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Desecration of dead is old as war itself



Published: Sat, January 14, 2012 @ 12:00 a.m.

Associated Press

Since before Achilles dragged Hector’s body around the walls of Troy, warriors have been desecrating the corpses of their vanquished enemies, whether to send a message or exact revenge.

And for just as long, they have known in their hearts it was wrong.

The video that surfaced this week of four Marines apparently urinating on three Taliban corpses has stirred outrage in the U.S. and beyond, but also focused attention on the brutalizing effects of war on those sent to wage it.

Reserve Marine Lt. Col. Paul Hackett, who teaches the law of war to Marines before they are sent off to Afghanistan, made it clear Friday that he was not condoning the Marines’ actions. But he warned against judging them too harshly, saying: “When you ask young men to go kill people for a living, it takes a whole lot of effort to rein that in.”

In the long history of war, the episode pales in comparison to other battlefield atrocities. But one difference this time was that, in the Internet age, it was captured on camera and instantly shared with the rest of the world.

“This outrage is so interesting to me because it almost tops that” of other, more ghastly war crimes, said psychologist Eric Zillmer, a Drexel University professor and co-editor of the book “Military Psychology: Clinical and Operational Applications.”

The Geneva Conventions forbid the desecration of the dead, and officials in the U.S. and abroad have called for swift punishment for the four Marines, identified as members of the 3rd Battalion, 2nd Marines, which fought in the Afghan province of Helmand for seven months before returning to Camp Lejeune, N.C.

The prohibition against desecrating the battlefield dead is almost as old as war itself.

In Homer’s “Iliad,” the epic poem about the Trojan War, which may have occurred in the 12th century B.C., Achilles kills Hector and refuses to allow for a proper burial. He relents after Zeus sends word that Achilles “tempts the wrath of heaven too far” with his desire to “vent his mad vengeance on the sacred dead.”

In the seventh century, Abu Bakr, father-in-law of prophet Muhammad and Islam’s first caliph, issued 10 rules to his people for their guidance on the battlefield. Among them: “You must not mutilate dead bodies.”

In 1907, the Hague Convention said that after every engagement, the combatants should take steps to protect the dead against “pillage.” The first Geneva Convention in 1949 addressed preventing the dead from “being despoiled.”

The history of war is replete with stories of atrocities committed to send a message. In the 15th century, Prince Vlad III of Wallachia struck fear in his Turkish enemies — and earned his gruesome nickname, Vlad the Impaler — by littering the battlefield with the impaled corpses of the vanquished.

Over the centuries, fingers, scalps and other body parts have been taken as battlefield trophies.

Nevertheless, Zillmer said the desecration of a dead foe is “taboo across cultures.”

But, like Hackett, he said it can be difficult for soldiers, particularly members of a tight-knit group, to go on killing missions and then just “switch off.” And he said the inhibitions against such misconduct tend to fall away as the number of participants increases, a phenomenon he calls “diffusion of responsibility.”

Soldiers have long understood that savagery begets savagery — or at least breeds indifference.

On the very day the video from Afghanistan emerged, Sgt. Sanick Dela Cruz took the stand in a courtroom at Camp Pendleton in California and testified that he urinated on the skull of a dead Iraqi in 2005. Dela Cruz made the admission during the court-martial of a Marine charged in the killings of 24 Iraqis in the town of Haditha.

Dela Cruz said he was overcome with grief over a comrade killed by a roadside bomb. “The emotion took over, sir,” he told a military defense attorney.


Comments

1lee(544 comments)posted 2 years, 10 months ago

War is brutal and usually the more brutal it is the sooner it is over. The irony is its OK to kill the enemy but don't pee on them

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2southsidedave(4810 comments)posted 2 years, 10 months ago

People who have not been in a war have no right to judge what happens...

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3pacer(68 comments)posted 2 years, 10 months ago

Anything goes in war. Don't ask our protectors how they protect us, and don't ask what they may do to the enemy. Remember, the enemy is still the enemy. THANK ALL OF OUR PROTECTORS FOR A JOB WELL DONE.

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4city_resident(513 comments)posted 2 years, 10 months ago

"If it was the other way around you would see a picture of our young Marines laying in the street with their heads cut off and the Taliban standing over them with smiles on their faces."

So you'd be OK with that? Or is it only OK when we desecrate their bodies?

I've never served in the military, so take this for what it's worth. If you want respect, sometimes you have to be the better man and take the high road.

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5USNBOY413(17 comments)posted 2 years, 10 months ago

Well, being a veteran myself and seeing first hand what those towel heads have done to our men and women in uniform over the years, they should consider themselves lucky that those Marines ended their lives quickly and humanely. We have to live with what they did to us everyday and it won't get better. So what, they felt the urge to urinate. They just happen to Marines and NEED something to aim at. It just happened to be the foreheads or their dead ENEMIES. There are veterans of Iraq and Afghanistan in the US right now with horrifying scars, missing limbs, blindness, etc. from IED's, veterans who will never walk again, veterans who have PTSD and other mental issues. Do you see Afghanistan or Iraq court martialing the people responsible for destroying our veterans lives? NO...HELL NO! They probably celebrated! What about the service members who were beheaded? What about the female POW's who were sexually assaulted? Our Govt is so screwed up and so concerned with being PC, they'll punish our service members for doing LESS than what our enemy has done to our troops. The only reason they sent them to court martial is so they can tell afghanistan that they were punished for their actions. How many family members of deceased veterans or those who perished on 9-11-01, who given the chance, would do the same thing? I can say MOST OF THEM. ITS WAR PEOPLE! There is a lot that goes on that the media doesn't show you. This whole thing is CRAP! Those taliban fighters GOT WHAT THEY DESERVED! Atleast they can't hurt or kill anyone else. These politicians need to figure out that they can't run a war 10,000 miles away from their cushy office in DC. It still amazes me that very few politicians have even served in the military yet they tell the military what to do and want to take their pay cause they can't balance a budget. SMMFH! These politicians are PATHETIC!

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