Guest column published in the local paper on January 15, 2012:
“Thus shamefully did Achilles in his fury dishonor Hector.” This was Homer’s commentary after narrating how Achilles, in an act of pure revenge, desecrated Hector’s corpse by dragging it behind his chariot three times around the topless towers of Ilium. Homer's Iliad is nothing if not a foundational text of Western civilization. And at least since its emergence from the dim mists of antiquity, decent people have recoiled in horror at the desecration of corpses.
As Americans, we were rightly horrified when the burned corpses of our countrymen were strung up in public in the darkest days of the Iraq war.
And far less shocking acts of disrespecting the dead can still cause outrage. Consider the revulsion we feel towards grave robbers like Jerry Crunchers in Dickens’ A Tale of Two Cities or towards real-life anti-gay fanatics who protest at the funerals of fallen soldiers.
If these infamies are so reflexively revolting to normal and healthy people, what could possibly account for the terrible recent news that four American Marines were filmed urinating on the corpses of three dead Taliban fighters – their fellow human beings who no doubt went to their deaths believing zealously in the rightness of their cause?
It could be a case of “bad apples,” as some will probably claim. But is it not equally possible that this is what happens to normal young Americans after they have been mentally and emotionally brutalized by 2, 3, and 4 rotations of killing and watching their brothers in arms getting killed?
It is not a normal thing to kill another human being. It is not even an easy thing to kill a large quadruped. The hunter feels a surge of adrenaline but also a small pang of regret as his bullet screams towards the docile deer in the field. Our normal hesitation to kill explains why Edna St. Vincent Millary’s imagery, in her great poem “The Buck in the Snow,” can rouse the sympathy of even this enthusiastic meat eater (“Now lies he here, his wild blood scalding the snow.”)
Fresh-faced boys from Iowa, raised on NFL Football and American Idol, do not enter active duty with a natural capacity to kill. They must be taught to see their enemy as less than human. Otherwise, their own basic humanity would chill their ardor for pulling the trigger. I think this explains why, even in the relatively milquetoast environment of the 1980s Air Force Academy, my classmates and I sang marching songs that glorified chopping up babies with machetes. We laughed about it. But it is not a very big step from this to laughing and joking while pissing on a dead man.
The demographic odds are that at least one, and probably all four, of these Marines entered military service as decent, well-adjusted kids from good homes. Today, according to the New York Times, they are possibly war criminals.
In our dying democracy, we do still debate the costs of war in terms of “blood and treasure.” But this most recent case of desecration should remind us of other significant societal costs. We have hundreds of thousands of young people – many who have been physically maimed and/or mentally scarred – returning from war and trying to reintegrate into civil society.
It is a major scandal that taking first-class care of these broken souls is not a top national budgetary priority. (But I noticed we still spend money on expensive fly-overs at Air Force football games.) As a country, and as taxpayers, we need to do much more for the young men and woman we have asked to fight our battles at such terrible cost to themselves.
These four Marines need to be punished. Then they need our help and compassion.