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Conduct Unbecoming

The Army tells soldiers to mind its "laws of warfare." And so they do.

After piercing the ankle tendons of Hector’s corpse, lashing the feet with rawhide, and dragging the Trojan hero around behind a chariot, Achilles, beloved of the gods, had Zeus and most of fractious Olympus to remind him that desecration of the dead offends heaven and earth. The American soldier has only Subsection 504 of Chapter 8, Section II, of the Army’s FM 27-10, also known as the Law of Land Warfare, a less powerful guide, to be sure. No immortal emissary flies to him in his rage, and if he even remembers his brief training in the rules of war and international law, it was long ago, the text left back home in a basement somewhere, among the things of decent life to be picked up again later, after the horror.

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The law is plain: In addition to the “grave breaches” of the Geneva Conventions of 1949, the following acts are representative of violations of the law of war (“war crimes”): … c. Maltreatment of dead bodies.

On the face of it this seems elementary, training in one of those things that’s unnecessary until a lawyer brandishes the lack thereof after soldiers get caught. They almost never do get caught. Desecration of the dead is common to every war. Human rights monitors, military commanders, and civilian political leaders were aghast last October when this particular war crime joined the list of documented atrocities committed by Americans in the Global War on Terror, but it was only a matter of time.

On October 1, 2005, members of the 1st Battalion, 508th Infantry Regiment of the 173rd Airborne Brigade operating in southern Afghanistan burned the bodies of two Taliban fighters who’d been killed the day before in a firefight that also claimed one U.S. and one Afghan soldier. The Taliban bodies had been placed facing Mecca, as is Islamic custom, though cremation defiles that same custom. The soldiers, who’d just completed a fruitless search for Taliban whom they believed were hiding in the village of Gonbaz, seem not to have thought they were doing something wrong. They told SBS Television of Australia, which filmed the scene, that they were burning the bodies for “hygiene purposes,” though that is not standard military procedure and, as SBS reporter John Martinkus stated, “Out here, far away from the village, this appears to make no sense.”

Not much does in war. On camera, a soldier witness to the burning said, “Wow, look at the blood coming out of the mouth on that one, fucking straight death metal.”

Meanwhile, Sergeant Jim Baker of a psychological operations (PSYOP) unit attached to the brigade that burned the bodies was broadcasting over a loudspeaker to the villagers below: “Attention, Taliban, you are all cowardly dogs. You allowed your fighters to be laid down facing west and burned. You are too scared to come down and retrieve their bodies. This just proves you are the ladyboys we always believed you to be.” A second soldier taunted various mullahs by name: “You attack and run away like women…. Come and fight like men.”

Both soldiers made those announcements in Pashto, the dominant language of this part of Afghanistan. They read the jeers out of a notebook and helpfully translated the messages into English for the SBS team, which was riding with them as “embeds.”

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