Over the past few weeks we’ve had to endure military brass and top government officials falling over themselves to condemn American GIs – first for urinating on dead Afghans, and more recently for beating a sheep. Earlier in the Iraq and Afghan wars, we’ve suffered through pious denunciations of soldiers who tortured prisoners at Abu Ghraib or laughed as they targeted “dead men” with drones.
How noble the sentiment! Criticizing ordinary servicemen who do not abide by the rules of engagement or who break the laws of war. In fact, however, most of the official condemnation has ulterior motives.
The real purpose is not to shame or punish the soldiers, appropriate as that is. Rather it is to advance and legitimate the war effort, with all its attendant inhumanity and cruelty.This is clearest in statements that decry the incidents for comforting the enemy and incensing civilian populations. Such effects are indeed likely. But those who issue this kind of condemnation are in fact suggesting that what is really wrong is not the incidents themselves, but the release of videos about them. As long as such occurrences were kept quiet, there’d be little to complain of.
The same cover-up logic explains why the government has gone to such lengths to attack those, like Wikileaks, that release such information. Conversely, to answer Charli’s recent question, those who send such videos to the press are certainly protesting and are hardly “fools.” Meanwhile, those who originally took the videos and sent them to their friends are simply engaged in an age-old war custom, flaunting trophies. And those who urinate on corpses or cheer as they blow up supposed enemies are acting like men have always acted and will always act in war.
But there is a deeper explanation for the sanctimonious slamming of our errant troops. Too many such incidents cut against the well-honed spin that the U.S. military is a thoroughly professional fighting force. Even while they train soldiers to kill, military leaders must keep up the claim that our soldiers do so humanely! Only the exceptions – the vicious, the stupid, or the exhausted – would break the rules.
In fact, urinating on corpses, torturing prisoners, and cheering deaths is predictable in any war. Indeed, it shows that the military training necessary for most people to kill another human being is working. No doubt it also shows a failure in training on the laws of war– but there is little doubt which of these two courses of instruction is more fundamental to our military. Of course we should have laws of war and use them to prosecute violators. But we should not be surprised if ordinary people placed in contexts of peril and power act brutally.
Low-level prosecutions also divert attention from the higher-ups who are most responsible. Of course, some at the bottom may truly be sadistic. But for the most part, they are ordinary men and women caught up in the fury of warfare. Much of that fervor is in fact drummed up by superiors – through public statements or tortured legal opinions. Prosecuting a few small fry for understandable if condemnable behavior makes it less likely that those at the top, who made it all possible, will face prosecution.
Most fundamentally, condemnations and prosecutions preserve and legitimate the war itself. They portray it – or at least our side’s engagement in it – as rule-bound, controlled, rational. By making a show of censuring young men and women caught up in the awfulness of war, those in power deflect attention from the far greater awfulness and futility of the war itself – for which they are responsible.