Marine video is as despicable as it is destructive

The vile acts depicted in a video on the Internet this week — purportedly showing four U.S. Marines urinating on the corpses of three Taliban fighters — require condemnation in the strongest possible terms by U.S. and NATO officials. To do anything other than unequivocally repudiate such conduct would be self-defeating in a war that depends on maintaining the moral high ground against our enemies and the trust of the Afghan people. It would also hand our adversaries a massive propaganda victory.

That’s why Defense Secretary Leon Panetta was right to denounce desecrating the bodies of enemy fighters as a morally reprehensible act unworthy of those who wear the uniform of the United States. If these disturbing images turn out to be authentic, the Marines need to conduct an immediate and thorough investigation into what happened, where it happened and who was involved, then hold those responsible to account.

Granted, war is an inherently brutal business that often brings out the worst in human nature. But that’s precisely why commanders must draw the line at acts so universally beyond the pale that to allow them risks lapsing into barbarism. There may be no way to ever make war “humane” in any meaningful sense of that word, but there are some abuses no society can tolerate and still call itself civilized. The Geneva Conventions on war expressly prohibit the desecration of corpses and call on combatants to show a decent respect for the dead.

With more than a million U.S. troops having served in Afghanistan and Iraq since 2001, it’s perhaps unrealistic to expect that in the fierce crucible of war, no soldier will ever slip over the edge into depravity. Regardless of how well-trained or well-disciplined an army is, there will always be a small minority of unbalanced individuals whose behavior brings shame on themselves, their comrades and the cause for which they fight.

But the investigation should not stop at the four Marines apparently depicted in the video or those directly involved in producing and posting it on the Web. What the Marine Corps and NATO investigators must determine is whether this incident, if substantiated, is indeed just the work of a few bad apples, or whether it is indicative of a larger pattern of misconduct that has been allowed to fester and which commanders have knowingly tolerated or condoned. If that is the case, it’s essential that those higher-ups be disciplined and punished as well.

The widely publicized images of suspected insurgents being humiliated and mistreated at Baghdad’s Abu Ghraib prison in 2004 sparked an international outcry and turned millions of Iraqis against the U.S. presence in their country. It may also have helped stoke the violence that erupted into a brutal civil war the following year, which claimed the lives of tens of thousands of Iraqi civilians. That shameful chapter of recent history must not be repeated in Afghanistan.

The killings of Afghan civilians by a rogue group of Army soldiers in 2010 were horrific and provoked an angry response from the government of Afghan President Hamid Karzai, but perhaps because images of the victims were not widely circulated, the incident never threatened to derail the U.S. mission in Afghanistan in quite the same way Abu Ghraib did in Iraq.

That was mostly sheer luck, however. This week’s incident shows how easy technology has made it to transmit around the world an image that can instantly threaten the most powerful army with a major setback.

The solution for that is not to prohibit soldiers from carrying cellphones, digital cameras or other such devices into battle but rather to create a military culture whose values are so deeply embedded in the troops’ moral compass that soldiers not only never put themselves in a position to be photographed doing despicable things, but that they refrain from committing such acts altogether.

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