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Marines video and the ugly impulse of revenge

By Nancy Sherman, Special to CNN
January 17, 2012 -- Updated 1555 GMT (2355 HKT)
A still from a video purporting to show U.S. Marines urinating on dead Taliban fighters.
A still from a video purporting to show U.S. Marines urinating on dead Taliban fighters.
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Nancy Sherman: Marines urinating on Taliban corpses shames the U.S., outrages world
  • It violates military conduct, she said, also the moral duty to show respect toward the dead
  • Sherman: Desecration of bodies in war is nothing new, but was disdained even in antiquity
  • Military leaders must cultivate empathy in troops for families of the slain, she writes

Editor's note: Nancy Sherman is university professor of philosophy at Georgetown and has served as the first distinguished chair in ethics at the U.S. Naval Academy. Her books include "The Untold War: Inside the Hearts, Minds, and Souls of our Soldiers," and "Stoic Warriors: The Ancient Philosophy Behind the Military Mind." She is a Public Policy Scholar at the Wilson Center in Washington.

(CNN) -- The video of four U.S. Marines urinating on three dead Taliban fighters has ricocheted around the world with viral speed, rightly provoking moral outrage abroad and shame at home. The act is a violation of professional military conduct and the fundamental moral requirement in war of showing dignity and respect to the dead.

But the desecration shocks, not because it involves any sadistic mutilation of body for prize or trophy, but because the act is so primitive and regressed: Urinating marks territory. The sigh heard in the video is the vanquisher's exuberance in being top dog.

Perhaps the Marines felt a need to do something with the enemy bodies that lay at their feet-- to kick them, to spit on them, to urinate on them while they waited for the proper authorities to collect them. But vengeful impulses need to be checked. Command culture, especially in small units like this sniper platoon, sets the tone and helps prevent these lapses of character and the awful consequences that ensue.

Desecration of bodies in war is nothing new nor is the public condemnation of it. In Homer's Iliad, Achilles' raging grief at the death of his beloved Patroclus leads to an ugly enactment of revenge. Achilles vanquishes Hector, Patroclus' killer, and then lashing the body behind a chariot, drags his corpse face down three times around Patroclus' tomb.

Nancy Sherman
Nancy Sherman

The act transgresses fundamental Greek decorum in war. Homer leaves no doubt about this: "That man without a shred of decency in his heart." He outrages "even the senseless clay in all his fury." The desecration offends the gods, too, and they intervene to insure that Hector's body remains intact despite Achilles' brutality. And all this comes after Hector pleads to Achilles with his last breath: "I beg you, beg you by your life, your parents, don't let the dogs devour me... give my body to friends to carry home again" for "honor with fitting rites."

The soldier's fear that his body may be despoiled by the enemy or never repatriated is universal and is at the heart of the Geneva conventions and customary international law that prohibit "outrages against personal dignity." Anyone who has watched over the body of a loved one knows that humanitarian treatment has a proper place both toward the living and the dead.

Yet we have not always respected that dignity toward our own war dead. Consider the recent reports that the Air Force, in charge of the military mortuary at Dover Air Force Base, shipped and incinerated remains from hundreds of troops over the past decade and dumped them in a Virginia landfill.

In one report from The Washington Post, Gari-Lynn Smith was, in her words, "appalled and disgusted" when she learned the fate of her husband's remains: "My only peace of mind in losing my husband was that he was taken to Dover and that he was handled with dignity, love, respect and honor," she said. "That was completely shattered for me when I was told that he was thrown in the trash."

Why worry about remains? I suspect it is simply because the living return to us -- however war-torn their bodies and souls -- and we want something of that for our dead, so that we can mark an honorable passage from this world. We demand that respect both from others who find our dead and from those explicitly entrusted to the care of their bodies. The Tomb of the Unknown Soldier is emblematic of that very need for a return home.

Urinating on fresh corpses is repulsive mockery of the dead. This case is one of collective behavior, the act of a foursome or fivesome, where someone should have known better, among them and higher up.

The incident brings to mind one that Tim O'Brien recounts in "The Things They Carried," his fictionalized memoir of his Vietnam years. His platoon took sniper fire and ordered an airstrike in response. Shortly after, the unit went to the scene of the strike and found an old man, lying face-up with flies already buzzing around his corpse. They propped the body up against a fence, and one by one, the unit members shook his hand and faked introductions and a toast as part of a mock funeral.

Tim is the only one who refrains, sickened by the indecent sport. He's berated for not joining in, but one buddy is admiring: "You did a good thing today," he said. "That shaking hands crap, it isn't decent. ... Should've done it myself. Takes guts." Tim demurs: "It wasn't guts. I was scared." It doesn't really matter whether what he did was an act of moral courage or moral disgust. The point is that he's moved by empathy, in this case toward a civilian, but it could just as well have been an enemy fighter.

We shouldn't underestimate the power of that empathy and the responsibility military leaders have to keep it alive and well in their troops.

I've heard of soldiers finding photos in the pockets of those they've killed and seeing in the face of a daughter or a son or a wife the bitter loss they will suffer. An Israeli who fought in the 1967 Six-Day War told me recently that the thought that raced through his mind when he killed a young Egyptian who was aiming his weapon at him, was "He has a mother. ... What will she do?" It is that empathy that checks ugly revenge impulses in war. It is at the core of humanitarian rules of war and their constraints.

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The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Nancy Sherman.

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