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The scandal that isn’t on the video

I was going to write an article about this topic, but then Prof. Saree Makdisi beat me to it on Salon.  Although I find U.S. Marines urinating on dead Afghans to be morally repugnant, it is not as morally repugnant as the killing of said Afghans.  The desire to distance themselves from the former is born out of the fact that it would hamper doing more of the latter.  It’s bad publicity and takes away from the very important work of killing, bombing, and occupying Afghans.

The scandal that isn’t on the video

Is it worse to desecrate a few corpses than to mass produce a lot of them?


The United States and its allies were quick to go into damage control mode to try to contain the political and diplomatic fallout from a video posted on YouTube apparently showing US Marines urinating on the mangled corpses of dead Afghans,

A Pentagon spokesman, Captain John Kirby, told CNN: “Regardless of the circumstances or who is in the video, this is egregious, disgusting behavior. It’s hideous. It turned my stomach.”  Afghan President Hamid Karzai agreed.“This act by American soldiers is simply inhuman and condemnable in the strongest possible terms.”.

It ought to go without saying that urinating on  corpses, whether of Taliban fighters or Afghan civilians (or any one else for that matter), is disrespectful and degrading and ought to be condemned. What is interesting, and somewhat unsettling, about the outpouring of sentiment following this new scandal, however, is that it raises more questions than it answers.

Isn’t it odd, for example, that there seems to be more concern about urinating on these bodies than there is about the actual killing that transformed them from living human beings to splayed-out corpses in the first place? Is it really possible that peeing on dead bodies is seen as horrific, but killing people is perfectly acceptable? Isn’t something missing from this picture?

This seems an especially pressing question given that much of the US military (and related CIA) effort in Afghanistan and Pakistan so often seems to involve simply killing—or, to use the rather more circumspect military term, “degrading”—as many militants as possible, not necessarily in actual combat operations, but by twos and threes and tens and dozens, in bombings and air raids and drone attacks, as they sleep or drive or eat or pray or brush their teeth. Day after day we read reports of 8 militants being killed here, 5 being killed there , and 6 somewhere else. It is as though the earth keeps vomiting forth “militants,” who then simply need to be mown down like so much vermin in a “war” reduced to its lowest common denominator—killing for the sake of killing, without any kind of strategic aim or vision or logic, much less a sense of when it might end.

Sure, every now and then someone (very rightly) raises a question about how many civilians are being killed in air raids or drone attacks in Afghanistan or Pakistan; not that it makes any difference. There is even the occasional report about the “vast drone/killing operation” being conducted by the Obama Administration, and a few people, including Glenn Greenwald, have been warning of the menace that an unchecked, unregulated, program of extrajudicial executions means, or ought to mean, to Americans and others alike.

But, these exceptions aside, the routine, hum-drum slaughter of “militants” slips by far too readily without sufficient questioning, without enough people pausing to ask who these people are, what they want, what threat they really pose to the US with their AK-47s and RPGs, what plan, if any, there is to do something to stop their seemingly autochthonous emergence (by addressing its causes, for example) rather than merely mowing them down by the dozen after they emerge–or whether the plan really is simply to go on killing as long as there is a supply of living bodies to soak up our ordnance. After all, President Obama has deliberately chosen to kill rather than capture people because he knows that pictures like those that emerged from Abu Ghraib and Guantanamo are bad news—but that there will be few pictures and fewer questions about the endless slaughter of anonymous militants in the dusty backwaters of Afghanistan and Pakistan.

For all the furor, the current scandal proves that point all too grimly, precisely because the scandal consists in the urination rather than the killing itself.

Marine Commandant Gen. James Amos called the act of urinating on the corpses “wholly inconsistent with the high standards of conduct and warrior ethos that we have demonstrated throughout our history.” A NATO spokesman added, “This disrespectful act is inexplicable and not in keeping with the high moral standards we expect of coalition forces.”

But what does it mean to speak of a “warrior ethos” and “high moral standards” in a war when most of the killing is being done by remote control—and not in the heat, intensity and sweaty, adrenaline-driven fear of battle (which the very concept of a “warrior ethos” is supposed to describe), but rather clinically, in air-conditioned comfort, from the safe distance of 20,000 feet—or, rather, 10,000 miles?

It is all too easy to look at the young Marines urinating on the corpses in that video and condemn them (rightly) for their callous brutality. It is far more difficult, however, to put their adolescent action back in its fuller and more meaningful context and ask ourselves what it means that we hardly seem to attach more value to a human life than they do, and that we have come to accept the “reaping” of human lives—for it is not without reason that one of the biggest drones is called Reaper—as a matter to be dismissed with a careless flick of the morning newspaper or click of the mouse.

