The summer 2004 launch of the very aptly named website www.nowthatsfuckedup.com was supply-and-demand economics at its purest. Young entrepreneur Chris Wilson saw a hole in the ever-burgeoning Internet pornography racket not enough amateur, "girl next door" porn, he says and figured he could make a good living filling it. So far, Wilson's hunch has paid off. He lives in a lakefront Lakeland apartment complex, drives a blue BMW and has one of the largest private liquor collections I've ever seen. The website has more than 200,000 registered users, Wilson says, most of whom pay $10 every three months to view still photos and videos of nude women shot by their husbands or boyfriends.
Of course, if that's all there was to the site it would hardly be worth mentioning. Another batch of amateur porn? Ho-hum.
Instead, Wilson has hit on an idea so base and depraved that it's put him on the cusp of national celebrity, or at least the 15-minute version of it prevalent in the age of the 24-hour news cycle. My afternoon meeting with him Sept. 28 is sandwiched between interviews with CNN and local Tampa Bay television stations (plus a heated meeting with his landlord, who was none too thrilled to discover that he was operating a porn site out of his apartment). That morning, The New York Times announced that his website was now the focus of a U.S. Army investigation.
In addition to couples uploading sex videos, www.nowthatsfuckedup.com hosts a forum where American soldiers stationed in Iraq and Afghanistan can post pictures of their daily lives, which in turn earns them free access to the site's porn collection. There's no delicate way to put this: Wilson's website displays some of the most gut-wrenching, mind-blowing, spine-chilling images of war you will ever see. The shots are grotesque, horrifying, nauseating. One shows a group of Marines standing and smiling over the charred remains of a burned Iraqi. Others show what the viewer assumes are enemy combatants with bullet holes in their heads, their blood and brains oozing into the sand. Another shows the aftermath of a suicide bomber whose grenade discharged before he reached his target; legs and other body parts are far-flung around a pool of blood and ash. Perhaps the most unsettling of all is a picture of a man whose intestines were liquefied, apparently by a rocket-propelled grenade. He resembles a sack of raw meat dropped from a tall building more than a human being.
"It's not something I was used to seeing," Wilson tells me. "But then again, it wasn't my point to censor it. I wanted the soldiers to have an outlet where they felt they could express themselves however they wanted. If that's the way they wanted to do it, so be it."
As disturbing as the pictures are, the accompanying comments are even more so. There's no way to know for certain that they come from armed forces personnel, but regardless, they project a cavalier and utterly insensitive attitude toward death.
"Burn baby burn!!!!!" says one post, under the image of the charred body with soldiers posing around it. After another poster criticized the display, there came this response: "Fuck you renegade. For one thing [the picture is] from the first war in Kuwait and second of all we, as in me, are in charge of protecting your worthless ass, you fucking pot head piece of shit. They won, the haji lost [and] we celebrate cause they don't know how long it will be till they lose."
Another picture shows a woman whose leg has been blown off by a land mine. Her vagina is exposed under her skirt to the camera. The caption reads: "Nice puss bad foot."
Some of the pictures even appear to be of civilians, including two dead men who, according to comments below the picture, tried to run a checkpoint. "The bad thing about shooting them is that we have to clean it up," says the post.
I ask Wilson if the pictures and comments on his site bother him. "No, not at all," he replies. "It's newsworthy. Not everybody's going to like what they see, but nobody's forcing them to look at it, either."
AN UNCENSORED VIEW
This site is the last thing the U.S. Army needs. Support for the war in Iraq has never been ironclad; now, with the body count rising and few signs of tangible progress, President Bush's occupation is polling at an all-time low. Since its conception four years ago, the war on terror has been sullied by scandal, from Alberto Gonzalez's memo condoning torture to the use of secret tribunals to the missing weapons of mass destruction to Abu Ghraib, where American soldiers were pictured torturing Iraqi detainees.
The Pentagon is fighting to keep more pictures from Abu Ghraib from becoming public, saying they would ratchet up anti-American sentiment and become yet another recruiting point for al-Qaida and the Iraqi insurgency. Wilson's site is far more graphic than anything that ever came out of Abu Ghraib, and you have to wonder if it will achieve the same effect.
Officially, the Army doesn't want to discuss the public-relations ramifications of the site. Instead, it couches its disapproval in security terms, saying the images soldiers are posting could allow the enemy insight into how America is conducting its war efforts.
"We're reminding military personnel in country to please be careful not to post information that could give enemy forces feedback on [military] successes or failures," says Army spokesman Paul Boyce.
The Army announced a "preliminary inquiry" not, as The New York Times reported, an investigation, Boyce says on Sept. 28, a week after the California newsweekly East Bay Express became the first print newspaper in America to mention the gore on Wilson's website. It wasn't Wilson's first go-round with the press, however. In October 2004, the Army blocked Wilson's site from all of its computers after the New York Post reported that it displayed pictures of naked female soldiers.
But the Post never mentioned that Wilson's site allowed military personnel to exchange gruesome war pictures for access to porn. That fact was first picked up by an Italian blogger two months ago, Wilson says. Then it spread throughout the Internet, made its way into the European press, then to the East Bay Express and finally to the mainstream media.
After the Express story, the Council on American-Islamic Relations sent defense secretary Donald Rumsfeld a letter demanding an investigation. "This disgusting trade in human misery is an insult to all those who have served in our nation's military," CAIR legal director Arsalan Iftikhar wrote.
In comments to The New York Times, CAIR spokesman Ibrahim Hooper added, "I think it's really a disturbing phenomenon to see that our military personnel would be engaging in such inappropriate behavior, behavior that brings dishonor to the military."
