In August 2021, as U.S. military forces returned home after spending 20 years in Afghanistan, and after more than a dozen soldiers were killed by a suicide bomber during the evacuation, a photograph started to circulate on social media that supposedly showed a cloud formation resembling a kneeling soldier. These posts were typically accompanied by praise for the United States military, religious messages, and the claim that the unusual scene was spotted recently in the Outer Banks, North Carolina.
One post with over 300,000 shares, read: “Wow look at this cloud that was photographed at the Outer Banks in North Carolina today That is unbelievable.”
This appears to be a genuine photograph. However, it was not taken in August 2021.
This photograph dates back to at least July 2017 when it was posted to social media by Twitter user Mark Hitchcock. The photo was originally captioned “The soldier in the sky”:
Hitchcock did not provide any information about where this photograph was taken. Since his profile lists his location as Bourne, England, it’s unlikely that it was taken in the Outer Banks of North Carolina.
Though the photograph appears to be a cloud formation, whether the clouds were shaped like a kneeling soldier is a matter of interpretation. The psychological phenomenon of seeing objects in random patterns is known as pareidolia, as explained by the science website Earthsky.org:
Maybe you’ve seen the proverbial bunny in the clouds on a warm summer day, or the face of a clown in a mud splatter on the side of your car? Seeing familiar objects or patterns in otherwise random or unrelated objects or patterns is called pareidolia. It’s a form of apophenia, which is a more general term for the human tendency to seek patterns in random information.
While this photograph appears to show a genuine cloud formation, it was not taken in August 2021. The picture dates back to at least 2017.
“Costs of the Afghanistan War, in Lives and Dollars.” AP NEWS, 14 Aug. 2021, https://apnews.com/article/middle-east-business-afghanistan-43d8f53b35e80ec18c130cd683e1a38f.
Seeing Things That Aren’t There? It’s Called Pareidolia | Human World | EarthSky. 25 Nov. 2020, https://earthsky.org/human-world/seeing-things-that-arent-there/.
Zimmermann, Kim Ann. “Pareidolia: Seeing Faces in Unusual Places.” Livescience.Com, 11 Dec. 2012, https://www.livescience.com/25448-pareidolia.html.