Sunday, January 15, 2012

To Pee or Not To Pee?

“It is absolutely inconsistent with American values, with the standards of behavior that we expect from our military personnel.” US Secraetary of State Hillary Clinton

“This act by American soldiers is simply inhuman and condemnable in the strongest possible terms.” Afghan President Hamid Karzai

“No religion in the world will allow someone to do this…” Taliban Spokesman Qari Yousuf Ahmadi

By now you probably know what could unite Hillary Clinton, Hamid Karzai, and Qari Yousuf Ahmadi. Several US Marines urinated on some dead Taliban fighters in Helmand Province in Afghanistan. Someone on the scene filmed the actions of these soldiers. Someone then posted the video online, thus ensuring it will live forever. As evidenced by the quotations above, reaction around the world has been swift and near-unanimous condemnation of the actions of these young American soldiers.

People are shocked and horrified.

I have to be honest—I am shocked and horrified, too. But my shock and horror are of a different flavor than most. A soldier peeing on a dead enemy fighter is immature. Another soldier filming soldiers peeing on dead enemy fighters is perverse. Posting the video where anyone could see soldiers peeing on dead enemy fighters is ill-considered.

But I would argue that none of these actions is “inhuman.” In fact, it is ONLY humans who do this sort of thing. We always have and probably always will. Read the ancient Greeks. What did Achilles do when he killed Hector? He tied him up to a chariot and dragged his corpse around for all to see. Have you read or seen Black Hawk Down? What did the Iraqis do to the bodies of the contractors they caught in Fallujah back near the beginning of President Bush’s invasion of Iraq? For as long as there have been wars, there have been men (mostly) treating the bodies of the enemy in ways that are disrespectful.

In fact, it seems unfair to expect otherwise. Take a young soldier, train him to kill, immerse him in a situation that breeds hate and contempt, order him to kill, and then expect him to treat the hated enemy’s body with respect? That is asking a lot.

What amazes me about the behavior of US troops in Iraq and Afghanistan is that the great majority of these young men and women DO rise to the occasion and DO treat the bodies of dead enemies with respect. It is a real testament to their training and their character that incidents like this are few and far between. I am in no way excusing what those Marines did in Helmand—it was stupid and will have repercussions far beyond Afghanistan.

The shock and horror I have been feeling the past few days have been rooted in the fact that humans are still solving problems between groups the same way we did 5000 years ago. And instead of using our prodigious intellects to think our way around war, we have been making up rules for the “civilized” prosecution of our wars. Government officials, citizens, soldiers, and Taliban spokesmen are all upset that some dead fighters were peed on by some live soldiers, but no one seems upset by the fact that the live soldiers shot and killed the dead ones to begin with. Which is worse: that some living American soldiers urinated on some dead Taliban fighters, or that some Americans and some Afghanis who don’t even know each other are trying to kill each other?

As I said, I am not trying to minimize the stupidity and callousness of what those Marines did in Helmand. But I do wish Hillary Clinton, Hamid Karzai, Qari Yousuf Ahmadi, John McCain, and all the others who were so shocked and horrified by the actions of those Marines would step back and take a moment to think about which is worse: Killing someone or peeing on his corpse? These Marines certainly deserve some blame, but our species’ continued reliance on warfare to “solve” problems is the real culprit here, not a 23-year old grunt.

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