Saree Makdisi is a professor of English and Comparative Literature at UCLA and the author of, among other books, “Palestine Inside Out: An Everyday Occupation.” Follow him @sareemakdisi on Twitter. 

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  • No justification, there is none. When I put on a uniform I remember the oath I took, these ones forgot it and it is wrong. Whether or whether they were not Taliban is irrelevant though given how most Afghans do not actively resist occupation, then I take it they are either Taliban or some druglord’s militia men. However it is irrelevant as I said, the dead should be respected.

    And history exists in the mind, not reality. If you believe X Y Z happened then X Y Z happened. I teach history sometimes here, explaining that can be complicated but it helps to understand the subject.

    If one chooses to be rooted in the past then one will relive the past. I could take my Irish ancestry and use it to hate the British, for the British murdered members of my family during their occupation of Eire. But where would that get me? I live here and now, not in the 1920s. Same as I could hold a grudge against the Germans, or the French or any number of people for what they did to various members of my family (some of them still living).

    No, history doesn’t vanish but it is not smart to live there as the world moves on. Those who did bad to my family are dead and buried, there is no point in hating them as their actions will be judged. Maybe when I am old I will feel different and want to relive the past I remember, but I hope not. The present and future are much more exciting and bright!


  • Nur Alia


    The original point I was making is that…since we dont know who the dead people are, we dont know why they were killed (or murdered).

    Even though it is immoral to the highest levels of civilised society to do what the uniformed men are doing…and proudly post it on the internet for the consumption of immoral people just like them to ‘arouse themselves’ with, what is much worse is that you assume they were Taliben, assume they were fighting Amercan soldiers, and assume that the peeing is much worse than thier death.

    You are trying to find a little justification of why these soldiers are peeing on these men, because you want to say that somehow, they were a little right.

    What I said was this…and I asked you…If I were in Kuching Sarawak, in my own home, and foriegn soldiers came to fight, and I was killed fighting for my home…who would you call the bad person?

    I belive Jack…unfortunalty YOU would look at the victim (or collateral damage) and the offender, and judge the act, rather than the merit of the act itself.

    This is the part about colonialism you dont understand. You have the western mindset of history…that it magiclly goes away. History to our family is legacy, and what those we dearly miss…because of ‘assimilation’ policies could have brought us.

  • UK Muslim

    To paraphrase Churchill (whom might I add I have mixed feelings for given his attitude to the British Empire), Afghanistan is no more a united nation than the equator is. Yes, you are right that it is wrong to really see Afghanistan as a nation but it is hard to try and translate that to others.

    Really I feel that if Afghanistan is to survive as ‘Afghanistan’ it must either split up or become like the USA. The USA is effectively just a collection of small nation states that happen to share a flag and currency, Afghanistan would work like that. The ANA will play a part in this of course and I think that its intentions are probably decent, though perhaps it might be better to say it of the Afghan National Police instead. Far more decent than the Taliban anyway.

    But above all the Afghans should be left to their own devises to do it. Unless of course they ask for assistance.

  • Nur,

    Yes, I agree for the most part but I think it is wrong to say that there are some sort of ‘active resistance’. I do liken it to the MCP, they were ‘resistance’ groups but ultimately they just wanted the power for themselves. Not a better nation for their people.

    On colonialism… I don’t see how it is so relevant. Yes I know that your generation still remember it but it was the past. My country ‘colonized’ an awful lot of the world, they brought little good doing it, but ultimately it is nothing to do with me here and now. I reject any attempts to do it, it is wrong, and that is that. I wrote a number of essays (some are on my site) on the negative effects of colonial attitudes to the world. People of the world are mature enough to know how to run their own lives.

    I’ve seen enough wars to want to see any more. And I won’t support either the US or the Taliban in making more, they are both armed bandits and little else.


  • UK Muslim

    “And I disagree that the Afghan National Army is just a puppet (Mr Karzis government is most probably), for one thing the army traces its roots to the 18th century, well before any occupations. I think that many who do join it join with the intention of biulding a better nation. The thing is that unlike the Taliban or any such other groups, it is both national (i.e. not split along tribal lines like local militias) and without any of the fuss over trying to take power.”

    I disagree with your disgreement 😉

    I think that you are projecting our Western comprehension of a Westphalian nation state on a primarily tribal culture with little solid development along these lines. The primary allegiance is to the tribe & not some distant sell their souls for the filthy lucre scum elite.

    One must get into the mind of an ordinary Afghan & see through their eyes. People with links to third world post-colonial states will naturally empathise better. An example of such a people is the “artificial” & “failed state” of neigbour Pakistan. Even Italians & Greeks with their distrust of giving taxes to corrupt central government may understand better than north west Europeans & their kin.

    The loose concept of “Afghan” is like the feuding Arab “tribes with flags” that only unite when under external threat e.g. Israel/Soviets.

