The other day some U.S. Marines got into trouble when a video of them peeing on three dead men leaked onto the Internet, pun intended.
In itself, I don’t think this is an especially big deal, as you may have guessed.
Now, as a practical matter, yes, this is damaging to our image and mission overseas. Yes, the Corps has to come out and say these Marines aren’t true Scotsmen, and Hillary Clinton has to pretend to be appalled.
But let’s be clear: the real problem is that they filmed this, and the lesson to learn is don’t document anything you don’t want everyone to know.
(A sniper can use a Koran for target practice, but he mustn’t make a photo of the resulting holey book.)
Those four are likely otherwise good soldiers, honorable and nice people. Punishment should be no more than obligatory.
So I was puzzled by the reactions of a lot of Americans; the idea seemed to most offend people who are typically the staunchest conservatives and pro-military.
I’ve said before that I certainly wouldn’t care if someone relieved himself on my dead body; if I did care, I’d — like Diogenes — beat them away with a stick. My failure to do so would mainly be a reflection of my inability to care.
And as far as their families being dishonored, I (perhaps incorrectly) assume they’d be OK with stoning rape victims. I assume the dead men hid in civilian homes and didn’t wear uniforms during combat. So I can’t work up much empathy in that regard.
Mainly, though, the incident lays bare one of the central, stupid hypocrisies of war, or maybe absurdity is a better term: you can kill someone and be congratulated, for this is laudable, but once you’ve put the person beyond the reach of anyone to harm again, you mustn’t be rude about it.
(“It’s just so… unnecessary,” as someone else put it.)
This in some ways seems a very modern idea, born of people able to witness war without being part of it.
Before he was king, the Bible’s David was tasked by Saul to collect 100 foreskins to win the hand of Saul’s daughter Michal (he brought back 200). Mesoamerican warfare involved widespread cannibalism, Genghis Khan made mountains of skulls. In World War II and Vietnam, even U.S. soldiers made trophies of enemy body parts.
So to say that peeing on a corpse goes beyond the pale of acceptable warfare is not only ridiculous but completely false.
And yet it is still important to say that, important to believe in, important to have boundaries and punish people when they cross those boundaries. It’s important to feel humans are more than just meat, and for soldiers to be expected to have some decorum.
It’s what makes people soldiers, not just butchers.
In George Orwell’s essay “England Your England,” he talks about his society, generally, at the time, and why his was still preferable to the naked force of other authoritarian regimes at the time.
In England such concepts as justice, liberty and objective truth are still believed in. They may be illusions, but they are very powerful illusions. The belief in them influences conduct, national life is different because of them. In proof of which, look about you. Where are the rubber truncheons, where is the castor oil? The sword is still in the scabbard, and while it stays there corruption cannot go beyond a certain point.
Likewise, even in war you have to keep part of the sword in the scabbard, because war is hell, and hell is other people.