I posed the question recently, more or less seriously: “If a tree falls in the forest, and no one uploads the video, does it make a sound?” The infamous video of four American Marines urinating on the dead bodies of (presumed) combatants, uploaded to LiveLeak.com (live leak, get it?), has certainly resulted in plenty of noise, much of it unintelligible.
The “World Opinion” machine went on high alert, decrying the soldiers’ behavior. Top Afghan peace negotiator Arsala Rahmani had some choice words, correctly judging that the video will serve as a Taliban recruitment video, with which they can rally young Afghans to join the fight against the infidels. Defense Secretary Leon Panetta called the video “deplorable” and “utterly despicable,” with Marine Gen. John Allen, the top U.S. and NATO commander in Afghanistan, echoing Panetta’s righteous indignation.
Back home in Wonderland, drooling halfwit Pamela Geller, the so-called “Queen of Muslim Bashers,” has knighted the leaky Marines with her plastic sword, declaring “I love these Marines.” Giggling shit-for-brains and CNN contributor Dana Loesch whipped out her big ten-inch microphone and squeaked that she’d “drop trou and do it, too.” Even Indianapolis Colts punter Pat McAfee offered his unsolicited support in an insipid tweet punctuated with the quintessentially insipid hashtag #ThoseDudesTriedToKillOurDudes.
Hapless GOP also-ran Rick Perry mounted a less-than-stirring defense of the Marines in response to a debate question, writing off the incident as “a stupid mistake,” the sort “eighteen, nineteen-year-old kids” can be expected to make. Then, in a clumsy attempt to gin up more Obama hate and coast to victory in South Carolina, he held up the Obama administration’s reaction to the video as more proof of Obama’s “disdain for the military.” He conflated Sunni Leon Panetta with Shiite Barack Obama, attributing the former’s “utterly despicable” remark to the latter, and went off on a barking mad riff thus:
“Let me tell you what’s utterly despicable: Cutting Danny Pearl’s head off and showing the video of it. Hanging our contractors from bridges, that’s utterly despicable.”
You don’t say! Way to go out on a limb and tell it like it is, Rick! (Rumor is there was a third utterly despicable thing he was going to mention, but… oh, never mind).
Now, I’m about to piss off (but not on!) a lot of readers with what I’m about to say, but stay with me. As a preamble, I’ll agree emphatically with Secretary Panetta: The video is deplorable and utterly despicable. Furthermore, the soldiers’ behavior is utterly despicable. And of course, we all agree that beheadings are despicable (duh!). But what if there were no video broadcast?
Consider that Staff Sergeant Calvin Gibbs was convicted mere months ago for hunting and murdering innocent Afghan civilians “for sport,” and for chopping off parts of their bodies to hold as keepsakes of his depravity. Alas, there were no salacious video clips to go viral and spur otherwise apathetic pundits to squawk, and the story received comparatively scant coverage relative to the more recent peepee video story, considering that the former case involved actual murders of known civilians.
The larger issue is that these incidents are just the ones we know about. How many innocent civilians have been murdered that we just don’t know about? How many corpses have been desecrated that we just don’t know about? Even someone depraved enough to giggle like a schoolboy while desecrating a corpse in violation of the Uniform Code of Military Justice and the Law of Armed Conflict ought to know that they had better keep it a secret, but these idiots recorded video! Does anyone truly believe that the one time such an incident took place it happened to be perpetrated by soldiers without an ounce of sense or a passing familiarity with courts-martial? It stands to reason that—while the video might be an isolated event—the behavior probably isn’t. Unfortunately, the proof lies only in videos that were never made. The video that was made is but a single, invaluable reading of the toxic fallout from our jingoistic passions. Although I’m certain that wasn’t their intent, they have performed a great service to those of us who value the truth, warts and all.
Consider the iconic video of Los Angeles police beating the stuffing out of Rodney King. The video was unusual, but it illustrated a wider problem that was widely known to African-American Angelinos, and not the least bit unusual from their perspective. It’s oh-so-tempting to write off such aberrant behavior as isolated transgressions by individual scoundrels. We can cluck our tongues at those rascals who spoiled the reputation of a perfectly honorable institution with their rogue actions and continue to embrace the fiction that the institution itself remains perfectly honorable. The delusion salves our conscience while helping to perpetuate the problem.
