The Marines and the Taliban Dead — and the Paradoxes of Our Wars

by Victor Davis Hanson

Humane treatment of the enemy dead and of prisoners are ideals for every army, and in the case of the American essential and most often followed — but not always. Read E.B. Sledge’s With the Old Breed, especially his horrifying chapter on Okinawa, for what the Japanese did to American corpses, and for occasional Americans (condemned by Sledge) disfiguring or looting of Japanese corpses. 

The urinating Marines will and should be disciplined, and their behavior brought up to other units as behavior to avoid; reprimand is critical, given that Afghanistan is a televised political war that hinges on public support, and such treatment will probably prove counterproductive on the battlefield anyway.

The incident, though, reminds us of the contradictions of the American experience since 9/11, warped by both technology and politics. Abu Ghraib, where a few guards humiliated Iraqi prisoners (most of them terrorists with blood on their hands), was rightly condemned as both immoral and harmful to our mission. But it was a product of poor officer command and control at the prison, and no more a reflection of George Bush’s supposedly aberrant ideology than are urinating Marines of Barack Obama’s Afghan policy — and yet Abu Ghraib was often portrayed in the media as the touchstone to the Bush follies and crimes. One of the advantages of Obama as commander-in-chief (one at least) is that we will not see the Taliban corpses on posters throughout Europe and on American campuses as conveying some existential “truth” as we did the Abu Ghraib photos.

We are in an Orwellian situation when the media seems to think that the unfortunate but common dark side of war is somehow a carry-over from the Bush administration, one that now burdens Laureate Obama with responsibilities not of his own making. We’ve seen that assumption repeatedly over the last three years, when war critic Obama campaigned on blasting the Bush anti-terrorism protocols, then decided as president that they were useful and so adopted or expanded them, and then never quite explained to the American people the turn-around, but most certainly felt he was not a fair target for the anti-war fury he had a bit earlier helped to create but which mysteriously vanished in late January 2009.

One final example of the paradox: While we must ensure that urinating on enemy dead is an isolated and one-time occurrence, it seems to me, in terms of flesh and bone, as morally ambiguous or unambiguous as sending a Predator targeted assassination drone — its use expanded sevenfold by Barack Obama — as judge, jury, and executioner, to take out suspected terrorists — and everyone in their general vicinity, in a foreign country that we are not formally at war with. Selective outrage is a dangerous thing, as most observers would worry as much (or more) about a non-combatant obliterated for being in the wrong place at the wrong time, as a confessed terrorist water-boarded or a dead non-uniformed fighter urinated upon.

Our cabinet secretaries understandably voiced outrage at the treatment of Taliban dead, given their worry about the reputation of the U.S. armed forces and the politics in the region and simple Western traditions accorded the dead. But just because on the Internet we do not see shocking videos of exploding limbs and charred heads of those who were unlucky enough to be sitting next to a suspected terrorist when the drone missile hits, does not mean it would not be as distasteful a thing to watch as a the current urination videos.