But those of us who have worn the uniform don’t excuse these acts by saying, “War is hell.” There’s right and wrong in war, and we probably know that better than anyone else, because we’ve seen the life-or-death consequences of our decisions.
Before my first deployment, though, I wondered if it was true. People don’t usually talk about the wars they fight in. Maybe it’s because the things they would say are dark and unjustifiable. But then I went to Iraq and Afghanistan, where I faced combat and death, and I discovered that it’s nothing of the sort.
There’s a shock the first time you deal with the aftermath of combat, but that soon subsides because there is a lot of work to be done. We would collect enemy bodies so we could engage in the macabre task of identifying them and gathering intelligence. When that was done, we’d hand the bodies over to the Afghan soldiers and police we worked with so that they could receive proper burial.
In my unit, I’m not ashamed to admit, we celebrated the death of the enemy. After one hard day in 2010 when we lost a Marine, we discovered two insurgents planting a bomb along a road. As the insurgents drove away, we shot a missile at them, killing one. Alongside the jubilation, we felt that justice had been served.
At the same time, the insurgent who survived the blast was brought by locals to one of our bases for medical attention. So amid the euphoria, we also provided aid to the enemy. Doing so was required to accomplish our mission of building local support.
But celebrating victory in battle is different than desecrating the dead. And it’s discipline and training that not only keep your moral compass pointing north, but also give you the courage to stop what you know is wrong. That’s what I saw time and again with 20-year-old corporals and lance corporals leading their units, ensuring that they didn’t stray from right into wrong. And that sense of morality is what I see missing in the video.
I can’t imagine what went through the heads of the men in the video, because desecrating the dead goes against every custom and value that the Marines hold dear. When the enemy is dead, they’re no longer treated like combatants. Despite the mortal conflict you’ve just engaged in, their humanity is revealed by their death. And in Afghanistan, you often have to look their family members in the eye as you hand over the body of their dead father, brother or son.