UNITED STATES NEWS

Desecration of the dead is as old as war itself

Jan 14, 2012, 8:21 AM

Associated Press

(AP) – Since before Achilles dragged Hector’s body around the walls of Troy, warriors have been desecrating the corpses of their vanquished enemies, whether to send a message or exact revenge.

And for just as long, they have known in their hearts it was wrong.

The video that surfaced this week of four Marines apparently urinating on three Taliban corpses has stirred outrage in the U.S. and beyond, but also focused attention on the brutalizing effects of war on those sent to wage it.

Reserve Marine Lt. Col. Paul Hackett, who teaches the law of war to Marines before they are sent off to Afghanistan, made it clear Friday that he was not condoning the Marines’ actions. But he warned against judging them too harshly, saying: “When you ask young men to go kill people for a living, it takes a whole lot of effort to rein that in.”

In the long history of war, the episode pales in comparison to other battlefield atrocities. But one difference this time was that, in the Internet age, it was captured on camera and instantly shared with the rest of the world.

“This outrage is so interesting to me because it almost tops that” of other, more ghastly war crimes, said psychologist Eric Zillmer, a Drexel University professor and co-editor of the book “Military Psychology: Clinical and Operational Applications.” “Because of the technology, the video, you actually see it. Most of the other war crimes, you heard about, you read about.”

The Geneva Conventions forbid the desecration of the dead, and officials in the U.S. and abroad have called for swift punishment for the four Marines, identified as members of the 3rd Battalion, 2nd Marines, which fought in the Afghan province of Helmand for seven months before returning to Camp Lejeune, N.C.

The prohibition against desecrating the battlefield dead is almost as old as war itself.

In Homer’s “Iliad,” the epic poem about the Trojan War, which may have occurred in the 12th century B.C., Achilles kills Hector and refuses to allow for a proper burial. He relents after Zeus sends word that Achilles “tempts the wrath of heaven too far” with his desire to “vent his mad vengeance on the sacred dead.”

In the 7th century, Abu Bakr, father-in-law of the prophet Muhammad and Islam’s first caliph, issued 10 rules to his people for their guidance on the battlefield. Among them: “You must not mutilate dead bodies.”

In 1907, the Hague Convention said that after every engagement, the combatants should take steps to protect the dead against “pillage.” The first Geneva Convention in 1949 addressed preventing the dead from “being despoiled.”

The history of war is replete with stories of atrocities committed to send a message. In the 15th century, Prince Vlad III of Wallachia struck fear in his Turkish enemies _ and earned his gruesome nickname, Vlad the Impaler _ by littering the battlefield with the impaled corpses of the vanquished.

Over the centuries, fingers, scalps and other body parts have been taken as battlefield trophies.

Nevertheless, Zillmer said the desecration of a dead foe is “taboo across cultures.”

“It doesn’t need to be explained to be inappropriate,” he said. “Anybody who looks at it says it’s disgusting.”

But, like Hackett, he said it can be difficult for soldiers, particularly members of a tightknit group, to go on killing missions and then just “switch off.” And he said the inhibitions against such misconduct tend to fall away as the number of participants increases, a phenomenon he calls “diffusion of responsibility.”

Soldiers have long understood that savagery begets savagery _ or at least breeds indifference.

In his World War II memoir “With the Old Breed,” E.B. Sledge wrote of seeing the bloated, blackened corpse of a fellow Marine on the Pacific island of Peleliu, his head and hands cut off, his severed penis stuffed in his mouth.

“My emotions solidified into rage and a hatred for the Japanese beyond anything I ever had experienced,” he wrote. “From that moment on I never felt the least pity or compassion for them no matter what the circumstances. My comrades would field-strip their packs and pockets for souvenirs and take gold teeth, but I never saw a Marine commit the kind of barbaric mutilation the Japanese committed if they had access to our dead.”

Urinating on the dead is not exactly a new idea.

In the same book, Sledge wrote with disgust about a young Marine officer on Okinawa: “If he could, that `gentleman by the act of Congress’ would locate a Japanese corpse, stand over it, and urinate in its mouth. It was the most repulsive thing I ever saw an American do in the war. I was ashamed that he was a Marine officer.”

On the very day the video from Afghanistan emerged, Sgt. Sanick Dela Cruz took the stand in a courtroom at Camp Pendleton in California and testified that he urinated on the skull of a dead Iraqi in 2005. Dela Cruz made the admission during the court-martial of a Marine charged in the killings of 24 Iraqis in the town of Haditha.

Dela Cruz said he was overcome with grief over a comrade killed by a roadside bomb. “The emotion took over, sir,” he told a military defense attorney.

Marty Brenner, an anger management specialist in Beverly Hills, Calif., who treats combat veterans and civilians, said the acts depicted in the video _ and the Marines’ recording of it _ demonstrate rage.

