Saturday, January 14, 2012

Defiling a corpse...disgusting but historically accepted

This is nothing new...the degradation of a corpse. This is just fodder for the besmirching of the American "clean cut" image of American's at war. American soldiers have done a lot worse. I remember the Ken Burns documentary on World War II and the confrontations between American and Japanese troops...the mouth of a dying Japanese soldier was smashed by a GI to extract gold teeth. Documentation of such incidents abound for just about every armed conflict: Scalps are taken, gold teeth removed, skin filleted, bodies defiled and dismembered, corpses displayed in degrading poses. Kenneth Robert's Northwest Passage depicts a member of Roger's Rangers decapitating an Indian and carrying the severed head throughout the journey. And then there was Pharaoh Merneptah [1213 BC to 1203 BC] who after a battle with the Lybians "...among other things, he took the penises of all uncircumcised enemy dead and the hands of all the circumcised...." It is war and war's reprehensible consequences but remember as the fictional police inspector Kurt Wallander said in one episode..."It is not a person, just a corpse."

"Reprehensible Behavior Is a Risk of Combat, Experts Say"


James Dao

January 13th, 2012

The New York Times

Talk to almost anyone who has fought in combat, and chances are they can tick off a string of reasons why the YouTube video showing four Marines urinating on the bodies of dead enemy fighters in southern Afghanistan is horrible. Horrible for America’s image around the world. Horrible for its strategy of winning support from the Afghan people. Horrible for a professional military that believes its troops behave with the utmost decorum, even in the heat of battle.

And yet, their outrage often also comes with a caveat. Reprehensible behavior, combat veterans and military experts say, is an ever-present risk when troops in their teens and early 20s are thrown into nerve-racking battle for months at a time. And if there are weaknesses in their leadership or breakdowns in discipline, that behavior can easily spill over into acts that might be considered war crimes.

“The degree to which a squad or platoon in combat becomes calloused toward the enemy that they are facing is almost always high,” said Andrew M. Exum, a former Army officer who did combat tours in Iraq and Afghanistan and is now senior fellow at the Center for a New American Security, a Washington policy group. “There is always, always, always the temptation to abuse a detainee or pose for a picture with some dead fighter. And that’s why noncommissioned officers and commissioned officers have to be extra vigilant.”

Military officials said they had identified all four Marines in the video, though they have not released their names. The Marines are thought to be members of a scout sniper team that was deployed last year to northern Helmand Province — one of Afghanistan’s most violent precincts.

The actions depicted in the video represent the modern unit commander’s worst nightmare: crude behavior over dead or captured enemies that is broadcast across the globe with the push of a cellphone button, as happened with the photographs from Abu Ghraib prison in Iraq.

Yet the act of desecrating an enemy’s body is as old as war, perhaps most famously described by Homer in “The Iliad,” when Achilles drags Hector’s lifeless body behind his chariot before the eyes of a shocked and despairing Troy. Nancy Sherman, a professor of philosophy at Georgetown University who has written a book about the moral implications of war on troops, “The Untold War,” said dehumanizing the enemy can be a psychological defense mechanism for the troops whose job is to kill that enemy.

“Desecrating bodies is not routine, nor is it expected or condoned,” Ms. Sherman said. “But you can understand it, in complicated ways. Because war requires a very complicated moral psyche.”

Mr. Exum said black humor is another coping mechanism for young troops trying to act tough beyond their years. “I remember being a young officer in Afghanistan in 2002 and standing over the body of this partially decapitated Taliban and cracking jokes,” he said. “Humor is how we cope with pretty horrific stuff. It’s almost dangerous to be too sensitive.”

Alex Lemons, a Marine scout sniper during the fierce fighting in the Iraqi city of Falluja in 2004, said that on several occasions he encountered American troops who either urinated on insurgent bodies or manipulated them for photographs, like putting them in ridiculous poses. While he called such behavior disgusting, he also said it could be cathartic.

“I’ve never spat on a dead body or urinated on one, but I’ve certainly screamed at a dead body because they’ve taken a friend’s life,” said Mr. Lemons, who left the Marine Corps in 2008.

Snipers in both the Army and the Marine Corps are elite teams highly trained in marksmanship, surveillance and camouflage who can operate independently from larger units. They often patrol dangerous areas and get more kills, and are sometimes viewed as cowboys by regular infantry troops as a result. But Mr. Lemons and other officers said scout snipers tend to be more mature and disciplined, precisely because they are expected to face greater danger.

“In sniper school, we were taught not to relish in killing,” Mr. Lemons said. “We’re professional gunmen. That’s what the other side does, not us.”

Though some military blogs have been filled with reader comments supporting the Marines in the video, some of the harshest criticism against them has come from other Marines who feel that the corps, and even the entire American military, have been disgraced.

