Every so often we are reminded of William Tecumseh Sherman’s most famous quote. War is indeed hell, one which, as a species, we have all too readily inflicted on ourselves and each other. Sherman was telling us nothing new. He was not the first leader of men, or thinker, to expound on the horror of war. Thucydides’s “History of the Peloponnesian War”, though rank propaganda, gave an honest picture of the cost of war. Despite all this, the general populace, when not on the front lines has often been shielded from this knowledge, until the advent of mass media.
Now we receive the news that US Marines have been recorded urinating on Taliban soldiers. Almost as shocking and offensive as this act (besides those that have defended it) is the fact that so many are shocked and offended. What did anyone expect? This is war. These young men are thrown into conflict, where death, fear, anger and pain are always with them, even when they are not consciously aware of it. How are they supposed to act when we throw them into hell?
What sympathy, what basic humanity are they likely to impart on people they are in direct conflict with, when we cannot even do that here? We have spent the better part of the last decade (and no small amount of energy even before that) painting the Muslim world as some bogeyman. At home, we at least have the counter pressure of a mostly ignored, but very active peace movement to keep us from falling into bloodthirsty xenophobia. In the thick of it, cut off from that movement, what chance did these men have?
This is not to excuse their actions. What they did was gross, sad and reflects poorly on their Corps and on the US as a nation. Nor am I trying to paint the deceased as innocent victims. There is a reason the left in this country refers to the overzealous, Christian right in this country as the “American Taliban” (besides Markos Moulitsas’s book.) They, the desecrated dead, belonged to an organization that embodies every horrible stereotype that Americans have about Islam. They view themselves as God’s chosen and anyone who does not follow their very narrow view is an infidel to be destroyed with out mercy, or respect.
Which is why this situation, and the larger situation with both our ongoing conflicts in the Middle East and the one looming on the horizon, is so frustrating. We have been encouraged, as a nation and a culture, to do exactly that with Islam. To view it all as other, and against us and to be destroyed without mercy, or respect. In order for us to be willing to engage in conflict after conflict, our “leaders” (I promise to write about why I so often put that in quotes soon) encourage us, even as they deny doing so, to dehumanize others. Better by far to view them as abstract numbers in an encyclopedia, or better yet, a plague to be stamped out, than as husbands, wives, sons, daughters and neighbors. Better, for those that profit off of war, that we see displays like four Marines urinating on fallen foes, than ever risk those Marines thinking of those foes as having been people.
We create this, with our complacency and our need to look away from real problems. We create this by sending the same people to office again and again. People that we know are bought and paid for, oh how we complain about that! We create this, so we own it, all of it, and when those Marines pissed on those corpses, so did we all.
UPDATE: For further reading on this subject, in particular how our over all culture (and not just are attitudes toward non-Americans) has a hand in events like this, I suggest reading my friend UpandRise’s blog.