Intolerable behavior

By Walt Braun

The dreadful video footage of four U.S. Marines in Afghanistan urinating on corpses probably won’t match the international outrage of American soldiers torturing prisoners at Iraq’s Abu Ghraib prison in 2004, but that doesn’t mean it won’t have toxic effects.

The footage, posted online Thursday, drew appropriate condemnation, both from American and Afghan officials. Defense Secretary Leon Panetta described the Marines’ actions as “utterly deplorable” and promised that those involved would be “held accountable to the fullest extent.” Afghan President Hamid Karzai called the action “completely inhumane, “ and the Taliban, which also denounced what it called “this inhumane action by the wild American soldiers,” accused U.S. personnel of “indignities against the Afghan people.”

At the same time, the Taliban have said the incident need not derail peace talks that are now in the early stages. Nevertheless the Marines’ blunder undermines the image of the United States in Afghanistan and elsewhere. It has given Afghans reason to wonder whether our soldiers are indeed there to help that country and its citizens. Secretary Panetta’s promise of justice likely means more to Americans than to Afghans because months could pass before punishments that might not seem harsh by Afghan standards are meted out.

To his credit, Secretary Panetta seems to recognize this. “If we move quickly — if we conduct this investigation and these people accountable — we send a clear message to the world that the U.S. is not going to tolerate that kind of behavior and it doesn’t represent the United States as a whole.”

Among issues that differentiate this incident from the torture at Abu Ghraib is that the incidents there reflected a pattern of abuse that had been authorized by higher officials. That won’t, however, prevent America’s enemies from using the recent video for their own purposes.

As for the act itself, we’re confident that it’s a rare exception to the behavior of U.S. military personnel. It’s not hard to imagine the stress that contributed to the abysmal decision by members of the U.S. military’s most disciplined branch to desecrate corpses in such a fashion, but their action is no less inexcusable.

As for allowing themselves to be filmed, it was positively idiotic. If the training U.S. military personnel get doesn’t include the warning that their every public act could be recorded for posterity, it should.

These Marines shamed themselves by urinating on Taliban corpses. They shamed their entire country by allowing their performance to be filmed.

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