“There is no excuse for what they did,” said Timothy Kudo, who served with a Marine unit in northern Helmand Province and now works for Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America. “It goes against everything you’ve been trained to do as a Marine.”

Michael Newton, a former Army prosecutor who now teaches at Vanderbilt Law School, said the international laws of war and the American code of military justice are intended to instill discipline in troops and set boundaries for what is acceptable in combat. Prosecuting war crimes is necessary to ensure that crossing those boundaries does not become the norm, he said.

“Some people will look at this and say all Marines are animals,” he said. “But that’s not true. That instance was undisciplined and unprofessional. And that’s why it’s a war crime. The law exists to instill professionalism. But it is also there to create a humanitarian imperative, even in conflict.”

Beyond court-martial or prison, the desecration of an enemy’s body could also leave psychological scars on the perpetrators, in the form of guilt, Mr. Lemons said. “Even though there are all these consequences on an international level that these guys didn’t comprehend, the worst effects are the ones they will have to come to terms with later in life,” he said. “Every memory gets stored in you. Even if it was something that just took two seconds, you’ll have revisit it at some point.”

"Urination video: Outcry aside, history suggests minimal punishment for Marines"

Experts say that despite the strong language from the Pentagon over the video showing Marines urinating on dead Taliban, the military's record for prosecuting similar crimes has been lackluster.


Anna Mulrine

January 13th, 2012

The Christian Science Monitor

The language of rebuke has been robust among top US military officials in the wake of a web video depicting Marines urinating on dead Taliban fighters.

The Marines, for their part, have already promised two separate investigations into the incident, and Defense Secretary Leon Panetta has vowed that, “those found to have engaged in such conduct will be held accountable to the fullest extent.”

But military law experts point out that despite the strong language coming from the Pentagon’s top brass, the US military’s track record in prosecuting those accused of crimes against enemy forces in the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan has been lackluster.

That’s because there is a “disconnect” between military law and the policies that the Pentagon is pursuing as it wages war in Afghanistan and, earlier, Iraq, says Christopher Swift, a fellow at the University of Virginia’s Center for National Security Law.

Though top US military officials recognize the often-devastating impact on public perception that comes with these charges, they are often difficult to prosecute, Dr. Swift adds.

“When you look at the military law side,” he says, “there’s a very high threshold for actually proving that these soldiers and Marines were doing what they were doing with deliberately bad intentions.”

The trial this week against a US Marine facing nine counts of manslaughter for US military actions in Haditha, Iraq, in 2005 that killed two dozen Iraqis, including unarmed women and children, offers one window, for example, into the Pentagon’s prosecutorial process.

The Marine on trial at Camp Pendleton, in southern California, Staff Sgt. Frank Wuterich, is the final defendant in one of the most visible cases against US troops in the Iraq War. After the charges came to light, eight Marines were charged in connection with the crime. Of those, one Marine Corps squad member was found not guilty, and six others had their cases dropped.

Three officers were reprimanded for failing to report the killings. Charges against Capt. Randy Stone, who was charged with dereliction of duty and violating a lawful order, were dropped. First Lt. Andrew Grayson, who was charged with obstruction of justice, dereliction of duty, and making a false statement, was found not guilty.

Sgt. Sanick de la Cruz, who was given immunity in exchange for his testimony, supported accounts that Wuterich shot five Iraqis attempting to surrender. Sgt. Cruz also admitted to urinating on the body of one dead Iraqi, and repeatedly firing into the bodies of several others who had already died.

Haditha was frequently compared to the Mai Lai massacre in Vietnam, in which 504 villagers were killed. While 22 officers were put on trial for the massacre, all but one were acquitted, a lieutenant who ultimately served three years of a life sentence.

In the most notorious case of the Iraq war, Abu Ghraib – which in addition to the well-known charges also included allegations of US prison guards urinating on detainees – 11 troops were charged.

The highest-ranking officer to be disciplined in Abu Ghraib, Col. Thomas Pappas, was relieved of his command for allowing military dogs to be present during interrogations. Lt. Col. Steven Jordan, was acquitted of all prisoner mistreatment charges. He received a reprimand for disobeying an order not to discuss the investigation.

The remainder of those who faced charges were relatively low-ranking enlisted soldiers, who received sentences that ranged from three months of hard labor to 10 years in prison. Specialist Charles Graner, who received the 10-year sentence, was paroled from Fort Leavenworth in August after serving six years.

Though lower-level troops tend to bear the brunt of prosecutions in these instances, the cases are often the result of a “failure of command responsibility, rather than a fundamental pathology on the part of soldiers,” says Swift, author of The Fighting Vanguard: Local Insurgencies in the Global Jihad.

