A Philosopher's Blog

War Dead

Posted in Ethics, Philosophy by Michael LaBossiere on January 20, 2012
ARLINGTON, VA - DECEMBER 27:  U.S. Marine Corp...

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There was a brief flap in the media about American marines allegedly urinating on dead Taliban fighters. Rick Perry weighed in on this as did John McCain.

On the one hand, it is easy to understand why soldiers might urinate on or otherwise desecrate the bodies of fallen foes. First, soldiers facing the sort of situation that exists in Afghanistan probably feel frustrated and angry to a degree that exceeds that felt during a more conventional war. As such, when an enemy is killed, there probably remains some desire to continue to “hurt” him. Second, getting people to be willing to kill other people already puts them in a state of mind in which they have already overcome some rather serious behavior barriers. After all, the behavioral barrier that normally prevents us from shooting other people in the head is probably a much higher moral barrier than the one that normally keeps us from urinating on the corpse of an enemy. Second, the mistreatment of the dead can be seen as part of the violence of conflict. In the past it was not uncommon for the bodies of the slain to be mutilated (sometimes in the belief that these injuries would be carried into the afterlife). As such, the desecration of the enemy is merely the continuation of the violence that began with his death.

On the other hand, this sort of behavior seems to be morally reprehensible. First, to reverse the situation, Americans were horrified when the body of U.S. Staff Sgt. William David Cleveland was dragged naked through the streets of Mogadishu as people cheered and abused his remains. Given our view of this abuse of our dead, we would seem to be obligated to be consistent in our principles and thus condemn the mistreatment of the corpses of our enemies.

Second, even though the dead are most likely not hurt by this (it seems unlikely that this mistreatment somehow carries over into a metaphysical afterlife), Kant’s arguments about the treatment of animals can be modified to be used to argue against mistreating corpses.

While a corpse cannot be harmed by the abuse (the dead are presumably beyond such things), such abuse does harm to the person engaged in it and, as Kant argued, could damage their humanity and make them more inclined to act badly towards living people. As such, the dead should be treated with a reasonable degree of respect.

Of course, as noted above, if people are already killing people, then it might seem to miss the point to be nonplussed about the killing but outraged at the urination. After all, if people are already at the point where they are fine with killing, then it could be argued that they are already morally damaged to a degree that a little urination will not increase.

In reply, it can be argued that killing in the time of war is somehow consistent with treating people with respect and that a person can be both a killer and morally decent person, at least in the context of war. While this might seem to be a bit insane, experience does seem to support this. After all, while soldiers do suffer emotional trauma, most combat troops do not regard themselves as murderers and they are generally not regarded as such.

One way to make sense of this is to consider why the soldiers are killing and the typical attitude towards what they are doing. In generally, they are killing to achieve military objectives and the attitude typically does not involve a desire to murder but rather a desire to achieve the objectives (and not die) with minimal casualties (after all, most professional soldiers prefer that the enemy surrenders as opposed to fighting to the death). In the case of desecrating a corpse, this does not contribute towards achieving a legitimate military objective and it involves a degree of personal animosity that is not typical of military operations.

As a final point, there is also the moral concern of the impact of such behavior. In the case of the endless war on terror, one major objective is to win over “hearts and minds” (something that we attempted in Vietnam). Obviously enough, urinating on dead Taliban fighters is not going to help America’s image in the region (and the world) and will serve to put American forces in the region in somewhat greater danger. As such, desecrating corpses is something that should not be tolerated.

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18 Responses

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  1. magus71 said, on January 20, 2012 at 9:47 am

    1) The US military is not tolerating these actions. The Marines will be punished.

    2) Few people equate urinating on a corpse with dragging it through streets, flaying the remains and lighting it on fire. I think people would be far more shocked (are they really shocked in this case?) if Marines tied some Afghans who were on their way to feed a village to the back of their Humvees and dragged them through the streets after shooting them.

    3) This is not an atrocity.

