Marines urinating on the dead? This is war.

The video of US marines urinating on dead Taliban fighters has shocked many. But the dehumanizing of the enemy was much worse back in the day.

"Deplorable," says Defense Secretary Leon Panetta.

"The culprits and those who trained them in such a way that these simpletons thought this was acceptable should be punished to set an example," says Pat Lang, a former special forces officer who fought in Vietnam.

"These Marines have embarrassed themselves and have disgraced their country and the US Marine Corps," writes Andrew Exum, who fought as a junior officer in both Afghanistan and Iraq

The video that emerged online this week was filmed by the participants, yucking it up as they urinate on the dead bodies of presumed insurgents – whose bare feet and tattered clothes are a sharp contrast to the well-equipped Americans. Next to them lies a small, overturned wheelbarrow.

While callous and shocking to the vast majority of Americans who have never been anywhere near combat, I felt no surprise watching the video. Only sadness. It's a point well made by Mr. Exum in his post on the matter (which includes some links to WWII propaganda posters showing how much worse the dehumanizing of the enemy was back in the day).

One big difference today is the diffusion of camera phones and other media allow the ugly dehumanizing effect of war to go viral. In a way, I am glad. Since so few Americans actually fight in our wars, it's good that Americans see the effect war can have on other people's sons and daughters.

War is an awful human experience. It is sometimes necessary, but it is never sanitary.

This is not to say that such incidents are common among US soldiers these days. Far from it. Most noncommissioned officers and officers maintain unit discipline. And given the proliferation of cheap digital cameras among soldiers and marines who, after are all are often prone to highly inappropriate jokes (nearly 40 percent of the Marine Corps, for instance, is under 22 years old), it surprises me that there there haven't been more videos like this. That speaks well of the honor and discipline of the vast majority of those who have served.

But the gallows humor and contempt for the enemy on display in this video isn't far from what you would experience embedded with any combat group. In 2004 in Iraq, I saw a US tank rolling through central Baghdad's Karrada neighborhood with a slogan stenciled on its gun: "Allah my ass!"

I'm sure the young soldier who put it there thought he was being funny. But someone higher up the chain of command didn't stop it before the tank left base and became a rolling symbol of contempt for the faith of Iraq's people.  

In groups that have lost men or been under extreme fire, hatred, and anger flow freely.

Every war will have bodies desecrated, massacres of the unarmed (as occurred in Haditha, Iraq, after a young marine was killed by an IED and his buddies went on a rampage, killing more than 20 local residents), and abuse of prisoners (Abu Ghraib is but one example; our allies in Iraq and Afghanistan have viciously tortured prisoners, as have our enemies). In WWII, mutilation of the enemy dead was far from uncommon.

In the past decade, there have been many more incidents when US troops have stepped in to stop abuses. In Anbar province in 2005, I was with a Marine unit who had to stop Iraqi government forces, a mostly Shiite unit, from burning and looting the cars of Sunni civilians at a traffic stop. The US army helped uncover and stop secret Iraqi government torture centers in Baghdad in 2006  (though, sadly, they were quickly reopened elsewhere).

The military is investigating, and appears to have identified the four marines. Their military careers, it's safe to say, are close to over and a court martial is almost certain. A deeper look into the Marine unit involved and its command environment is coming down the pike. That's as it should be.

But remember that if you put enough men in combat, for enough time, this sort of thing is likely to happen.

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