The Army's inquiry is unlikely to produce Abu Ghraib-like arrests, however. For starters, since the posts are anonymous and Wilson doesn't track who sends him pictures it's impossible to tell who sent them, or whether or not they're authentic. Furthermore, Boyce says, the only crime the posters are possibly committing is a misdemeanor conduct unbecoming an officer or enlisted soldier. While the Geneva Conventions forbid the photographing of prisoners of war, and say that dead bodies should be treated with respect, journalists have taken pictures of the war dead since the invention of the camera. As far as the Army's concerned, taking pictures of the dead even the mutilated dead is an expression of free speech, so long as the remains aren't being treated disrespectfully or abused. So instead of courts-martial, Boyce says, the Army is dealing with the issue through the chain of command by having officers crack down on soldiers who post gory pictures on the Internet.
(Interestingly, Wilson later told the CNN crew he wouldn't have posted Abu Ghraib pictures. Those showed soldiers engaging in illegal behaviors, he said and that's one of two lines he won't cross. The other is an obviously faked or stolen picture.)
To Wilson, this is about free speech, and about circumventing the Bush administration's controls, including a ban on photographing American caskets. Asked about the possibility that his site will become Abu Ghraib Part Two, he responds: "That was the point of what I wanted to do. I wanted an uncensored view of what was going on over there. The mainstream media, the Bush administration suppressed them so much on what they can and cannot show … this is just an uncensored view."
For the record, Wilson backed the war against Afghanistan following Sept. 11, but doesn't voice as much support for Iraq. He describes himself as "not very political."
SUPPORTING THE TROOPS
Wilson does see himself as a staunch defender of the First Amendment, however. After all, he does run a porn site out of superconservative Polk County, no less.
All of the pages on his website feature this quote from the movie The American President: "America isn't easy. America is advanced citizenship. You've gotta want it bad, cause it's gonna put up a fight. It's gonna say, 'You want free speech? Let's see you acknowledge a man whose words make your blood boil, who's standing center stage and advocating at the top of his lungs that which you would spend a lifetime opposing at the top of yours.'"
Despite his free-speech rhetoric, the 27-year-old Wilson became an epicenter of controversy entirely by accident. He intended the site only to feature amateur porn, which he felt there just wasn't enough of on the Internet. To his own surprise and he's not sure why his site developed a large military following. But some of the soldiers stationed in the Middle East had problems establishing accounts with their credit cards. His solution was to give free access to the site to anyone who could prove he (or she) was an American soldier stationed in the Persian Gulf or Afghanistan. He wanted to support the troops and all. Acceptable proof: a picture of life in the war zone.
At first, the images he got back were fairly innocuous: pictures showing soldiers goofing off or posing in front of tanks. Then the photos got gory, and Wilson posted them alongside the others. He points out that those who send the gruesome photos get no more privileges on his site than those who offer tamer material. He says he never encouraged anyone to send in shots of blood and guts. Of course, he doesn't discourage them either.
Yes, gory stuff has added to his hit count. But, he notes, the porn side of the site is still far more popular. Of course all the media attention is paying off, though Wilson says he neither expected nor wanted it. Within the last week, his number of unique visitors nearly doubled, from 100,000 a day to 180,000 a day. As we spoke, 4,000 people were simultaneously downloading pictures from the site more than three times the usual amount and enough to overload his Amsterdam-based server.
It started after the Express story but didn't pick up full steam until the Army announced its inquiry, which got the rest of the media's antennae twitching. He had a full day Sept. 28: radio interviews at 6 a.m., then a few TV interviews, then me, then CNN. There will doubtless be more to come.
While the Army has focused on the soldiers who posted the pictures, Wilson hasn't been immune to criticism. The liberal magazine The Nation said he was reducing the horrors of combat to "a spectator sport." Later, the magazine continued, "[T]he posts on www.nowthatsfuckedup.com are not meant to subvert the sanitized mainstream media with the goal of waking the general public up to the horrors of war. Rather, all of the posters and many of the site's patrons appear to regard the combat photos with sadistic glee, and pathological wisecracks follow almost every post.
"If there is any redeeming value to such a clearinghouse for images of destruction and death, it would rest in the site's ability to offer an unflinching look at the obscenity of war and war's impact on the psyches of the soldiers called to fight it."
Wilson realizes that the more attention he gets, the more people will hate him. His critics will see him not as the impartial moderator of a controversial website, but as an active participant in desensitizing violence. Not that he cares.
"I don't even think it's that big of a deal," he says. He talks to the media, he tells me, not because he's looking for fame, but because they're going to write the story whether he comments or not, so he might as well. He already gets plenty of hate mail, and he's even gotten a few death threats.
"I get about three a day," he says matter-of-factly. From whom? "Just from anybody. I guess the last one was somebody calling themselves the Iraqi resistance, telling me they were going to cut my head off on video and show it to everyone."
Such is the life of the media's topic du jour. The attention won't last forever. His site's numbers will likely fall from the stratosphere after the hubbub dies down, and Wilson will fade back into anonymity.
To me, though, this hullabaloo is about more than one porn-and-gore website. This is the first war of the Internet age, the first time the most gruesome and grotesque images of battle and of the massive, catastrophic damage advanced weaponry can inflict on the human body are readily available for anyone with a modem.
War is hell. Wilson's website, and the others like it that are sure to appear, give us all a firsthand, unfettered look into that reality. It may not be the one the Army wants you to see, but it's there, in living color.