    4) Don’t need to go all the way back to Mogadishu to find abuse of American corpses. There have been several incidents in Iraq and Afghanistan. None of these incidents justify what the Marines did. However, these under-reported abuses do show where the media likes to focus its scrutiny.

    5) The Taliban does not punish such activity from its fighters. The US military does. Thus any hint in media reports that this is somehow representative of what it means to be an American service member is propaganda.

    6) Discipline is what sets the military apart from much of the civilian world. Thus, these Marines will be punished at a level that is beyond a level most civilians would face.

    Other than that, it’s not much of a story.

    • anon said, on January 20, 2012 at 10:07 am

      “3) This is not an atrocity. ”
      a·troc·i·ty[ ə tróssətee ]a·troc·i·ties Plural

      1. shockingly cruel act: a shockingly cruel act, especially an act of wanton violence against an enemy in wartime
      “to deplore the atrocities of war”
      2. extreme cruelty: extreme evil or cruelty
      “an act of atrocity”
      3. something very bad: something repellent or extremely bad of its kind
      “That design is an atrocity!”

      Looks like people can call it an atrocity. Beliefs and feelings are relative.

      “4) show where the media likes to focus its scrutiny.”
      On sensational stories or are you implying that the media is “anti US military”? The media knows that sensational stories sell better than boring ones.

      Aren’t we supposed to be BETTER than the Taliban? Also, pretending that US soldiers never do anything like this is also propaganda 😉

      Isn’t it weapons, not discipline that sets the military apart from much of the civilian world?

      I’d say it is a story because Americans like to get up in arms when an enemy does something like this to one of our dead soldiers. Shouldn’t we be up in arms if we do something like this to one of their’s or should we be hypocrites?

      • Michael LaBossiere said, on January 20, 2012 at 11:00 am

        Guns do not a military make, but rather the organization and discipline. Of course, there are degrees of discipline. A professional military tries to maintain discipline, if only because undisciplined troops are unreliable and generally less effective.

        • anon said, on January 20, 2012 at 11:57 am

          A military is but a specialized unit for fighting/using weapons. Companies and other organizations can/do have organization and discipline that is as good or better than the military but do not have weapons. They are not considered militaries because they do not specialize in/have/use weapons.

          From wikipedia:
          A military is an organization authorized by its greater society to use lethal force, usually including use of weapons, in defending its country by combating actual or perceived threats.

        • dhammett said, on January 20, 2012 at 1:33 pm

          The Taliban likely condones atrocities because, viewed from just about any angle, it is ,essentially, a terrorist organization, and atrocities are central to terrorist success.The Taliban has guns. It seems to be organized enough and disciplined enough that, even with comparatively limited implements of war and human resources, it can successfully carry out horrendous attacks on coalition forces and the Afghan people.

          The Taliban was, and will be, if it wins this war, a terrorist/governmental organization. Anyone involved in getting us into the war should have, and likely did, realize that, if we didn’t win the war and wipe the Taliban off the face of the earth, we’d have a significant military presence in Afghanistan for a long, long, long time. Opinion: As our presence lengthens, pissing on corpses will evolve into acts that will be atrocities by any definition whatever the strictness of codes of conduct and the severity of the punishments involved..

      • Anonymous said, on January 20, 2012 at 1:54 pm

        So where’s the atrocity?

        “Aren’t we supposed to be BETTER than the Taliban?”

        Are you saying we aren’t?

        “Also, pretending that US soldiers never do anything like this is also propaganda.”

        Who’s pretending?

        “I’d say it is a story because Americans like to get up in arms when an enemy does something like this to one of our dead soldiers.”

        I suspect I know which is more of a story, to you, anon.


        • anon said, on January 20, 2012 at 2:52 pm

          “Are you saying we aren’t? ”
          Saying “but the taliban did/does worse” doesn’t excuse our own actions.

          “Who’s pretending?”
          Typically the US military for one, until they get caught by somebody else.

          “I suspect I know which is more of a story, to you, anon. ”
          You, tell, me. I think all stories are stories Magus, how about you?

