Sunday, January 15, 2012

When Nature Calls

Is there a Geneva Convention statute giving instructions for the disposition of the dead in war? At a bare minimum, there must certainly be one that requires for a proper burial. And it probably condemns the sort of treatment that a group of U.S. marines gave to the dead bodies of Taliban in a video recently "leaked" on YouTube. It gives us a rather lurid glimpse into the mentality of these men, and should give us pause about what war can do to perfectly civilized people.

Nobody seems to want to any more, but the only way we are ever going to understand why American fighting men do such things is by thinking about why one of them decided to record it and share it with others. They knew that it was wrong, but they had to have believed that they would get away with it and that there would be support for their actions among fellow marines. They believed, I think, that they were demonstrating to one another their absolute mastery over their enemy. Their act of desecration proved that their Taliban adversaries, although dead, could be useful.

A few people, who also expressed disgust for the incident, hinted at some understanding for its context. Evidently, there had been a firefight, and the enemy dead had been placed in a pile. No one who hasn't been under fire and fought off the assault to live another day can possibly imagine what the experience is like. There is no other experience even remotely like it. It can be explained in physiological terms, when the adrenaline those marines were affected by, the exhilaration of coming close to death and surviving, was probably extraordinary. It's at precisely such moments that ideas like "professionalism" and "decorum" become especially meaningless. While combat is the single event for which all of a marine's or a soldier's training has prepared him, nothing can prepare him for the gamut of emotions or the velocity of their arrival and departure. It is in all the minutes, hours, and days after the event that the marine or soldier shows his true mettle. And the majority of those fighting men, the junior enlisted men, are 19 or 20 years old. Their high school buddies back home are getting high, partying, and doing all the things that 19 and 20 year olds normally do.

While on deployment in Afghanistan, each deployment lasting for 365 days, these young men earn what's known as "certain places pay" (i.e., combat pay) and their base pay isn't taxed. If their units weren't tightly knit prior to its deployment, the ever-present fear of being on patrol and the constant tension and relaxation of being in or out of garrison, produces a fellowship among them that is unprecedented and irreplaceable. For many of them, the thought of separating from the service, when their unit faces the likelihood of further deployments, is unthinkable. Ask any of those young men what they are fighting for and they will tell you, unequivocally, that it is for one another. Their mission may include everything from "peace-keeping" to "nation-building", but such concepts have meaning only for the people who have the time to think about them. These young men have a clear and direct understanding of brotherhood, of being more than an individual, of being a part of something bigger than themselves.

In order to overcome their basic reluctance to kill another human being, these young men have to be de-sensitized - i.e., brutalized - to the point at which the human beings whom they are called on to kill are deprived of their humanity. It happens in all wars. But it is especially prevalent when there are racial or cultural differences separating them from their enemies.

Sending these young men to do our dirty work and then criticizing the manner in which they do it is exceptionally hypocritical. What those marines did wasn't a disgrace to the U.S. Marine Corps. It was an embarrassment to the military mission in Afghanistan, which is trying to convince ordinary Afghans that they are there to help them achieve a pluralistic, secular state. Doubtless, the marines will have to be provided with further instruction in the proper handling of all those who oppose such a state, once they have been properly killed, that is.

Our notions of "limited war", of a "low-intensity conflict" have been severely tested by the estimates of somewhere between 12,000 and 14,000 civilian dead in ten years. 95% of the world's supply of opium comes from Afghan poppy farmers. If the Taliban want to terrorize the world, they could do worse than to simply rely on the heroin that supplies the estimated 15 to 16 million addicts worldwide, tens of thousands of whom die early deaths every year.

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