Talk to almost anyone who has fought in combat, and chances are they can tick off a string of reasons why the YouTube video showing four Marines urinating on the bodies of dead enemy fighters in southern Afghanistan is horrible. Horrible for America’s image around the world. Horrible for its strategy of winning support from the Afghan people. Horrible for a professional military that believes its troops behave with the utmost decorum, even in the heat of battle.
And yet, their outrage often also comes with a caveat. Reprehensible behavior, combat veterans and military experts say, is an ever-present risk when troops in their teens and early 20s are thrown into nerve-racking battle for months at a time. And if there are weaknesses in their leadership or breakdowns in discipline, that behavior can easily spill over into acts that might be considered war crimes.
“The degree to which a squad or platoon in combat becomes calloused toward the enemy that they are facing is almost always high,” said Andrew M. Exum, a former Army officer who did combat tours in Iraq and Afghanistan and is now senior fellow at the Center for a New American Security, a Washington policy group. “There is always, always, always the temptation to abuse a detainee or pose for a picture with some dead fighter. And that’s why noncommissioned officers and commissioned officers have to be extra vigilant.”
Military officials said they had identified all four Marines in the video, though they have not released their names. The Marines are thought to be members of a scout sniper team that was deployed last year to northern Helmand Province — one of Afghanistan’s most violent precincts.
The actions depicted in the video represent the modern unit commander’s worst nightmare: crude behavior over dead or captured enemies that is broadcast across the globe with the push of a cellphone button, as happened with the photographs from Abu Ghraib prison in Iraq.
Yet the act of desecrating an enemy’s body is as old as war, perhaps most famously described by Homer in “The Iliad,” when Achilles drags Hector’s lifeless body behind his chariot before the eyes of a shocked and despairing Troy. Nancy Sherman, a professor of philosophy at Georgetown University who has written a book about the moral implications of war on troops, “The Untold War,” said dehumanizing the enemy can be a psychological defense mechanism for the troops whose job is to kill that enemy.
“Desecrating bodies is not routine, nor is it expected or condoned,” Ms. Sherman said. “But you can understand it, in complicated ways. Because war requires a very complicated moral psyche.”
Mr. Exum said black humor is another coping mechanism for young troops trying to act tough beyond their years. “I remember being a young officer in Afghanistan in 2002 and standing over the body of this partially decapitated Taliban and cracking jokes,” he said. “Humor is how we cope with pretty horrific stuff. It’s almost dangerous to be too sensitive.”
Alex Lemons, a Marine scout sniper during the fierce fighting in the Iraqi city of Falluja in 2004, said that on several occasions he encountered American troops who either urinated on insurgent bodies or manipulated them for photographs, like putting them in ridiculous poses. While he called such behavior disgusting, he also said it could be cathartic.
“I’ve never spat on a dead body or urinated on one, but I’ve certainly screamed at a dead body because they’ve taken a friend’s life,” said Mr. Lemons, who left the Marine Corps in 2008.
Snipers in both the Army and the Marine Corps are elite teams highly trained in marksmanship, surveillance and camouflage who can operate independently from larger units. They often patrol dangerous areas and get more kills, and are sometimes viewed as cowboys by regular infantry troops as a result. But Mr. Lemons and other officers said scout snipers tend to be more mature and disciplined, precisely because they are expected to face greater danger.
“In sniper school, we were taught not to relish in killing,” Mr. Lemons said. “We’re professional gunmen. That’s what the other side does, not us.”
Though some military blogs have been filled with reader comments supporting the Marines in the video, some of the harshest criticism against them has come from other Marines who feel that the corps, and even the entire American military, have been disgraced.
“There is no excuse for what they did,” said Timothy Kudo, who served with a Marine unit in northern Helmand Province and now works for Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America. “It goes against everything you’ve been trained to do as a Marine.”
Michael Newton, a former Army prosecutor who now teaches at Vanderbilt Law School, said the international laws of war and the American code of military justice are intended to instill discipline in troops and set boundaries for what is acceptable in combat. Prosecuting war crimes is necessary to ensure that crossing those boundaries does not become the norm, he said.
“Some people will look at this and say all Marines are animals,” he said. “But that’s not true. That instance was undisciplined and unprofessional. And that’s why it’s a war crime. The law exists to instill professionalism. But it is also there to create a humanitarian imperative, even in conflict.”
Beyond court-martial or prison, the desecration of an enemy’s body could also leave psychological scars on the perpetrators, in the form of guilt, Mr. Lemons said. “Even though there are all these consequences on an international level that these guys didn’t comprehend, the worst effects are the ones they will have to come to terms with later in life,” he said. “Every memory gets stored in you. Even if it was something that just took two seconds, you’ll have revisit it at some point.”