Let me see if I get this right: We take an eighteen-year-old kid, break down his inhibitions against killing another person, train him to kill, place him in harm’s way and require him to kill or be killed, and then expect what? That he will blow the smoke from his smoking barrel, walk away from the battlefield with a smile on his face, and not suffer aftershocks? Warriors will suffer road rage. I suspect it goes with the turf.
The furor over the Internet film of several Marines urinating on the corpses of three Taliban fighters they had just killed in battle is disturbing. No question about it. But to suggest it is a war crime, or the moral equivalent of sacrilege, is going too far.
We’ve been at war in Atghanistan for a decade. There is no end in sight to the conflict, the longest ever in American history. Thousands of young men have been pushed through basic training in the dark arts of war. Some have been killed as their comrades stood by; others have been maimed for life. I suspect not one of these warriors has walked away without deep psychological wounds. Who would it expect otherwise?
The recent Internet videotape has gone viral. The Council on American-Islamic Relations wants the Marines punished to the full extent of the law. The Marine Corps acknowledges that the video appears to be authentic, and promises a full investigation. The young men filmed will no doubt be cashiered some time soon while the military sorts it out.
I’ve never served in the military and have not been trained to kill. Perhaps it is possible to make homicide seem as though it is all in a days work. But I doubt it. On the few occasions in my adult life in which I have faced an immanent threat of physical harm, some primitive switch was flicked. I suspect I could kill if pressed, but at great intra-psychic cost. I suspect that when faced with death at the hands of another all of us are little more than animals, instinctually fighting to survive and re-enacting primordial rituals to demonstrate our dominance over the threat. Like dogs, we mark out territory.
When I see these Marines urinating on the men who only moments before had tried to kill them, I am not shocked. The act demonstrates contempt, to be sure. And it may well be inconsistent with the warrior’s code of respect due to a fallen adversary. But it does not appear to be the calculated and deliberate acts of men bent on mayhem. It looks more like boys happy still to be alive and engaging in a ritual meant to minimize and trivialize what had only moments earlier been a lethal threat. They will face death again at the hands of others.
War is savage and barbaric. It is, however, one of the world’s oldest pastimes. We kid ourselves if we think we can make killing machines of people and that, once blood has been shed, the killer can simply walk away from the gore as if it were nothing other than a day in a different sort of office.
I recall during the Vietnam War watching the evening news. I saw men maimed and writhing in agony as medics tried to staunch devastating wounds. I saw fear on the faces of boys just a few years older than me as they shot to kill. We all watched the news and what we saw mobilized us not against the soldiers, but against the war. Policymakers wondered aloud whether showing such graphic footage of the quotidian realities of mortal conflict served the public interest. If we had to look at the bitter reality of wars, why we might not want to wage them.
Times have changed. We now embed reporters with fighting units, the better to record it all. And the soldiers themselves have access to inexpensive and easy to use video cameras. We have far more close-ups of what war does to people than ever before. It is no wonder we are troubled by what we see.
Odds are the young men in this film will be strung up by military authorities. They will be treated like political road kill. Expect them to stuck in a military brig right next to Bradley Manning, and to be presumed guilty by the commanders who told them to run headlong into the arms of death. We will sacrifice them to make ourselves feel better.
But larger questions remain. Questions about post-traumatic stress disorder, about the support and care we give to young men told to risk more than the rest of us can imagine. And we really don’t know just how common such acts of desecration really are. All we know is that on one occasion a fellow solider, for whatever reasons, decided to publish the tape to the world. I wonder what routine foxhole savagery we’ve been spared in this and countless other battles?
The soldiers will be prosecuted. Their trial should be public. A key question at trial will be the matter of selective prosecution. Were these men prosecuted for what they did, or because there is a public record of what took place? I suspect it is the latter, and that we hypocrites don’t mind a little desecration in the service of military necessity. We just don’t want to be forced to watch it. Open the records. Tell us this never happened before; that it is unprecedented. We all know better. We know war is hell, and those who survive are singed forever by hellfire.
Do we really think Miss Manners should serve as a drill instructor?