    ANA dating from the C18th – well we have all heard about the unified & daring spirit of this great patriotic brotherhood resisting foreign invasions, have we not?

    The reality is that we must see thing in a holistic integrated natural context. A Westphalian nation-state is an entity with institutions & delegated roles & chains of command e.g. polital ruler commanding the commander in chief of the military. The military arm cannot be divorced or fighting its political face.

    So, tell me again what side were the nation-loving ANA on during the foreign invasions e.g. British Raj & Soviet atheist Communist, when the proxy rulers were acting as traitors?

  • Zakster

    Today, in the hubris of power, America may be able to kill innocents, who are helpless against weapons of mass destruction which this nation pours on them day in and day out…

    Those innocents had children and family members who will want justice against those who killed their loved ones for absolutely nothing and they will seek justice…And the way this country is going, it is only a matter of time before this country is also helpless and when the innocents of America will pay the price for the crime that a few committed in their name…

    Who will then ask: ‘Why do they hate us?’

  • Nur Alia


    You seem to minimise the presence of armed, foriegn soldiers amonst citizens who do not even know why those armed foriegn soldiers are there.

    You seem to minimise that that armed occupation force impacts the population of Afganistan…that is the regular citizen by the things I mentioned before…nothing nice.

    Jack…let us not minimise the FACT that westeners are in Afganistan, not for the people who live there…to make thier lives better…but for western interests, even if it is not in the interest of Afganis.

    You FORGET that the people who suffered here during the Brit occupation were the Malays. I see no difference in the intentions of any western imperialism on this side of the world.

    You are right to mention the MCP…but they, for the most part were misguided Malays, but a foriegn proxy force fought a war on our soil, to get them, and in the broader look, all over Indo China. All it did, was kill indiginous people.

    Here, you may know people who see history as a part of legacy. I see it as such. I see the history of westerners, thier religion, and thier attempts at ‘assimilation’ as atrocities.

    Jack, I can look in the photo album of my family, and understand what imperialism, or colonialism, or nation building, or democracy western style means. It means I have family, that will be missed dearly, simply by being who they are, beliving what they wanted, and standing firm for our perception of dignity, honour, morals and ethics.

    Jack, I simply want them to take thier wars, and go home.

  • I agree to some extent Nur, but I think in this case the Afghans are passive. The Soviets were wiped out by foreign funded ‘Mujaheddin’ for the most part, not ‘ordinary’ Afghans. I think that most Afghans are smart enough to sit it out and have been for generations. You must remember that for most of them life outside the tribe matters little and invaders come and go eventually. In fact many ‘invaders’ become Afghans themselves which is why there are so many Afghans of Mongol and Arab decent there. I see little evidence of any ‘genuine’ resistance movements like we are thinking of here.

    And I disagree that the Afghan National Army is just a puppet (Mr Karzis government is most probably), for one thing the army traces its roots to the 18th century, well before any occupations. I think that many who do join it join with the intention of biulding a better nation. The thing is that unlike the Taliban or any such other groups, it is both national (i.e. not split along tribal lines like local militias) and without any of the fuss over trying to take power.

    It is far from an ideal concept, heck nothing in Afghanistan is ideal, but it is better than what the Taliban are offering. I think that it will be important to creating a better Afghanistan, ‘resistance groups’ will just fight amongst themselves. We both know what happened here to some the so called ‘resistance groups’ after WWII; some like the MCP tried to take power once the war was over, the same would happen in Afghanistan. The ‘Northern Alliance’ is an example of this, they are basically just the warlords who the Taliban kicked out wanting to get back in again.

    Overall I think that Afghanistan will take a lot of time to get better and it will get far worse before it does. But I have faith in the Afgans, they will expel the dirt that brings their nation down, including the Taliban. One day I might even be able to go on holiday there… it is beautiful.


  • Nur Alia


    If the Afgan people were ‘passive’ toward invaders, they would be a Soviet sattilite today.

    The occupation of Afganistan by the former Soviet Union is one MAJOR reason that the Soviet Union is gone. The occupation cost them dearly…same as the Brit occupation of where we live…it simply got too expensive to keep.

    Lets understand that the Afgani government is a puppet of the west, and so is the Afgani military. It would be the same as a Palistinian joining the IDF to fight against his own people, wanting to be free of the occupier.

    The Angkatan Tentera Malaysia are paid for by Malaysians. Thier members consist of our own people. Appointments are made by a government elected by a people free of occupation…who can make decisions based on what they think thier best interests are, and not who the occupier will allow on the ballot.

    So yes, here, if our land were invaded by foriegners, the ATM would deal with them…and I would fight along side them in whatever capacity I needed to…to protect my home, and everything dear to me…including my freedom.