    • T. J. Babson said, on January 21, 2012 at 1:03 pm

      Those guys are a long way from home and are getting shot at every day. They are only a few years out of high school. Give them a break.

      Why don’t you guys pay attention to stuff like this. These guys are supposed to be the nation’s elite but they behave far worse than those Marines:


      Former MF Global chief executive Jon Corzine apologized “to all those affected” by the brokerage’s collapse Thursday as he told a congressional committee he doesn’t know what happened to $1.2 billion in missing customer funds.

      Testifying under subpoena at a House Agriculture Committee hearing, Corzine, a former Democratic U.S. senator and ex-Goldman Sachs chief, portrayed himself as stunned about the massive shortfall that emerged as regulators and federal investigators began probing MF Global’s Oct. 31 bankruptcy.

      • T. J. Babson said, on January 21, 2012 at 1:39 pm

        “Stunned.” Truly snortworthy. These guys make billions but never seem to be accountable.

      • dhammett said, on January 21, 2012 at 5:56 pm

        A convenient illustration. So, just to add some dimension to this line of thought. . . We all remember Enron, right? Jeffrey Skilling and Kenneth Lay?

        Just want to point out that not all bad guys are Democrats. Nor are all bad guys politicians.

        I can say, with certainty, that they’re all human.

        • T. J. Babson said, on January 22, 2012 at 12:43 am

          From Wikipedia on Jeffrey Skilling:

          During his admissions interview for Harvard Business School, he stated that he was asked if he was smart, to which he supposedly replied, “I’m fucking smart.”[5] Skilling earned his M.B.A. from Harvard Business School in 1979. He became a consultant at McKinsey & Company in the energy and chemical consulting practices. Skilling became one of the youngest partners in the history of McKinsey.[6]

          IMO Harvard Business School and McKinsey & Company have a lot to answer for. I suspect Skilling was just practicing what he was taught.

          • dhammett said, on January 22, 2012 at 1:15 pm

            To return to my point. . . . Attending Harvard or Yale or Princeton or Podunk does not make a person more or less human, more or less susceptible to human fallibility. From Wikipedia on Ken Lay:

            “He went on to earn his Ph.D. in economics from the University of Houston in 1970 and soon after went to work at Exxon Mobil Corp., the successor to Humble Oil & Refining.”

            I’m not so sure Lay was just practicing what he was taught at U of Missouri and Exxon. I just can’t make a leap like that. Then again:
            “Beginning in the fall of 1973, [ GW] Bush attended the Harvard Business School, where he earned a Master of Business Administration.”
            Perhaps you’re on to something. . . 🙂

            But seriously. If an intelligent person with a strong moral compass enters a good graduate school , odds are that person will leave that school, intelligent, moral, and (we hope) in possession of more information than when he entered. If someone with a Skilling-like moral compass enters the same school, it’s most likely that he will emerge (perhaps) better educated, but still as Skilling-like as when he entered.

            I’m certain very many good, productive citizens have graduated from Harvard, Yale, Princeton, Missouri, etc.

            • T. J. Babson said, on January 22, 2012 at 10:09 pm

              Business schools, he said, never really taught their students that, like doctors and lawyers, they were part of a profession. And in the 1970s, he said, the idea took hold that a company’s stock price was the primary barometer of success, which changed the schools’ concept of proper management techniques.

              Instead of being viewed as long-term economic stewards, he said, managers came to be seen as mainly as the agents of the owners — the shareholders — and responsible for maximizing shareholder wealth.

              “A kind of market fundamentalism took hold in business education,” Professor Khurana said. “The new logic of shareholder primacy absolved management of any responsibility for anything other than financial results.”

              Outwardly, at least, business schools look robust. For years, they have drawn some of the most talented students, and many top candidates are still applying. In fact, business school applications typically rise as the economy softens because potential students see graduate school as a haven from professional uncertainty.

