Thursday, October 20, 2005

Taliban Toast--More Than A War Crime

The report of American soldiers in Afghanistan burning the bodies of Taliban soldiers and using them for impromptu propoganda is circulating around the blogs. The primary crime in this incident was desecrating the enemy's dead. The report states the the soldiers burned the bodies for "hygienic purposes," but that's a thin generalization. What the troops were doing was torturing the corpses, representing to our enemies and ourselves that the Taliban are defeated, impotent, ragdolls and playthings for American troops. Vaunting over fallen enemies is as old as Achilles dragging the body of Hector around the city of Troy in Homer. The French boasted that they would sell the fingers of English soldiers for a sou apiece as the armies were drew up around Agincourt in 1415. Perhaps this kind of behavior is universal.

The crime was amplified by making the burning a religious issue. American "Psy-ops" forces in the area insisted on broadcasting American troops boasting about the burning and abusing the Taliban for letting their men die facing west (toward Mecca) and being embarrassments to Islam. As propoganda, this exercise was not only immature and adolescent, it was an embarrassment to American propoganda skills. In addition, the whole exercise was a war crime. The Geneva Conventions clearly ban corpse abuse and this kind desecration of enemy bodies is something that Americans identify much more with the Nazis, Soviets, and Khmer Rouge than we do with our own soldiers.

But it's also more than a war crime. It's a symbol of the incompetence and futility of the American mission in Iraq and Afghanistan. The first bad sign is that American soldiers were celebrating the killing of TWO Taliban soldiers. Why celebrate such a petty victory. As triumphs go, killing two enemies is a long way from winning the Battle of New Orleans or Gettysburg, or taking of Okinawa from the Japanese. Having failed to stabilize the occupation in Iraq or suppress the Taliban in Afghanistan, our troops are now celebrating the most minor of victories. If the troops were giving a big high-five to themselves by burning corpses, I wonder if they're actually winning these little battles very often. Doesn't seem like it.

The burning of the corpses also gives yet another lie to the idea that we could make Iraq and Afghanistan into Westernized democracies at the point of a gun. When the U. S. invaded Iraq, we became responsible for the electrical system, dams, schools, telephone service, oil production, and the other major physical infrastructure. We've failed so badly with these systems that they are either barely even or behind their functioning under the blockade bound Saddam Hussein regime. American contractors make super-profits and corrupt Iraqi officials build up their Swiss bank accounts, but the reconstruction of the Iraqi economy goes nowhere. These failures have been compounded by lapses in discipline like the burning of corpses. Abu Ghraib, bombing wedding ceremonies, rounding up men of military age, shooting up cars when they approach checkpoints wrong--it all undermines the faith of our allies, creates fresh motivation for revenge by relatives and tribal measures, and provides new propoganda for terrorist recruiters in Egypt, Saudi Arabia, and Jordan. American troops do a lot of good work in Iraq, but these almost inevitable lapses are perpetually undoing all of that good work. The Bush administration wants Iraq to become more like a Western nation, but the Iraqis see the American occupation and imitate us by becoming more intolerant, more violent, and more committed to defeating the occupation at all costs.

The final element of American failure here is the "psy-ops" operation. Armchair advocates of a smaller, faster, more technologically sophisticated military have been pushing "psy-ops" as a leading element in American counter-insurgency. Nobody has heard much about what "psy-ops" forces do, but it's pretty obvious that they're not psychologically sophisticated, not intimidating the enemy, and not contributing to the success of the war effort. This "psy-ops" operation not only embarrassed the military, but was an embarrassment to psychology. Few societies concentrate as much psychologial expertise as the United States. Advertising, political spinning, and psychotherapy are probably better developed in the U. S. than anywhere in the world. However, despite all our concentrated expertise, all we can come up with is a particularly dumb version of playground taunting. What an embarrassment!


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