“They have no other way of expressing their anger at these people,” Brenner said, “so what they’re doing is urinating on them to show, `I’m better. I want the world to see you guys are crap and that’s what you deserve.'”

In Jacksonville, N.C., the home of Camp Lejeune, some people resented criticism of the Marines over the video, and some expressed fear the footage would make their job harder.

“It demolished me to see that,” said Arthur Wade, a Vietnam veteran who retired in 1989. “If one of those men being urinated on was your father, would you want to help the United States?”

But Maynard Sinclair, a Marine veteran of Vietnam and the peacekeeping mission in Beirut, said the outrage shows the public’s naivete about war.

“I did a hell of a lot worse in Vietnam than urinate on some dead bodies,” he said. “We cut left ears off and wore them around our necks to show we were warriors, and we knew how to get revenge.”

Gary Solis, a former Marine Corps prosecutor and judge who teaches law of war at Georgetown University, said the Internet has added a dimension that soldiers in the past did not have to deal with: “In Vietnam, when you screwed up, no one back home heard about it.”

___

Breed reported from Raleigh, N.C., Watson from San Diego. Associated Press writer Tom Breen also contributed to this story from Jacksonville, N.C.

(Copyright 2012 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.)

United States News

FILE - A Delta Air Lines jet leaves the gate, Friday, July 19, 2024, at Logan International Airport...

Associated Press

Air travel delays continue, though most airlines have recovered from global tech outage

Delays at some airports continue after a faulty software update caused havoc worldwide and led to the grounding by almost all airlines of a number of flights, but the impact is receding. Total cancellations within, into or out of the U.S. earlyl Monday totaled 758, according to the latest data from FlightAware, which is greater […]

14 minutes ago

Associated Press

2024 Election Latest: Harris vows to ‘earn and win’ party nomination after Biden drops out

President Joe Biden dropped out of the 2024 race for the White House on Sunday, ending his bid for reelection following a disastrous debate with Donald Trump that raised doubts about his fitness for office just four months before the election. Meanwhile, Vice President Kamala Harris is being thrust into the most scrutinizing of spotlights, […]

36 minutes ago

United States' forward LeBron James waves to the crowd after the end of an exhibition basketball ga...

Associated Press

LeBron James selected as Team USA male flagbearer for Paris Olympics opening ceremony

LeBron James wasn’t totally sure what the opening ceremony was all about when he was picked for his first Olympics in 2004. This time, he’ll be one of the stars of the show. James has been picked by his fellow U.S. Olympians to serve as the male flagbearer for the Americans in Friday night’s opening […]

2 hours ago

Environmental Protection Agency Administrator Michael Regan speaks to employees in Washington, Thur...

Associated Press

EPA awards $4.3 billion to fund projects in 30 states to reduce climate pollution

WASHINGTON (AP) — The Environmental Protection Agency is awarding $4.3 billion in grants to fund projects in 30 states to reduce climate pollution. The money will go to 25 projects targeting greenhouse gas emissions from transportation, electric power, commercial and residential buildings, industry, agriculture and waste and materials management. The grants are paid for by […]

4 hours ago

Associated Press

Stock market today: Asian shares fall after Wall St ends worst week; Biden withdraw from 2024 race

Asian stocks were mostly lower Monday after President Joe Biden exited the 2024 race. The downbeat start to the week followed losses Friday on Wall Street as businesses around the world scrambled to contain disruptions from a massive technology outage. U.S. futures were little changed and oil prices rose. Biden announced his withdrawal from the […]

8 hours ago

FILE - San Francisco District Attorney Kamala Harris poses for a portrait in San Francisco, June 18...

Associated Press

Vice President Kamala Harris leads list of contenders for spots on the Democratic ticket

President Joe Biden’s decision to step down as the Democratic Party’s nominee for president opens the door for other contenders to become the Democratic nominee in November. The president has thrown his support behind Vice President Kamala Harris, and other prominent Democrats moved quickly to rally around her candidacy, but it’s unclear just how smooth […]

8 hours ago

Sponsored Articles

...

Condor Airlines

Condor Airlines can get you smoothly from Phoenix to Frankfurt on new A330-900neo airplane

Adventure Awaits! And there's no better way to experience the vacation of your dreams than traveling with Condor Airlines.

...

DESERT INSTITUTE FOR SPINE CARE

Desert Institute for Spine Care is the place for weekend warriors to fix their back pain

Spring has sprung and nothing is better than March in Arizona. The temperatures are perfect and with the beautiful weather, Arizona has become a hotbed for hikers, runners, golfers, pickleball players and all types of weekend warriors.

...

DISC Desert Institute for Spine Care

Sciatica pain is treatable but surgery may be required

Sciatica pain is one of the most common ailments a person can face, and if not taken seriously, it could become one of the most harmful.

Desecration of the dead is as old as war itself