Andrew James John Mackenzie
an historiography
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Loot; War Trophies and Victory Souvenirs

Combatants fight for something. Freedom, conquest, political and social transformation. Each is different and each is unique in scope. On a more micro level, soldiers will fight for one another, for personal creeds and moralities and, indeed, even for their own personal gain. The victors are often depicted with the spoils of war, the systematic accumulation of enemy materials, munitions and iconography. Historically, since the Greco-Romano period, military victories and occupations have been marked with war trophies. War in the modern era is no exception. The acquittal of SAS Sgt. Danny Nightingale highlights the continued fascination with acquiring and collecting battlefield souvenirs.

According to Maj. Gen. Julian Thompson, a veteran of the Falklands war, the need to collect enemy materials as battle mementos is an “irresistible urge” for many soldiers for it is linked in human nature:
"War trophies go back to when we were all running around in skins, or not even dressed in anything at all, and you took something from your enemy - his best stone axe - and waved it around in the air to proclaim dominance."  

Following the cessation of hostilities on the Falklands Islands, soldiers were ordered to dispose of the ‘mementoes’ collected whilst on tour. Thompson contends that the practice was so rife amongst British troops that "[t]he night before we arrived home the whole ship was surrounded by splashes as the pistols went overboard." His experiences of that particular conflict and the practice of war trophies is one of consternation:

"What you can't do and what is totally illegal is to steal things off people. If you capture someone and he's got a gold cross round his neck, to steal that as a personal possession is totally wrong."

In the recent conflicts of Iraq and Afghanistan there is no exception to the major’s ruling. Sgt. Joseph Coyne, 1st Battalion, Royal Irish Regiment, related his own battlefield experiences, capturing a Taliban flag with Islamic prayer scripture:

"We had an area to our east that we couldn't really patrol. Eventually when we did push forward we identified that it was a Taliban flag and just ripped it down. It's a show of presence that they had got rule of that area if the flag was flying, so we just took it down and kept hold of it."

Source: Imperial War Museum

The case of Sgt. Danny Nightingale, who was sentenced to 18 months' military detention for keeping a 9mm Glock pistol he says was given as a present in Iraq, highlights a different concern - weapons as war trophies. Ministry of Defence policies concerning the aerial transport of these items are as stringent as those found within civilian circles, troops must comply with the same rules and procedures found on commercial flights. However, requests can be made to superior officers and items allowed for travel are governed on a case by case basis, depending on the item in question, its use and its associated risks posed to others in civilian life. Completely deactivated weapons can be brought back for instance, but an application must still be made to higher command.

Following the experiences of Sgt. Nightingale, soldiers are perhaps a little bit more concerned about bringing such controversial items back into the UK from overseas theatres of war. Thompson believes that "It's less prevalent than it used to be because the rules have got stricter over the years," resulting in the various brushes of the law for both returning soldiers and their families.

Despite these certain disincentives, there will always be a fascination with collecting military materials. Military historian, Dr. Peter Caddick-Adams, contends that for as long as there is warfare and combatants in service, there will always be a need and a desire for trophies of war providing they are not offensive nor dangerous:

"The taking home of perfectly innocent trophies has always been part of military history and always will be in the future."
Imperial War Museum (IWM), © IWM 2012.
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