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.