Desecrating the dead: An alternate view
God bless the US Marines.
Every society -- even the freest and the most civilized -- needs a warrior class to protect it. And the Marines, generally regarded as the best warriors in the world, function in that regard for America.
They are the sharp end of the spear of American policy and their arrival on the battlefield strikes fear in the breast of our enemies. They are trained for one purpose, and one purpose only; to kill our enemies. We don't send the Marines in to negotiate, and we usually don't send them in to build schools and hospitals. We send them in to seek out and kill as many of the enemy as can be found.
To accomplish this necessary goal, we train the Marines to see the enemy as not quite human. There are many subtle ways this is done, but the bottom line is that it relieves our warriors of the tremendous psychic burden that being civilized human beings has placed on them; that killing another person is murder.
Dehumanizing the enemy in war, then, is unavoidable if we wish our warriors to survive and achieve success. Thus, the questions raised by the Marines who, at the very least, disrespected the dead by urinating on them, have far more to do with who we are as a nation than what we think of the Taliban.
We should not mourn the death of any Taliban. They are trying to kill Americans and killing them first is the best way to fight and win the war. But every society has customs and rituals associated with the dead and deliberately violating them by desecrating the bodies of our enemy is not in the "warrior ethos" as Corps Commandant Genearl Jim Amos said in a statement responding to the video of the act.
He's right. We're better than that. The Marines are better than that. It's not political correctness that is at the heart of the real criticism of the actions of the Marines. (criticism by domestic critics and America's enemies is exaggerated and mostly without merit, having more to do with politics than ethics). It is the notion that America is an exceptional country and that by definition, we hold our warriors to a higher standard. The argument that the Taliban does worse, or Muslims have desecrated the bodies of Americans as they did in Somali doesn't hold water. Are we to ape the worst behaviors of the enemy and justify it as tit for tat? Or, are our standards superior to our enemies and thus, criticism of the Marines is justified?
Sebastion Junger, director of the superior documentary "Restrepo" which follows a company of Marines for a year in the "Valley of Death" - the Korengal Valley in Afghanistan -- has an interesting piece in the Washington Post about the Marines and why they may have acted as they did:
The U.S. military should be held to a higher standard, certainly, but it is important to understand the context of the behavior in the video. Clearly, the impulse to desecrate the enemy comes from a very dark and primal place in the human psyche. Once in a while, those impulses are going to break through.
There is another context for that behavior, though - a more contemporary one. As a society, we may be disgusted by seeing U.S. Marines urinating on dead Taliban fighters, but we remain oddly unfazed by the fact that, presumably, those same Marines just put high-caliber rounds through the fighters' chests. American troops are not blind to this irony. They are very clear about the fact that society trains them to kill, orders them to kill and then balks at anything that suggests they have dehumanized the enemy they have killed.
But of course they have dehumanized the enemy - otherwise they would have to face the enormous guilt and anguish of killing other human beings. Rather than demonstrate a callous disregard for the enemy, this awful incident might reveal something else: a desperate attempt by confused young men to convince themselves that they haven't just committed their first murder - that they have simply shot some coyotes on the back 40.
It doesn't work, of course, but it gets them through the moment; it gets them through the rest of the patrol.
We sometimes forget the tremedous psychological cost to our warriors of fighting for our country. The epidemic of Post Traumatic Stress Syndrome cases of our soldiers returning from Afghanistan and Iraq should remind us of this. Dealing with the stress of combat is an individual war within the war and, as Junger writes, we shouldn't be shocked when a release of the kind the Marines chose to effect occurs.
But this can't excuse the behavior.Despite war being a dehumanizing venture, it nonetheless demands that a baseline of ethical and moral behavior be followed. One of those ethical lines in the sand has to be a simple respect for the dead bodies of our enemies who, after all, can no longer harm anyone and are someone's husband, father, or brother. Inflicting pain on the innocent by desecrating the body of their loved one is not exceptional. It is fundamentally wrong whether there is a written rule in the Geneva Conventions, or the Marine Corps Code of Conduct, or not. The bottom line is, we wouldn't want an enemy soldier treating our dead that way -- a good rule to follow when fighting for an exceptional country like the United States.
What kind of punishment - if any - should the Marines be subject to I can't say. Nor should the Commandant determine their fate based on the outcry from those who hate the Marines for what they do without recognizing their existential value to the nation. The idea being advanced by some on the left that this is some sort of "Abu Ghraib" repeat is idiotic. No one was hurt. No one was tortured. No one was killed. The notion that this is some kind of "war crime" is equally nonsensical - a criticism made more for political effect than any reflection of reality.
I hope General Amos places their actions in the proper context and makes his decision on whether to punish the Marines or not by basing it on the high standards set by the Marine Corps and not the rantings of civilian partisans who want to use the incident to further their own political agendas.