Marines behaving badly — Whose fault is it anyway?

I am sure by now everyone has read or heard about the U.S. Marines who urinated on dead Taliban fighters in Afghanistan. Officials on both sides as well as the media have been unflinching in their criticism of the perpetrators. There has been a distinct rush to pass judgement on the soldiers involved. We have dubbed the act deplorable, repugnant, morally reprehensible, inhuman and disrespectful to the dead. It is all that of course and I am in no way suggesting otherwise. We have been quick to express moral indignation but I wonder if we need a pause. The situation is not as black and white as it appears on the surface. Not a word has been said about the psychological impact of “society-sanctioned” killing on the soldiers. In the flush of victory when adrenaline levels run high events like this are more common than the society would care to admit. Can any of us in all honestly say there is not even a remote possibility of ourselves behaving no better under similar circumstances?

Had this event occurred in a normal milieu (i.e not war), the first thing that would have horrified us is the killing and then the post-killing act. The circumstances of war however make us overlook the killing. Instead we are focussed on what was done after. A true discussion about morality in this case would have to start with the original act of killing. But I digress. That gets into the morality and justifications for war in the first place. I am neither a war mongerer nor am I a pacifist. I am well aware that in the real world there will always be wars and to win wars soldiers have to kill enemy combatants. So yeah, we need armies to protect ourselves and to achieve that we take ordinary human beings and train them to kill other human beings. I am no expert on psychology but for most people killing other human beings is not exactly a therapeutic act. Au contraire, the person doing the killing is likely to experience great emotional distress and trauma.

In order to follow orders and do their “duty” soldiers have to come up with some means of coping. From what I understand, one commonly employed coping technique is to not think of the enemy as human. In other words it is easier to kill another person when you think they are inhuman and are clearly undeserving of common human decency. It is easy to see where this road leads to. After killing the enemy there are bound to be celebratory acts and these acts sometimes involve the victors literally taking a piss on the vanquished. Our sense of outrage is clearly misplaced. We are effectively asking our soldiers to be efficient killing machines, to only kill at order and then switch off. 

Of course this is incredibly unrealistic. What compounds this situation is the young age of the soldiers who are on the front lines in all wars. It is said that our rational brains do not fully develop till we are 25 years old. I suppose that is why the youth of the nation is the primary target for military recruiting. A completely rational individual is never going to sign up for this racket in the first place. All right, so we take these young kids, train them to disregard all concerns for their own safety, kill enemy soldiers and to disregard the fact that they will watch their friends die. On top of it all, we expect them to retain their moral compass under these most demanding of circumstances. We are in effect letting our youth (soldiers) bear the moral costs of war that should actually be borne by all of us. Frankly, it is a little too rich of us and smacks of self-serving morality.

As long as we are going to ask our younger generation to fight wars on our behalf the least we can do is equip them with proper psychological tools and training to cope better with the decidedly inhumane acts of war. Barring that, we can at least be sympathetic and understanding of their torment. For it is not they who failed us, it is us who failed them.