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Randy Alcorn: The Etiquette of War Is a Harsh Reality

Under fire, base survival instincts take over for even the best-trained soldiers

I’m shocked, shocked to learn that U.S. Marines fighting in Afghanistan urinated on enemy corpses. Just as I was shocked to learn that U.S. troops tortured and humiliated POWs at Iraq’s Abu Ghraib prison. Just as I was shocked to learn that U.S. troops murdered Iraqi and Afghan civilians just for kicks. Just as I was shocked to learn that U.S. troops massacred civilians at My Lai in Vietnam.

Shocked? Not really. Only the most naive can truly be surprised by these incidents. The notion that war can be sublimated with rules of engagement that limit its savagery is delusional. War is organized, sanctioned, murder — strategic barbarity. There is nothing polite about war. Combatants don’t stop in the midst of trying to kill each other to ask, “Pardon me, but have I used the improper amount of force?”

While I condemn the insanity that causes troops to murder noncombatants and mistreat prisoners, I cannot condemn those combat Marines for dishonoring Taliban corpses — imprudently insensitive as it was. The dead feel nothing. These are the Taliban who throw acid onto the faces of schoolgirls, who detonate bombs in public places and kill hundreds of civilians, who stone women to death for being victims of rape. For these monsters, a golden shower before burial is mild retribution.

However, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, speaking as the official voice of America, did condemn the breech of combat etiquette committed by those improperly toilet-trained Marines. So egregiously uncouth of them. So inconvenient for ongoing diplomacy. This is not who we are according to Clinton.

Well, maybe not, but we are the nation that garrisons nearly the entire planet. We are the nation whose greatest export has become war or preparing for war. As my mother used to say, if you go looking for trouble, you’re going to find it.  And, as a nation, we have always managed to find a war for nearly every generation of Americans.

Most recently, we have been conducting two wars of dubious justification for a decade now, and deploying many of the same troops tour after tour. Isn’t it possible that by now the psyches of these troops are becoming negatively affected? Continually being subjected to the threat of death or dismemberment at any moment from enemies who don’t wear uniforms and are disguised as civilians can’t be good for mental health.

Those who are so quick to condemn the adolescent behavior of those indiscreet Marines, and who express such furious indignation that the rules of war were broken, are typically those who have never been in combat.

Sign all the protocols you like. Drill all the discipline into your troops you like, but under fire, Nature’s survival directive transcends all else. And, when soldiers witness their buddies dismembered by bullets and bombs, discipline gives way to rage. Rage seethes into bloodlust, and bloodlust begets atrocities.

It has always been thus. Since before Achilles dragged the dead body of Hector around the walls of Troy, warring humans have, with sad regularity, descended into savagery and committed horrible atrocities.

However, the gospel of American “exceptionalism” includes a noble military whose ranks always adhere to some kind of Queensbury rules of martial homicide. But, conducting organized murder within acceptable boundaries of mayhem is another expectation that has been repeatedly shattered by reality in every war Americans have fought.

My father fought the duration of World War II, from North Africa to Austria. He once told me of an incident in Italy.

In a small town just liberated from the Nazis, my father’s unit discovered the dead bodies of Italian civilians, including children, stacked like cord wood behind a building the Nazis had used as a field hospital. The dead had been drained of their blood, which according to the locals, had been used for transfusions into wounded Nazi troops.

My father was in combat intelligence. In the days before sophisticated electronic surveillance gadgetry, capturing prisoners for interrogation was important. But, no prisoners were taken during the next mission after what was witnessed in that Italian town. His enraged men simply killed every German solider they encountered — even those who surrendered.

My brother and many of my high school mates served in Vietnam and witnessed captured Viet Cong being drawn and quartered by jeeps driven by South Vietnamese regulars. Americans present did nothing to stop this barbarity.

This is what happens in war. U.S. troops are not above it.

Regardless of who is doing the fighting, including Americans, barbarism and homicidal savagery are eventually inevitable in war, and can only be eliminated by avoiding war. Those who are ultimately responsible, therefore, for such horrors are any past and current occupiers of the White House and Congress who initiated and perpetuate unnecessary wars.

— Santa Barbara political observer Randy Alcorn can be contacted at .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address). Click here to read previous columns.

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