US marines: Watch where you aim

Condemning the urination of US marines on insurgent corpses as inhumane makes little sense.

US Marines
The US marines’ actions might have been an attempt to release the tension caused by the hardships of war [Reuters]

New York, NY – US officials, President Karzai and the Taliban have found something they can all agree on: that US marines pissing on insurgent corpses is beyond the pale of humanity. No doubt the Europeans also emphatically endorse this view.

The US Secretary of Defence, Leon Panetta, termed the incident “utterly deplorable”. Hillary Clinton is in “utter dismay” at the un-American conduct of the marines. President Karzai found it “simply inhuman”. So too did the Taliban, who released an official statement condemning the “inhuman act of wild American soldiers” who behaved “in contradiction with all human and ethical norms”.

Undeniably these marines are guilty of idiocy. It is one thing to piss on the corpse of an enemy; in the post-Abu Ghraib era to do so on video is quite another. These marines have let down their comrades and their country.

But what are we to make of the shared emphasis in condemning the “inhumanity” of the marines? Since the marines are clearly human like the rest of us, why does it seem so obvious to so many that their conduct was “inhuman”?

At the end of their tour in Afghanistan, the colonel in command of one US Army brigade went around to speak to his soldiers in small groups as they prepared for departure. He told them that what they had been doing in Afghanistan for the past year was not “normal life”. They needed now to go home and rediscover what it meant to be normal again with their loved ones.

War may indeed be a different world from civilian life. But it is very much a human world, a world created by people in extreme and difficult circumstances. The pissing marines had served in Helmand, scene of some of the most intense fighting in Afghanistan. Seven marines from their battalion had been killed, and several times that number wounded.

Combat is an exchange of blood debt between groups of fighters. When a group suffers loss of their own, they settle the debt by inflicting loss on the enemy. But amid the ebb and flow of war, the scales are never quite in balance for those involved. There is always a debt to be redeemed. In a racially charged conflict, where each side constructs its enemy as less than human, the scales never can be balanced.

In such race wars, humans filled with rage and loss, do awful, inexplicable things.

In his classic memoir of service in the US marines in World War II, E.B. Sledge describes the moment his unit occupied some positions held by Japanese they had just killed. A Japanese machine gunner was still sitting upright behind his gun, the crown of his skull blasted off. As they rested nearby, one of Sledge’s comrades absent-mindedly tossed little coral pebbles into the open skull of the Japanese machine gunner. “Each time his pitch was true I heard a little splash of rainwater in the ghastly receptacle.”

Sledge’s humanity is evident on every page of his account of war. But even he was tempted to harvest gold teeth from Japanese corpses, an act he had been initially appalled by.

When he started to do so, one of Sledge’s friends stayed his hand with a warning about “germs”. Reflecting on the incident after the war, Sledge realised that his friend was not really thinking about disease: “He was a good friend and a fine, genuine person whose sensitivity hadn’t been crushed out by the war. He was merely trying to help me retain some of mine.”

As that US brigade commander realised, this is not a normal situation. Not too many months before these incidents, Sledge was a young college student, and later, he would become a biology professor. What separates us from Sledge and his fellow marines is not a question of humanity, but of the situation we are in.

While marines today do not face circumstances as bad as Sledge’s on Peleliu, these stories perhaps place corpse pissing in perspective. Such behaviour does not only arise from race hate, however. Some combat dynamics are more universal – that is to say, more human.

For example, surrender can be difficult in pitched fighting. A defender cannot shoot attackers one moment, and expect quarter the next. A Second World War Japanese infantry officer explains: “After fierce battles when many comrades were killed, men were excited and felt strong hatred against the enemy soldiers and were provoked to kill even helpless prisoners.”

“Officials ought to remember also that these are the kinds of things that happen in the wars they are themselves directing.”

Soldiers of all nations have acted in this way. As he bayoneted a German soldier who had extracted too high a price before surrendering, a British sergeant told him “too late chum”.

In this vein, US soldiers and marines today do face some particularly diabolical stresses. They lose their comrades in IED attacks and other ambushes which deny them the opportunity to settle scores directly. When insurgents are killed, it is often by air strike, indirect fires or at the hands of another unit. It is likely these were the kinds of tensions being released upon those Taliban corpses.

For senior US officials to help purvey accusations of the worst kind against the US military – as inhuman – makes little sense. While offering assurances that they will clean house, they should strongly distance themselves from the notion that this is a peculiarly US issue. Iraqis, Afghans, Americans and others have been mutilating each others’ corpses for some years now.

Such officials ought to remember also that these are the kinds of things that happen in the wars they are themselves directing. As the Japanese officer quoted above remarked, “it is the war that forces us to do the killing”.

For the rest of us in the liberal-minded citizenry, we would do well to recall that wars are initiated and sustained by leaders and governments, and by the powerful interests and passions that back them.

To vent frustration for this situation by easy condemnation of some young enlisted marines is a bit like pissing on corpses.

Tarak Barkawi is Associate Professor in the Department of Politics, New School for Social Research.

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial policy.