Earlier this year I had a lively discussion with a BA student regarding the video of marines urinating over the dead bodies of their dead opponents. The argument boiled down to the questions of whether we need to understand their mindset prior to judging their actions, or whether we need or should even attempt to do so (NB: My argument was yes on both counts). This week, the LA Times brought the issue of trophy pictures back to the top of the news agenda. Of course, such acts were immediately condemned by Leon Panetta and President Obama. Before we jump to conclusions, let’s remember that not all official apologies are shared by the perpetrators of similar actions.
Here’s a thought – maybe these pictures are a long-term good.
I’ve been re-reading Michael Ignatieff’s Virtual War recently, and gauging how it holds up. Some bits have taken a dent (both his and Luttwak’s writings on post-heroic war definitely need an update), but others remain as clear now as they were back in 2000, prior to the decade long war on terror. The last paragraph always sticks with me, particularly:
“We see ourselves as noble warriors and our enemies as despicable tyrants. We see war as a surgical scalpel and not a bloodstained sword. In so doing we mis-describe ourselves as we mis-describe the instruments of death.”
My reading of Virtual War is that it documents an important milestone in the idea of rational warfare, a concept which I personally consider to be a tad bizzarre. Photos of soldiers posing with mutilated bodies provide a very direct reminder that war isn’t rational, and can never be so, despite the language we use and the way it is viewed by politicians and the public. In short, pictures of soldiers desecrating the dead don’t bring home the ‘reality’ of war, but they drive home its inherent irrationality. Rupert Smith might have made a meal out of ‘killing people and breaking things’, but he still called his book The Utility of Force, which hints at the way in which the very people apologising for marines and soldiers view war – as a tool or implement. Most of the language and way we think of war involves attempts to rationalise or process it, from Robert McNamara through to today’s metrics-based operations. The people that are honest about war recognise that there are irrational elements beyond ‘uncertainty’ which are part and parcel of warfare. Almost everyone involved in conducting war, at least on our side, has a reason for downplaying the barbaric/undisciplined/’conduct… [that] does not in any way represent the high standards of the US military’ bits that will happen in any war. As revolting as pictures of desecrated dead are, they serve to remind everyone that this will happen when young men (and women) are trained to kill people and put in stressful situations.
It is natural to rationalise war (as anything else). Being an academic, studying war, I rationalise it all the time. We use analytical tools to try and draw some semblance of objectivity from extreme subjectivity. I’m well aware of the odd looks I get from my non-academic/non-military friends when I say things like ‘It’s not as simple as that’ in response to issues of dead civilians, because I study the internal rationalisations of war (just war theory and international humanitarian law) and through those lenses there is a perspective where it is okay to kill non-combatants because of proportionality, necessity, double-effect etc. At the same time, I’m well aware that certain aspects of war are irrational – we expect people to be okay with killing another human being, normally among the most abhorrent acts in a criminal code, but at the same time to respect their body. We view pictures of desecration and are horrified at urine, rather than the corpse. In the long run, photos like those published this week remind everyone of what happens in war – that despite the rationalisations, and the necessity, and the values: soldiers will commit terrible acts and desecrate one another. In other words, there are undefinable, but present, limits to the extent to which war can be rationalised, and the extent to which the irrational aspects of the phenomenon can be exorcised.
To re-cap the advocation – maybe the photos are good because they remind everyone (politicians, soldiers, public, press) that war is a really bad thing, not simply a foreign policy tool.