The Taliban’s moral standing to be complaining about the desecration of corpses is, to put it mildly, rather limited. Recall, after all, the fate suffered by former Afghan ruler Najibullah at the hands of the Taliban in 1996. First he was castrated, then dragged through the streets by a car before his corpse was finally left dangling from a lamppost. Yet there is no question that U.S. troops are held to a higher standard and the decision by four Marines to urinate on the corpses of Taliban fighters–and then videotape it!–could do harm to the American mission in Afghanistan.
It is, after all, a war crime and a violation of religious dictates to desecrate war dead. More than that it is stupid and pointless if perhaps understandable as a venting of stress after battle. The desecration of the enemy after death has been common in all wars–even “good wars” like World War II, where GIs and Marines often took Japanese skulls, teeth or other body parts or articles of uniform home as souvenirs. It is hardly surprising that the Afghan War should be no exception. What is different today is that the act was videotaped and then witnessed around the world. Another difference is the Marines are fighting not a total war but a counterinsurgency in which their goal is not only to militarily defeat the enemy but to win over the population. This could potentially make that job harder.
The Marines often speak of the “strategic corporal”–the notion being that decisions made even by a lowly corporal can have high-level repercussions. This is a perfect example; indeed, one of the urinating Marines was a corporal. Now everyone from the secretary of defense to the secretary of state has to rush out to try to clean up the mess made by these leathernecks.
How bad a mess it is remains to be seen. This is no Abu Ghraib. It is not even of the same magnitude as the acts committed by a small group of U.S. soldiers who in 2010 killed three Afghan civilians for “sport.” One might even argue there is even some potential benefit in the Marines’ actions–that they are exhibiting a kind of machismo common among warriors in all wars, and one that Afghans schooled in a hard way of war can appreciate and respect. But even if this is a relatively minor scandal, it is no excuse for criminally unprofessional behavior beneath the high standards of the Marine Corps. These are actions that should be met with punishment accordingly.