Granted, there is a world of difference between policemen and soldiers. Policemen are supposed to keep the peace, and soldiers are supposed to break things and kill people. Our modern day warriors with their smart bombs may seem worlds apart from their barbaric forerunners who sacked cities, raped, pillaged, and stacked skulls in pyramids as warnings to any who opposed them. But armies remain blunt instruments by their very nature, and smart bombs are mere fig leaves to obscure the misery and gore of war, the ugliest manifestation of man’s inhumanity to man. Sadly, as the world’s foremost merchants of death, America’s so-called moral authority is but a gossamer bulwark against the butchery of petty tyrants and asymmetric warfare. We prefer shock and awe.
In a sense, our attitudes about “military justice,” “conduct becoming an officer” and the entire façade of honor and duty which colors our view of what is at its core an unspeakable abomination are also mere fig leaves. Certainly, an army must have discipline, but the John Wayne fantasies we hold about the glory and honor of war are sanitized caricatures of the bloody reality. When a disturbing video makes the rounds and opens a peephole into this ugly reality, we want to believe it represents an anomaly. We want to believe that “our dudes” are square-jawed paladins uniformly dispensing justice and freedom from the barrel of a gun, and that the few rogue actors are ultimately exposed and righteously punished for their transgressions.
Now, there’s no question that war often inspires selfless acts of inconceivable heroism. Indeed, in the kill-or-be-killed moral quagmire of warfare, retaining even a shred of humanity—let alone professional comportment—can be considered heroic. It would certainly be not merely unfair but dishonest to accuse all military personnel of such scandalous behavior, on- or off-camera. But just as we can predict a certain percentage of Bronze Stars from each conflict, we can predict dishonorable discharges, courts-martial, and “utterly despicable” acts. Some of these acts may make their way to YouTube and CNN. Some will blend into the background noise and fade from view.
The point is that—while we cannot excuse the deplorable behavior—we ought not to delude ourselves that it is all that unusual. Rather, it is symptomatic. Although the spotlight has fallen on a few morally challenged (and that is no euphemism) individuals, we must not deny the more widespread degeneracy flourishing in the dark corners of every war. These Marines are both aggressors and victims. They are not heroes, but neither are they the villains some have portrayed them as. We cannot absolve our collective sins by scapegoating them, and return to our antiseptic fantasies of glory, honor, and sacrifice. And we should not be surprised when a new video surfaces of another deplorable act, as will most certainly happen in due course.
Most important, we ought to recognize—really internalize and come to terms with—the fact that there are very real social costs associated with training people to kill without remorse. To kill is the ultimate taboo, and to not kill, the most venerated Commandment. To systematically violate this most essential, universal law has always had consequences far beyond the immediate conflict, and always will. We must defend ourselves, but we cannot let the perceived barbarism of an enemy corrupt our sense of what is acceptable. We must defend ourselves, but never forget that—in so doing—we bear a heavy cost; beyond blood and treasure, we sacrifice a piece of our humanity.
Decades ago, psychiatrist Karl Menninger described our collective insanity thus:
“Men fly above ancient and beautiful cities dropping bombs upon museums and churches, upon great buildings and little children. They are encouraged by the official representatives of two hundred million other people, all of whom contribute daily in taxes to the frantic manufacture of instruments designed for the tearing and ripping and mangling of human beings similar to themselves, possessed of the same instincts, the same sensations, the same little pleasures, and the same realization that death comes to end these things all too soon.
This is what one would see who surveyed our planet cursorily, and if he looked closer into the lives of individuals and communities, he would see still more to puzzle him; he would see bickerings, hatreds, and fighting, useless waste and petty destructiveness. He would see people sacrificing themselves to injure others, and expending time, trouble, and energy in shortening that pitifully small recess from oblivion we call life. And most amazing of all, he would see some who, as if lacking aught else to destroy, turn their weapons upon themselves.”
Can we rise above this tendency to self-destruction, or is it somehow hard-wired into the human species? My generation will probably never know, but for now I can say with absolute certainty that every war averted through diplomacy is a victory, and every military success is a human tragedy. As for those candidates for high office anywhere in the world (including right here at home) who rattle their sabers and deride diplomacy, I say you are the true enemies of the people. The battle lines are drawn.