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Respecting the (Enemy) Dead

Much has been made lately of the video circulated the Web that purportedly shows U.S. Marines urinating on dead men, presumably Taliban fighters killed by the Marines. Defense Secretary Leon Panetta called the act “utterly deplorable.” Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said she was dismayed, and Marine Corps Commandant Gen. James Amos said the Marines in that video behaved in a manner that is “wholly inconsistent with the high standards of conduct and warrior ethos that we have demonstrated throughout our history” and vowed to investigate and punish the guilty.

Almost as quickly, some came to the Marines’ defense, the gist being that (a) there was no similar outrage when the Taliban committed atrocities, (b) “war is hell,” or (c) the Taliban deserved it. Indeed, one female radio host boasted that she’d have “dropped trou” and joined the Marines. Rep. Allen West of Florida, who served in combat in Iraq, acknowledged that the Marines deserved punishment but added that “unless you have been shot at by the Taliban, shut your mouth, war is hell.”

I served seven years as a Marine and recently returned after several months in Afghanistan serving as a Department of Defense civilian with special operations forces. I was also shot at by the Taliban, although the incoming volleys of 107mm rockets were more likely addressed “to whom it may concern” than me personally. But for Rep. West’s purposes, I think that counts enough for me to express my opinion that he and the other defenders of this action are mistaken.

Strategic Corporal

First, there are practical considerations. One blogger snarked that this act would simply make the Taliban hate us more. But that misses the point. In the 1990s the Commandant of the Marine Corps, Gen. Chuck Krulak, coined the phrase “the strategic corporal.” By that he meant that, in the age of CNN, a Marine non-commissioned officer who would normally be assigned to lead the smallest of tactical units, a four-man fire team, could have an impact on the national strategic level through acts that would be shown on TV screens around the world. How much more is this true now in the age of Al Jazeera and YouTube?

In Afghanistan there exists a large population who do not want a return to Taliban theocracy but who are also suspicious of outsiders. Some areas are so remote and untouched by the modern news cycle that they think Americans are Russians—-yet they are not so out-of-touch that they would miss this video. The Taliban are already using the incident as propaganda that reinforces the message that Americans want only to despoil their culture and attack Islam. This action by the Marines does tremendous damage to American efforts to get the population to oppose the return of the Taliban.

Love Our Enemies

Aside from the tactical/operational/strategic considerations here, there is a moral dimension to be considered. We must not rationalize or excuse this act of desecration. Scripture tells us to love our enemies, as they are beings created in the sacred image of God. To desecrate is to de-consecrate, to make unsacred. In a way, to desecrate the dead is to attack God in effigy.

To be sure, war is hell, but it is precisely for that reason that we must safeguard against making it more hellish. Yes, al Qaeda murdered 3,000 people on 9/11, and the Taliban and other Islamists are not shy about butchering their enemies. But should we expect anything different? It’s like complaining that scorpions sting; it’s what they do.

We should be different. We have imposed a fundamental tension on ourselves by maintaining a moral code, even in war. That’s why we have rules of engagement that limit what actions may legitimately be done in warfare. It is why we don’t indiscriminately destroy villages, despite having the means to do so. It is why we fight the enemy and kill him if necessary in battle, but once he is captured, wounded, or dead, he is no longer a legitimate target and must be treated with respect. That the enemy does not believe this is no excuse for us to abandon our own moral code.

Another Desecration

The desecrated dead know nothing of what’s happened to them. But there is another desecration that happens, this time to the perpetrator’s soul. In his World War II memoir With the Old Breed, Eugene B. Sledge wrote that Marines would sometimes pry gold teeth from the jaws of dead Japanese. He had refrained, but after one battle on Peleliu he decided to indulge. With knife in hand, he bent to pry the gold from a dead soldier’s mouth when the corpsman, Doc Caswell, put a hand on his shoulder. “You don’t want to do that sort of thing,” he said gently. “What would your folks think if they knew?” Sledge tried to rationalize, but in the end he abstained. After the war, he reflected that the wise corpsman, who had managed to retain his humanity in the face of incredible brutality, was trying to keep Sledge from forfeiting his own.

We should wish only the same for our men and women at war.