If you have been paying any attention to the news at all today, you have likely already seen the video of American Marines urinating on corpses in Afghanistan. The number of levels on which this is disturbing is legion. I am mostly working out my thoughts on this as I write, so I may be unorganized at best, but feel this should be addressed.
First of all there is the most superficial reaction. These men are desecrating bodies. They are soiling once living beings in a way that causes a “yuck” factor. As a philosopher I am not particularly worried about this “yuck” factor, but I am also well aware of its existance and the reaction many have is a red flag that makes me want to look into the reaction. Perhaps at another time.
Immediately after the “yuck” reaction comes a social reaction. This handful of men armed with a video camera have just done more to turn the opinions and support of the average global citizen against America than anything we can do to counter such an attitude. Any good will that the global population may have had after the withdrawal from Iraq, any lingering hope for foreign policy change that might have come from a changing of the presidential guard, any shift in attitude after the “arab spring,” all of that is effectively wiped from the minds of billions of humans today. This is a propeganda win of the highest order. This video is being shown on cell phones, TVs, ipods, and computers around the world. And with every showing these men have done more damage to this country than any terrorist attack has ever done.
There is also the defense being claimed by some, namely PTSD. On the one hand, this is a paper thin excuse for a behavior that can only be condemned. But it stems from a very real issue. We have asked young men and women, 18-25 year olds who signed up for the military, in many cases, becasue they see no other way out of the conditions they find themselves in, to do the impossible. These kids are very often under educated, under valued, and lacking prospects. Then we offer them training, education, paychecks, schooling oppertunities, and respect. All in the name of serving their country. We pray upon teens with no prospects and deep patriotism, and we then ask them to travel to another country, generally for multiple tours, where they will not only put their lives on the line, and watch their friends be injured or even killed, but once they are done, we send them back for a second, third or even fourth tour of duty. And while there we ask them (again, youth often with little world experience, cultural exposure, or life experience) to act as police officers rather than soldiers. Then having asked them to do work they where never trained for long after they should have finished, with people we have filled them full of propaganda to hate, we feign shock that they would do such things.
Is it really shocking that a population self selected in part because of their patriotism and desire to serve would, when fed a diet of propaganda and weapons training, find ways to defile the bodies of their countries “enemies”? What is shocking is the comparative rarity of these sorts of cases.
Yet none of these issues speak to what is to me the most troubling aspect of this tragedy. As I was listening to one interview about the topic on the radio, the soldier being interviewed spoke about the “deeply immoral act” that was done. It occurs to me that we have lost the thread of the discussion of “morality.”
Lets be clear, I am not in any way excusing the action. It is deplorable. I think I already made that clear. It will cause damage in ways that the men who did it couldn’t have imagined. May never imagine. And even if it had never been recorded, never known, it is an act that reflects a dehumanization that should be disturbing to us all.
But to refer to it as “deeply immoral” is troubling. Not because of the act, but because of the contrast. The act was done to bodies. Dead bodies. Whether bodies of innocent or guilty we may never know. Perhaps we can’t even judge. The fact that we, as a nation, perhaps as a species, are so immune to that, the most simple fact of the case, is a problem. We can’t say that the desecration of the bodies was immoral. We don’t have a scale to make that judgement. Because we already made sure that life left those bodies before the act happened. The morality of murder, even in self defense (if it was) is not something we care about. Not enough to comment on. It is trivial. Beneath notice. Unlike desecration of the bodies afterwards…
Between Iraq and Afghanistan, “W’s folly” has cost the species hundreds of thousands of lives. When we discuss body counts in America however, when we can both to think about the issue, we only count Americans. The enemy, the other, simply doesn’t count. Literally.
It isn’t simply that we are doing something that groups have done throughout all of human history, to wit making the enemy something else, something less than human so that we can destroy them without conscience. It is that we are simultaneously aware of how this will reflect on us. Not enough to stop some of us from doing things like desecrating bodies. But enough to be aware of the harm that desecration does to us. And yet not to see the simple fact that killing hundreds of thousands is a “deeply immoral act.”