    Hopefully, you in Miri would do the same. Jack…dont let the city I was born in fall. I will come and get you personally…(kidding)

  • Nur Alia, you make the mistake of believing that the Afghans are resiting. They don’t, they never have, and that is how they survive. The Afghans have always been quite passive to invaders, it is why they have been around for so long. They sit it out, as they are doing now.

    The only ones who fight now are the wretched ‘Taliban’ and the private armies of various warlords and drug kingpins who are protecting their interests. I have little to no sympathy for either of these groups since neither has the interests of the Afghans at heart. The ‘Taliban’ just want power, the war and drug lords are protecting their sources of income. Indeed, many Afghans join the government army or police, those are the ones I have sympathy with, the ones with the guts to stand up to everyone and take their country back. I have no sympathy for cowardly ‘men’ like the Taliban or drug lords.

    As you say though, they have the right to defense just as we do. Were someone to take my farm (two hours outside Miri, we are not quite neighbors) then of course I would expect a fight back. But at the same time we have the Malaysian Armed Forces over here, we resist via them. In the same way, Afghans who wish to resist the occupation of their nation and make a positive change would join their armed forces, not the private militias of warlords or the ‘Taliban’.


  • The Cake Is A Lie

    I agree with Nur, whatever the reason be if a foreign power occupied my home country I would be as vicious and brutal as the Taliban are made out to be in defending my home land. Let’s not forget that Bin Laden and 8 of the 9 hijackers were all Saudis, not Afghanis. Even if Afghans knew about 9/11, they are right in asking why it is them that should pay the price, something which they are asking all the time.

  • danios can you pull up the other incidence were soldiers were posing next to dead civilians you know the article you wrote before benladen was killed

  • Nur Alia

    Jack, if American soldiers were in Kuching Sarawak where I live, using force…and I were killed by them, would you accuse me of ‘attacking American troops’, or defending my homeland from invaders?

    So Jack, who exactly is the bad guy here?

    Jack, I also didnt say the Taliben were good, and you dont know what it feels like to have something taken from you by force and want it back…claiming what the ‘local people’ whould do or not do.

    Lets make something TOTALLY CLEAR here. Most of the Afgan people dont even know what 9/11 is…the supposed cause for the invasion of Afganistan by the west. All these people know, is soldiers from a foriegn land come, kill them, destroy thier homes, farms, towns, and block thier roads. They kick in thier doors in the midnight, point guns as thier women and children, steal or break thier posessions, and cart the breadwinners of thier families away, some never to be seen again.

    If you lived in that situation, you would fight back.

    Honestly jack, if you were my neighbour, and we lived under that situation and you didnt help fight back…I would shoot you myself.

    Apparently you havent lived in Malaysia long.

  • Well rookie I feel that both sides are pretty much as bad as each other. I sit with the Afghans on this one, they have had war for generations and I feel for them, not for those who wish to exploit them.


  • rookie

    Jack, I agree 100% with your statement:
    “However I see little evidence that they are really working towards a ‘better’ Afghanistan and their actions seem to just be making it worse.”

    You are right!
    I also see little, or no evidence that americans are really working towards a “better Afganistan” and their actions definitely make it worse!!!

    You comment as if taliban came to America!
    It is opposite!!!

  • Nur Alia, I would agree with you if that were what the ‘Taliban’ were really about. And yes, I am quite sure they are ‘Taliban’ since they were killed attacking US troops, local Afghans don’t tend to do that.

    If the ‘Taliban’ were anything more than, at best, power hungry zealots who want to take over Afghanistan (and at worst simple criminals) then I’d have sympathy for them. However I see little evidence that they are really working towards a ‘better’ Afghanistan and their actions seem to just be making it worse.


  • Crow

    I was reading an article about Wounded Knee and if you made a few changes it could be an article about today, or about the Japanese during world war 2. The article told how the Lakota invited their destruction just like people today claim Muslims are inviting their destruction. And of course back then just like now there were evil people who rejoiced at the deaths of people they felt were inferior. call them whatever you want, rascists, nazis, Islamaphobes no matter they’re all one in the same, evil that seems to turn up in the suposedly civilized Western society every now and then. Soon they’ll be on the shitheap of history.

  • Nur Alia

    Maybe I will get some traction here now…

    I asked, since we dont know who took the video, or where, or who the dead people are…how do we know they are taliben fighters…and…even if they were fighting, we seem not to understand that they are Afgan people fighting an invader in thier land.

    I would hope that my neighbour and I would stand in the city square together and fight an invading force..because…you are only as free as you can defend your freedom.

    No, it isnt right to pee on these men, but it is much more evil to assume that these dead men ment evil, since we dont know who they are.

    I am speaking to the Muslims. Should we go along with guilt by association by condeming someone else…because they are Afgani, they are evil?

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