Because such troops are often under incredible stress after multiple deployments, command climate in upholding laws of war becomes even more important, he adds. Such laws exist not only to protect the innocent, but also the troops themselves from the dehumanizing effect that war can have on soldiers authorized to use violence to carry out policy on behalf of the US government.

“So it’s okay to kill an adversary, but not okay to defile the body. It’s okay to kill them on the field of battle, but not mistreat them when they are in custody,” says Swift. The laws exist not just to regulate conduct, but to preserve the integrity of the troops fighting the wars. “If you take actions that dehumanize the adversary, then what you are actually doing is dehumanizing yourself.”

That’s why, although the Taliban’s record is far worse than that of the US Marine Corps, Swift argues, “and as much as our enemies can be nastier than us – this is about us.”

"Viral Atrocities and the Dark Complexity of War"



Nate Rawlings

January 13th, 2012


A funny thing happens when you speak with a room full of school children–they have a tendency to say exactly what’s on their minds. When I returned from my first tour in Iraq, just before Christmas 2006, the principals in my hometown’s two elementary schools asked my mother if I would come talk to the students.

After my presentation when I opened it up for questions, an 8-year-old asked if I had killed anyone. Amid the horrified looks on the teachers’ faces–a silent assurance that they had told the children not to ask this question–I gave the answer I always do: I don’t know.

It’s true. The times my platoon and I were in firefights, many people were shooting in the same direction. I knew soldiers who kept tallies of the enemy they killed; the men in my platoon were not among them. We went about our business believing that killing is part of the professional duty of a soldier, not a sport or a game.

In my nearly 25 months as a soldier in Baghdad, I never personally witnessed anything like we saw this week. Choose your adjective to describe the video that went viral online showing Marines in Afghanistan urinating on the corpses of Taliban fighters. Defense Secretary Leon Panetta called it “utterly deplorable;” Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said it was “absolutely inconsistent with American values.” My friends and fellow veterans have remarked that it is not only morally reprehensible, but also tactically stupid–Afghan men who may have been indifferent to the presence of Americans will surely see this video and take up arms.

This is hardly the first time we’ve seen desecration of both the living and dead in these wars–from the Abu Gharaib detainee abuse to reports of soldiers cutting fingers off of dead fighters as souvenirs. Last year brought the devastating story in Rolling Stone about a “kill team” from the 5th Stryker Brigade who murdered civilians and posed laughingly with the corpses of dead fighters.

Every time I hear about atrocities, large and small, I think back to March 12, 2006, when four soldiers from the 101st Airborne Division’s 1st Battalion, 502nd Infantry Regiment raped and killed an Iraqi girl named Abeer Qassim Hamzah Rashid al-Janabi, then killed her family near the town of Mahmudiyah, just south of Baghdad. The day that horrific crime occurred, I was on a patrol about six miles away. We shared a base with 1st Battalion’s sister unit, so we heard about the crime a couple of days later.

That was a rough year in Iraq, and nowhere did American troops suffer more than in the “Triangle of Death” where 1st Battalion operated. We were stationed just to their east and saw some spillover from the fights they endured, but 1st Battalion suffered mightily. Finally, this small group of soldiers snapped, and I remembered thinking, how could this have happened, and what in the world can we do to keep it from happening again?

In every war, the act of killing and seeing ones friends brutally slaughtered causes soldiers to break down and commit heinous acts. It happened even in the “Good War,” where one scholar estimates that American GIs committed 18,000 rapes in the European theater. The prevention of acts like the 2006 murders in Iraq and the video we saw this week come down to leadership, which doesn’t work on autopilot.

“Human organizations are flawed because humans are flawed,” TIME International editor Jim Frederick wrote in Black Hearts, his gut-wrenching book about 1st Battalion’s tour in the Triangle of Death. “Even with the best intentions, men make errors in judgment and initiate courses of action that are counterproductive to their self-interest or the completion of their mission.” When asked to do something as brutally inhumane as killing someone, some soldiers will inevitably suffer lapses in their humanity. That’s why leadership is crucial to prevent atrocities of all kinds before they occur.

I hope that we’ve seen the last viral atrocity from the war in Afghanistan. Marines who have fought and bled and died in the Helmand Province will likely suffer further because of the heinous acts making their way digitally around the globe. There’s a certain irony in the fact that the Marines who committed those acts are now safely home while their brothers and sisters still over there doing the hard business are the ones who will suffer for their momentary amusement.

You can’t teach someone how to be human; I doubt you can fully prevent the breakdown in humanity once it’s begun. But you can lead and inspire and teach and cajole and most importantly supervise young troops. That’s the way to prevent these things from happening again.

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