              Employers are making fewer recruiting trips to business schools this year, given the economy, but newly minted M.B.A.’s are still winning highly selective jobs in finance and consulting. A survey last year of M.B.A. candidates worldwide by the Graduate Management Admission Council, which administers the GMAT, found that 29 percent of incoming M.B.A. candidates were working in finance or consulting, and that 53 percent went into those industries upon graduating.

              For universities, business education is a kind of cash cow. Business schools are less expensive to operate than graduate schools with elaborate labs and research facilities, and alumni tend to be generous with donations.

              Business education is big business, too. Some 146,000 graduate degrees in business were awarded in 2005-06, roughly one-fourth of the 594,000 graduate degrees awarded that school year, according to the Education Department.

              Still, there have been signs that all is not well in business education. A study of cheating among graduate students, published in 2006 in the journal Academy of Management Learning & Education, found that 56 percent of all M.B.A. students cheated regularly — more than in any other discipline. The authors attributed that to “perceived peer behavior” — in other words, students believed everyone else was doing it.


            • T. J. Babson said, on January 22, 2012 at 10:11 pm

              No, Really, McKinsey Is Evil

              I had a funny email conversation with a friend who, like approximately 88% of the Enron staff, worked at McKinsey before Enron. I thought you’d find this amusing:


              After the Enron book, my next amazing trick will be….

              MCKINSEY EXPOSED! Learn how this global consulting firm makes its billions of dollars. What was its relationship with Enron and Halliburton? Why do so many executives begin there? ARE THEY TRYING TO TAKE OVER THE WORLD? (Or is it just an accident???) Find out in Cara Ellison’s amazing bestseller revealing all the juicy secrets of MCKINSEY & CO!


              Maybe McKinsey is like the Illuminati or the Skull & Bones Club!


              I think it is! It’s craaaaaaaaaaaaaaazzzzzzzzzzzzy creepy! Like ENRON! Enron was really the Taliban and they were paying Dick Cheney. Hey, did you know that Ken Lay actually MET WITH THE PRESIDENT???????

              Evil, I tells ya.

              And I hear McKinsey only hires, like, smart people so it’s like this club of the wealthy smart elite and they’re trying to take over the world.

              I shall expose them!

              Incidentally, I am only half kidding about the McKinsey book. I think people think it’s a mysterious, nefarious organization (like Enron) but I could de-mystify it.

              But maybe McKinsey likes its mystery?


              Actually, there is a spooky quality to McKinsey (or was when I was there).


              I’m a little disappointed that even a McKinsey employee thinks McKinsey is evil. Please tell me I’m right about Enron.


              Enron was practically Toys R Us compared to McKinsey.


            • T. J. Babson said, on January 22, 2012 at 10:12 pm

              Rajat Gupta was more than a mere board member of Goldman Sachs, Procter & Gamble, and others. He ran McKinsey & Co. from 1994 to 2003, and was a senior McKinsey partner until 2007.

              When the Securities and Exchange Commission brought insider trading charges against Gupta, it did more than merely accuse him of being a crook. It shined a long overdue light on a company that has successfully dodged responsibility for some of the worst financial ideas in history.

              McKinsey, the global consulting firm, has created dubious strategies for all manners of companies ranging from Enron to General Electric. Indeed, where ever there has been a financial disaster in the world, if you look around, somewhere in the background, McKinsey & Co. is nearby.


            • Michael LaBossiere said, on January 23, 2012 at 5:07 pm

              College often intensifies a person (somewhat like what Bill Cosby said about cocaine), so folks who go in arrogant and such often emerge with a more refined arrogance. But business schools tend to teach ethics fairly seriously (as do law schools).

      • Michael LaBossiere said, on January 23, 2012 at 5:04 pm

        I’ve written about Corzine. I’d like to be shocked that a politically connected person can lose track of $1.2 billion and be able to say “gosh, I don’t know where it is” as if he just misplaced the remote.

        Of course, one advantage of being a major player is that your rarely get held accountable.

  2. Anonymous said, on January 20, 2012 at 1:56 pm

    If this is as bad as it gets, we’re doing far better than in virtually any other war.

    Punish them and move on.

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