire ne faisait que « se protéger du sable », ce qui est un argumentaire pertinent, tant en fait qu’il le porte pour se protéger sur sable, du soleil ou même fumer la pipe ne change pas grand chose, le vrai problème étant que visiblement, il y a des gens à qui on a pas dû bien expliquer en quoi consistait la guerre.

Thus, indignation has made the rounds, and one after another, brave militants of the Web have felt obligated to cry scandal and ask the military brass to do something to punish the man whose choice of scarf design made him look like Ghost, a character wearing a similar-looking balaclava in the “ultraviolent” video game, Call of Duty…. Fortunately, there were many who tried to calm the waters by asserting that the soldier was just “protecting himself from the sand,” which is a valid point. But whether he was wearing it to protect against the sand, the sun, or to smoke a pipe doesn’t really matter. The real problem is that clearly, some people were not told exactly what a war is all about

Obsession with War Imagery

This aggravated focus on the image that the military intervention might project is also annoying to Electrosphère. He writes:

Cette image devint vite du pain béni pour une bienpensance de tout poil qui, étrangement, ne trouva rien à redire sur l'arme porté par ce soldat ou sur ses activités quotidiennes. Il est donc utile de rappeler certaines réalités du métier de légionnaire et de la guerre aux moralisateurs 2.0 (et autres bienpensants sous Windows/Android/iOS) qui « veulent en savoir plus mais pas trop », et ce, peu importe que l'on approuve, désapprouve ou questionne l'intervention française au Mali contre les milices djihadistes. On peut sincèrement s'interroger sur les fondements d'une polémique visant un foulard qui susciterait tout au plus de l'indifférence, de l'hilarité, des sarcasmes ou de l'admiration dans la cour d'un lycée à Paris ou lors d'un vernissage à Lyon. Je suis d'autant plus frappé que la hiérarchie militaire (dans des bureaux feutrés et chauffés/climatisés à Paris) veut infliger des sanctions à ce soldat

The image has quickly become a gold mine for the politically correct of all stripes who, strangely, have no objections to the weapon being carried by this soldier or his daily actions. So this is a good time to recall certain realities about the job of legionnaire and the act of war to the sanctimonious 2.0 (and other PC people using Windows/Android/iOS) who ‘want to know more, but not too much,’ regardless of whether you approve, disapprove, or question the French intervention in Mali against the Jihadi militias. You really have to wonder about the reasons for a controversy based on a scarf that, at most, might draw indifference, laughter, sarcasm, or admiration in the halls of any high school in Paris or artist’s opening in Lyon. I am even more surprised that the military structure in its cozy, climate-controlled offices in Paris wants to apply sanctions to this soldier.”

Aurélien Legrand would like people not to be so quick on the draw in reacting to the slightest hint of poor taste appearing on the web:

Ce qui me dépite le plus, c’est l’épidermisme réactionnel, les torrents de bonnes pensées déversés aussi sec sur le Net avec une élaboration qui aurait bénéficié d’un peu de maturation. [..] Notre environnement culturel ne nous aide pas. Lors de la prise d’otages d’In Amenas, il fut lâché sur les chaines d’informations des vidéos prises au téléphone portable, et ce en un temps record. Images désertiques, corps abattus.. [..] On veut de l’info, on veut que ça claque, mais pas trop quand même.

What annoys me the most is the knee-jerk reaction, the torrents of correct thinking gushing immediately over the Net when their words would have benefited from a bit of mulling over first. Our cultural milieu doesn’t help. During the hostage-taking in In Amenas, videos taken by cell phones were released to the media in record time. Barren images, beaten bodies… We want information, we want it to be striking-just not too striking.”

Unfortunately, the conflict in Mali looks like it is going to last a while. So it will be interesting to see if the debate over events will surpass the debates over the combatants’ outfits and finally come around to the stakes and consequences for the local population.

Anna Gueye contributed to this post with the sources cited.

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