You've seen it by now, the video showing four United States Marines in Afghanistan pissing on what are purportedly the bodies of dead Taliban fighters. (If you haven't, you can watch it, here.) It went viral the instant it appeared, sparking outrage across the world and sending the Obama administration into full damage-control mode.
The anger is understandable. The desecration of a human corpse is something that strikes virtually all of us as particularly intolerable, at least in the abstract. It was an ugly act, and it's provoked some bitterly sharp responses.
Historian of photography that I am, I was especially struck by the Steve Bell editorial cartoon that appeared in last Thursday's edition of the British newspaper The Guardian.
Copyright Steve Bell, 2012.
It's a diabolically clever cartoon, and it will hit Americans hard. Many of us won't like it, even if we also feel shame and anger at what the Marines did. (It's worth mentioning that the secretary of defense, the secretary of state, and the highest-ranking Marine general in Afghanistan have all condemned the Marines' actions.) Bell is riffing on Joe Rosenthal's iconic 1945 photograph Raising the Flag on Iwo Jima, transforming an image that embodied American heroism and sacrifice into one that shows the nation as whole -- not just four of its Marines -- as shameless and depraved.
Joe Rosenthal/Associated Press: Raising the Flag on Iwo Jima. 1945.
Every American knows Rosenthal's photo and has since he or she was a kid. It hurts to see what Bell has done with it, but it's hard to argue back. We're feeling vulnerable, right now. We feel trapped in a seemingly endless and increasingly pointless war, so it's sometimes comforting to look back on World War 2, when line between good guys and bad guys, between justice and oppression, seemed so clear. Bell's cartoon has tainted a cherished image and the memories and dreams that we associate with it. It stings, no doubt about it.
The Marines' video tape (and Bell's reminder that much of the world views us with deep skepticism) confronts us with questions that are difficult to sort out. I certainly don't think that it makes sense to think of America or Americans as shameless and depraved. But I have to admit that we sometimes act that way, as a nation and as individuals.
The best commentary that I've seen on the incident comes from the writer and filmmaker Sebastian Junger. He spent a year with a Marine platoon in Afghanistan and, with the late Tim Hetherington, made Restrepo, an award-winning documentary film about the war. In an Op-Ed piece in Friday's Washington Post, he acknowledges that what the four Marines did was reprehensible. But more importantly he wants to help those of us who have never been in combat understand how these young men could have committed this unsettling act. He also wants to remind us -- we Americans -- that ultimately we're all responsible for dehumanizing the enemy.
Here's some of what Junger had to say:
I can't imagine that there was a time in human history when enemy dead were not desecrated. Achilles dragged Hector around the walls of Troy from the back of a chariot because he was so enraged by Hector's killing of his best friend. Three millennia later, Somali fighters dragged a U.S. soldier through the streets of Mogadishu after shooting down a Black Hawk helicopter and killing 17 other Americans. During the frontier wars in this country, white Americans routinely scalped Indian fighters, and vice versa, well into the 1870s.
The U.S. military should be held to a higher standard, certainly, but it is important to understand the context of the behavior in the video. Clearly, the impulse to desecrate the enemy comes from a very dark and primal place in the human psyche. Once in a while, those impulses are going to break through.
There is another context for that behavior, though -- a more contemporary one. As a society, we may be disgusted by seeing U.S. Marines urinating on dead Taliban fighters, but we remain oddly unfazed by the fact that, presumably, those same Marines just put .30 caliber rounds through the fighters' chests. American troops are not blind to this irony. They are very clear about the fact that society trains them to kill, orders them to kill and then balks at anything that suggests they have dehumanized the enemy they have killed.
But of course they have dehumanized the enemy -- otherwise they would have to face the enormous guilt and anguish of killing other human beings. Rather than demonstrate a callous disregard for the enemy, this awful incident might reveal something else: a desperate attempt by confused young men to convince themselves that they haven't just committed their first murder, that they have simply shot some coyotes on the back 40.
It doesn't work, of course, but it gets them through the moment; it gets them through the rest of the patrol.
There is a final context for this act in which we are all responsible, all guilty. A 19-year-old Marine has a very hard time reconciling the fact that it's okay to waterboard a live Taliban fighter but not okay to urinate on a dead one.
I can't think of anything to add. But, as always, your comments and conversation are welcome.