A video of four US marines urinating on corpses in Afghanistan, allegedly members of the Taliban, caused much out-cry last week. (see video, if you must )The marines were apparently aware that they were on camera. The act has been described as “outrageous”, “sick”, “utterly deplorable” and “inhuman”; some have argued that it is a violation of human rights and the marines should be punished. The marines have been questioned by the Naval Criminal Investigative Service, though are not in custody.
The mass emotional mobilization effects of video footage notwithstanding, why are we so outraged by this act?
In 2005, for the first time since 1973, the American military met all if its recruitment goals. The success, at least in part, can be attributed to the release of a new video game, America’s Army, and two graphic novels, Bravo Zulu and Knowledge is Power aimed at America’s youth. Knowledge is Power depicts a staff sergeant surviving an explosion unharmed. His exclamation to the rookie soldier who saved him implies that this shows that it is wrong to be “worried about bein’ here.” The release of America’s Army was accompanied by the setting up of a 14,500 sq.-ft arcade or ‘Army Experience Center’ in a Philadelphia mall, filled with simulators and shooter video games. According to a 2008 study by the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, “30 percent of all Americans age 16 to 24 had a more positive impression of the Army because of the game and, even more amazingly, the game had more impact on recruits than all other forms of Army advertising combined.”
Prospective recruits were sold the idea of joining the military by likening real life armed combat to a video game simulation. The strategy is particularly successful, intentionally so, with younger people, who are lured in by the video game imagery. Colonel Casey Wardynski, who as director of the Army’s office of economic and manpower analysis came up with the idea of using America’s Army; he argues that “It’s designed to give them an inside view on the very fundamentals of being a soldier, and it’s also designed to give them a sense of self-efficacy, that they can do it… You don’t have to think what it would look like — you can see what it looks like.”
But, surely real life battlefields are surely different from the ones in America’s Army.
The video game imagery helps prevent thinking about the nature of the ‘enemy’ – that they are people, with desires, hopes, grievances, family, history – a story. Rather, in the video game there is just the nameless, faceless, ‘bad guy’ representing evil, and the sole objective of the gamers is to destroy the enemy; no gamer would ever question the video game programmer about why the ‘bad’ guy deserves to be destroyed. The video game imagery also highlights the camaraderie between the good guys, the importance of sticking together and cooperating with one another. It encourages aggressiveness and a trigger-happy mentality. It conveys a sense of bravado and machoism derived from seeking and destroying the enemy. The use of video games is critical for the military – it enables them to recruit teenagers and young adults, psyche them up about waging war, de-personalizing their acts in the battle field, and removing questions ethical questions about the legitimacy of the war itself, the specific mission aims, or the means employed to achieve those aims.
The Wikileaks video which shows US air crew shooting down Iraqi civilians in 2007 perhaps exemplifies the video game mentality. When the lead helicopter opens fire, “Hahah, I hit’em” shouts one of the American crew; the other crew member responds, “ oh yeah, look at those dead bastards”. When one of the men on ground is wounded and starts crawling, a crew member is heard wishing for the man to reach for a gun so there would be pre-text to open fire – “ all you gotta do is pick up a weapon.” (remember the wikileaks video of american soldiers opening fire in iraq)
Why then is it so surprising that the marines urinated on the Taliban corpses? The idea of the army has been to sold to them as a video game, precisely to remove any nagging ethical or moral doubt these fighters might have when on the battle field. In America’s Armies or the popular Gears of War, it would surely would not be objectionable if the good guys urinated on the animated figure of the enemy.
To those who argue that the marines should be punished, it is worth considering whether individual culpability or responsibility applies in such a situation. Can individuals be held personally responsible when their actions are an extension – even if an extreme one – of the manner in which they have been trained? They have been recruited, if not trained, to think about the ‘enemy’ as nothing more than an object that should be destroyed; this facilitates the aggressiveness and one-track mentality that helps win wars.
It is also worth noting that last week was the 10th anniversary of Guantanamo Bay, despite all Obama’s promises. As long as Guantanamo exists, the American soldier is part of a larger culture that permits or turns a blind eye to the illegal detention and inhumane treatment of suspected, but not proven, terrorists. Guantanamo violates international law every day that it continues to exist; what began as as emergency measure under Bush, has now become a permanent fixture of indefinite detention, abuse and torture under Obama How is it that we are outraged by the manner in which a corpse is treated, but say little about how the living are treated?
( see this piece from Slate – The Great Gitmo blackout)
Finally, consider the number of comments that accompany the you tube video, applauding the soldiers. Steven Clemons is right – ‘Whether many want to admit it or not, what those soldiers allegedly did represents “us” today — and that’s yet another part of the malignant manifestation of these current conflicts.’