Some Marines in Afghanistan pissed on a dead Taliban. And the Marines’ leadership is pissed off about it. As they say, it’s better to be pissed off than pissed on.
These kinds of things are clearly not good, but they are also somewhat predictable. Let’s not get carried away in our condemnations. Americans, like our enemies, have done things like this before. Eugene Sledge recalled with some horror how Americans pulled gold teeth from dead Japanese on Pelelieu. American “ear necklaces” and trophy photos were not unheard of in Vietnam. The pissing incident is pretty mild and spontaneous in the historical scale of mutilating the dead.
The tone of the leadership is lacking all proportion. General Amos said the wrongdoers would be prosecuted to the “fullest extent.” Defense Secretary Panetta described their actions as “deplorable.” Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said she saw the video with “total dismay.” The corrupt Hamid Karzai uttered some words of condemnation. And, as usual, we’re told this incident will inflame Muslim feelings.
Moral judgments must be intelligent, nuanced. Even when there is an objective moral wrong–a violation of the law of war and a violation of Christian principles about respect for the dead–in every case there is also the question of culpability. Here that question hinges on the mitigating effects of an extreme situation: namely, a war against a brutal and uncivilized enemy that has no regard for the laws of war.
These Marines had likely just completed a fight for their lives. They are young men whom we want to be aggressive and who spend the better part of boot camp being trained to kill enthusiastically. It is quite a bit to expect these 19 year old, testosterone-fueled, scared, tired, stressed out, and angry young men also to behave exquisitely when they complete a firefight and discover, to their elation, that it is the enemy Taliban who are dead rather than themselves.
Plus, let’s not forget there are many worse war crimes, like mistreatment of civilians, looting, killing prisoners, mutiny, and other atrocities, atrocities with living victims. To me this pissing incident is worrisome less for the harm of the underlying offense than its suggestion of a breakdown in discipline. We do not want an undisciplined force for our own selfish reasons. But even so, we recognize–or at least we should recognize–that military discipline is working against ordinary human instincts in wartime, such as aggression, thankfulness to be alive, hatred of the enemy, and contempt for this terrorist enemy in particular. Our concerns for discipline must be realistic.
In other words, as in the civilian world, the law should take into account extreme emotional states and provocation in determining punishment and meting out justice. Obviously certain crimes go beyond mere misplaced aggression and suggest a psychopath; such individuals clearly must be identified and punished. This is not such a crime. This is one of ordinary men committing ordinary human offenses under conditions of extraordinary stress and privation. From our military and political leadership, some balance is called for.
The leadership outrage is not only excessive, but such occasional pirouettes of outrage are highly selective. Is there equal outrage for the fact that this unlawful enemy tries every day to kill our troops and their own countrymen who may support us? Will we condemn the widespread fraternization, adultery, and screwing around that occurs as a result of putting women in a combat zone? Or how about the crimes that thuggish guys in uniform sometimes commit at home, like the rape murder of a Marine couple that occurred in San Diego? Will our leaders condemn with equal fervor the lawless attack on our airpower by Pakistani border guards? (No, it is we who apologized to them.) Finally, will we note the relative scale of war crimes here, as it is the Taliban that ran a totalitarian state worthy of the Khemer Rouge before our arrival and who today sexually mutilate women who will not go along with their Satanic program?
I must say, I’m especially tired of hearing about how this will affect the enemy and his feelings. Muslim feelings are already inflamed against America, let’s not forget. Before Abu Ghraib and the death of bin Laden and the Koran burning pastor, we had the 9/11 attacks. Before, during, and after this incident, Muslims have tried abroad and at home to kill our countrymen. They likely will do so as long as we try to transform their backwards societies, and they will probably still hate us from afar even when this task is abandoned, because we are wealthy and powerful and, most importantly, because we are not Muslim.
As I said above, this kind of crime suggests a breakdown in discipline. It needs to be punished for that reason, but that punishment should fit the crime. It certainly does not deserve any jail time, the stupid video notwithstanding.
One might think that the video has necessitated extreme punishment because of diplomatic considerations. I think that is only part of it. There is a domestic agenda that these men and their unbridled warrior aggression threatens. The video suggests their confusion, their youth, and their immaturity in more ways than one. The men involved are especially unwise to forget the politically correct military whom they serve, a military whose leaders did cartwheels to defend diversity after Major Nidal Hassan killed 13 fellow soldiers, a military that has fallen over itself to integrate gays, and a military that has declared its traditional core of white males obsolete in order to pursue the sacred goal of diversity, a military that is impossibly trying to “win hearts and minds” while deliberately ignoring the impact of totalitarian Islam. I find these things 100 times more offensive than whatever a bunchy of lance corporals did to some Taliban corpse.
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