The graphic video enraging Afghanistan and America alike should upset you. But not for the reasons you think.
In 1971, six years after the United States sent combat units into Vietnam, the nonprofit group Vietnam Veterans Against the War sponsored the Winter Soldier Investigation. More a three-day press conference than an actual "investigation," Winter Soldier offered a platform to veterans and civilians who had seen the horrors of Vietnam firsthand and wanted to share their stories with the public.
On the first day, former Marine Joe Bangert was called on to talk about "the slaughter of civilians, the skinning of a Vietnamese woman... and the crucifixion of Vietnamese either suspects or civilians in Vietnam." Before dozens of other soldiers, civilians, and members of the press, Bangert testified that it was common practice for soldiers to not only kill scores of Vietnamese people at a time—some of whom were civilians—but to mutilate the dead. Bangert said sometimes they would disembowel corpses, then explode the bodies with C-4 to destroy the evidence of their sadism. "You don't even think of them as human beings; they're 'gooks,'" Bangert told reporters. "And they're objects; they're not human, they're objects."
Forty years after Bangert's brutal admissions, America and the Middle East are in an uproar about a video that appears to depict four Marines urinating onto the dead, bloodied bodies of Taliban fighters. The video emerged on Wednesday, and in the hours since, many have come forward to express their displeasure: The Taliban spoke up immediately to say it was outraged—though luckily not enough to walk away from Afghan peace talks; Senator John McCain, a Navy man who fought in Vietnam, said the incident "makes me so sad"; and Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta on Thursday called the video "utterly deplorable," adding that he'd ordered a full investigation by the Marine Corps. If the footage is proved to be authentic, the Marines could be brought up on charges of breaking rules of war, some of which prohibit photographing corpses.
What a world we live in, a world in which it's perfectly acceptable to shoot your enemy in the brain so long as you don't take a picture of his exploded head afterward.
This latest bit of U.S. military tactlessness is reminiscent of May 2011, when Navy SEALs stormed Osama bin Laden's Pakistani compound and shot him in the face. Both cases involve America's war on terrorism, of course. But they also both ask America to confront its feelings on what's appropriate when it comes to killing people. In May, that confrontation meant a great debate over whether it was prudent to release photos of bin Laden's shredded head. In the end, President Obama decided to not release the photos, a ruling met with happiness by those who believed publishing the pictures would be barbaric. "To put [bin Laden's] head on a digital spike and display his mangled head is, indeed, not the Western way," wrote Daily Beast blogger Andrew Sullivan. "We are better than that. [...] We don't torture and we respect the human dignity of even our worst enemies." Presumably Sullivan's logic applies to the urination video as well, an attack on the dignity of our enemies.
If you're a fan of dark comedy, all the hand-wringing about preserving the dignity of our enemies after they're dead can seem outright laughable. We allow—nay, encourage and demand, our troops to shoot people in the face, stab them in the guts, and bomb their homes. We ask them to do work that destroys families, communities, cities, and countries. We ask them to witness their friends and colleagues get slaughtered on the battlefield, and to see gore and trauma generally found in scary movies. What's more, frequently we ask them to do all this when they're still teenagers, too young to even drink a beer.
To be a soldier in wartime means being told constantly to do things that tread close to hellish. Yet when that hellishness occasionally boomerangs and smacks civilians in the face via grotesque videos and images, journalists and politicians like to label the soldiers "completely inhuman," as Afghan President Hamid Karzai called the urination footage. In fact, Karzai is right: It is completely inhuman. But it's inhuman because many of our soldiers have, for their own sanity, learned to strip humanity out of the equation, making their enemy not a man, but a "gook" or "towelhead." Being able to make that distinction in your mind is important in war, because when you can look at the person at the end of your gun barrel and think he's not a man, you allow yourself to ignore all the lessons you learned about how killing people is wrong. If your enemy is not a man like you, with a family and a mother, then why not shoot him in the heart? And once you've shot him in the heart, why not pee on him?
More American troops now kill themselves than die in combat, and female soldiers are more likely to be sexually assaulted by a colleague than to be killed by the enemy. In short, the kids aren't all right, and it's time for everyone to stop being shocked when they behave in abnormal, terrifying ways. War is an awful thing that irrevocably changes and destroys people, and it yields horrific, destructive behavior. If you'd like to live in a world in which soldiers don't pee on their dead enemies, then it's your duty to fight for a world in which soldiers aren't killing people in the first place.