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Nancy Sherman Ph.D.
Nancy Sherman Ph.D.

Revenge Impulses Go Unchecked

We shouldn't underestimate the power of that empathy.

The video of four U.S. Marines urinating on three dead Taliban fighters has ricocheted around the world with viral speed, rightly provoking moral outrage abroad and shame at home. The act is a violation of professional military conduct, and the fundamental moral requirement in war of showing dignity and respect to the dead. But the desecration shocks, not because it involves any sadistic mutilation of body for prize or trophy, but because the act is so primitive and regressed: urinating marks territory. The sigh heard in the video is the vanquisher's exuberance in being top dog.

Perhaps the Marines felt a need to do something with the enemy bodies that lay at their feet-- to kick them, to spit on them, to urinate on them while they waited for the proper authorities to collect them. But if there was that vengeful impulse, it needed to be checked. Command culture, especially in small units like this sniper platoon, sets the tone and helps prevent these lapses of character and the awful consequences that ensue.

Desecration of bodies in war is nothing new nor is the public condemnation of it. In Homer's Iliad, Achilles' raging grief at the death of his beloved Patroclus leads to an ugly enactment of revenge. Achilles vanquishes Hector, Patroclus's killer, and then lashing the body behind a chariot, drags his corpse facedown three times around Patroclus's tomb. The act transgresses fundamental Greek decorum in war. Homer leaves no doubt about this: "That man without a shred of decency in his heart," "He outrages the senseless clay in all his fury!" The desecration offends the gods, too, and they intervene to insure that Hector's body remains intact despite Achilles' brutality. And all this comes after Hector pleads to Achilles with his last breath: "I beg you, beg you by your life, your parents--don't let the dogs devour me... give my body to friends to carry home again" for "honor with fitting rites."

The soldier's fear that his body may be despoiled by the enemy or never repatriated is universal and at the heart of the Geneva conventions and customary international law that prohibit "outrages against personal dignity." Anyone that has watched over the body of a loved one knows that humanitarian treatment has a proper place both toward the living and the dead.

Yet we have not always respected that dignity toward our own war dead. Consider the recent reports that the Air Force, in charge of the military mortuary at Dover Air Force Base, shipped and incinerated remains from hundreds of troops over the past decade and dumped them in a Virginia landfill. In one report from the Washington Post, Gari-Lynn Smith was, in her words, "appalled and disgusted" when she learned the fate of her husband's remains: "My only peace of mind in losing my husband was that he was taken to Dover and that he was handled with dignity, love, respect and honor," said Smith. "That was completely shattered for me what I was told that he was thrown in the trash."

And yet I have heard amputees of the current wars tell me with ease that they have left behind their pulverized limbs in Iraq or Afghanistan to mix with the soil and sand. Why worry about remains when the body parts of the living so easily become the trash and detritus of war? I suspect it is simply because the living return to us (however war-torn their bodies and souls) and we want something of that for our dead, so that we can mark an honorable passage from this world. We demand that respect both from others who find our dead and from those explicitly entrusted to the care of their bodies. The tomb of the Unknown Soldier is emblematic of that very need for a return home.

Urinating on fresh corpses is repulsive mockery of the dead. This case is one of collective behavior, the act of a foursome or fivesome, where someone should have known better, among them and higher up. The incident brings to mind one that Tim O'Brien recounts in The Things They Carried, his fictionalized memoir of his Vietnam years. His platoon took sniper fire and ordered an air strike in response. Shortly after, the unit went to the scene of the strike and found an old man, lying face-up with flies already buzzing around his corpse. They propped the body up against a fence, and one by one, the unit members shook his hand and faked introductions and a toast as part of a mock funeral.
Tim is the only one who refrains, sickened by the indecent sport. He's berated for not joining in, but one buddy is admiring: "You did a good thing today," he said. "That shaking hands crap, it isn't decent. The guys'll hassle you for a while...but just keep saying no. Should've done it myself. Takes guts." Tim demurs: "It wasn't guts. I was scared." "I don't know, just creepy." It doesn't really matter whether what he did was an act of moral courage or moral disgust. The point is that he's moved by empathy, in this case toward a civilian, but it could just as well have been an enemy fighter.

We shouldn't underestimate the power of that empathy and the responsibility military leaders have to keep it alive and well in their troops. More than desecration scenes have I heard of soldiers finding photos in the pockets of those they've killed and seeing in the face of a daughter or a son or a wife the bitter loss they will suffer. An Israeli who fought in the 1967 Six-Day War told me recently that the thought that raced through his mind when he killed a young Egyptian who was aiming his weapon at him, was "He has a mother." "What will she do?" It is that empathy that checks ugly revenge impulses in war. Even when not felt, it is at the core of humanitarian rules of war and their constraints.

About the Author
Nancy Sherman Ph.D.

Nancy Sherman, Ph.D., is a professor of philosophy at Georgetown University and the author of Afterwar: Healing the Moral Wounds of Our Soldiers.

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