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Americans Behaving Badly: Corpse Desecration Edition

January 15, 2012

So it’s been a little while since we rapped at you on this here blog, taking the past several weeks off to enjoy our winter breaks. But worry not, dear readers, we’re back in action with the new semester. Coincidentally, we’re also back in action with our second post in a row about bathroom-type things (if you missed it before we went on break, check out Doug’s excellent analysis of a hilarious sticker in the men’s room by our office). Up today, we have a video of a group of Marines peeing on the corpses of some Taliban fighters in Afghanistan. You can check it out here with all their naughty bits blurred out.

This video has drawn a lot of international attention and damage control from U.S. officials in the past two days or so. For instance, secretary of state Hilary Clinton said that the actions of the Marines are “absolutely inconsistent with American values and the standards we expect from our military personnel.” Likewise, Defense Secrety Leon E. Panetta is quoted by a Pentagon spokesman as saying that “the conduct depicted in the footage is utterly deplorable, and…it does not reflect the standards or values American troops are sworn to uphold.”

Note how both of these quotes emphasize that this behavior goes against the “values” and “standards” of our military and America at large. This stood out to me, and after some time spent trying to figure out why, I realized that the event and the comments made in the aftermath provide an interesting starting point for the way we think about war.

Note that no one, on either side (that Times article I linked to above contains quotes from Afghanis that I’ve omitted for brevity’s sake) seems to view the creating of the bodies as in any way problematic. It’s the peeing that’s the problem. Now, again, without downgrading the severity of the actions of the Marines in the video, I just want to throw it out there and say that if someone were to shoot me and then pee on my corpse, the peeing wouldn’t really be my biggest beef. It’s not like my dying thought after being shot would be “I hope they don’t pee on me after this.”

What I’m getting at is that upholding standards and values that create bodies but mandate particular treatment of them afterwards maintains the idea of war as a gentleman’s game, something engaged in with a degree of civility and mutual respect. I’m not saying that war should just be some free-for-all where people can pee on whatever corpses they want all willy nilly or whatever, and I’m not even saying that outrage at said peeing is misplaced in any way. I’m also not attempting to put down everyone who did a tour in any of our like jillion wars over there and peed only where they were supposed to. I’m just saying that the state of being “at war” with someone is an ugly business to begin with, and that upon some reflection I’ve considered that maybe our collective outrage over this isn’t really about who did what to whose corpses, but maybe over being confronted with the grim reality of those corpses in the first place, and our disappointment over the horrible things people can be driven to do when they can’t handle the pressure of being forced to create a corpse or become one. Corpse desecration is obviously horrible. But I’d imagine that so is, you know, becoming a corpse to begin with. I’m not even sure what I’m getting at here; not that I don’t desperately want to believe in all that peacenik type stuff about never having wars anymore or whatever, but it’s not really what I’m trying to get at here. I think that this event has just made me think about where we as a society draw the lines when it comes to how we behave when we kill others, and how sad it is that the world is such that we’ve thought about it at all.

If you want to know more:

  • Carol Cohn’s Sex and Death in the Rational World of Defense Intellectuals makes a similar point to the one I’m trying to make here, that sometimes the way we talk about things can mask their true nature and allow us to comfortably accept things that we might not otherwise if the terminology were different. Again, not to downplay the complexity of the situations that lead to nations going to war, but any “standard” of behavior in such a situation seems to at least in part serve the purpose of reassuring ourselves that it’s really not as terrible as it could be.
3 Comments leave one →
  1. Doug Cloud permalink*
    January 17, 2012 10:27 pm

    Nice insight Matt; I hadn’t thought about it this way. Also, love the Jim “The Cruise” Anchower reference in the first line!

    • Matt Zebrowski permalink*
      January 18, 2012 3:14 pm

      Thanks, man! I figured you would.


  1. there’s no peeing in the war room « the things worth believing in

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