We’ve seen these images before.Defense Secretary Leon Panetta's response to these images was, "this is not who we are." That depends, I thought, on who "we" is. If by "we" he meant Homo sapiens, he was flat wrong, because that is exactly who we are.
Photographs of victors posing with the corpses of their enemies. Photographs of the vanquished subjected to posthumous humiliation.
We’ve seen these images before. From Iraq and Afghanistan. From Bosnia and Berlin. Rwanda and Darfur. Okinawa and Vietnam.
No matter the war, no matter the perpetrator, what comes across in these photographs is almost always the same: They capture a moment where the humanity of both the living and the dead is absent.
Since the first state that considered itself civilized waged its first war, we have been caught in a dilemma. We want to set limits on war. We want to fight for good reasons, in the spirit of doing right. We know that former enemies can become friends, and that this is essential if we want to avoid the sort of unending warfare between perpetual rivals that troubled so much of our history. Our experience has been that every atrocity makes this ending harder to achieve. It is the gloating, the taunting, and the mocking that keeps hatred alive, much more than the killing. So we want to tame the beast within us that wants to taunt and mock and vaunt its victories.
And yet without that beast, can we fight wars? No doubt some men can, but for many of us war means letting that beast out to rampage. Without that beast -- without the wolf's heads and the face paint and the taking of scalps, without the hateful vocabulary of Krauts and Gooks and Towel-heads, without rage and despite, can any people really wage a long and bitter war?
Modern armies have tried for 300 years to bring the beast to heal. Through repetitive drill, matching uniforms, preaching of "honor," ritual treatment of all bodies, and so on, they have tried to discipline their soldiers and turn their violence into a precise, obedient instrument. It works pretty well, most of the time. But especially when small groups of soldiers are mired for months in the jungle or the mountains, surrounded by foes, always in fear for their lives, the discipline breaks down and the beast comes out.
I am not even sure that this beastliness is always a bad thing. Perhaps it is a defense against the psychological damage wrought by combat; perhaps our modern troubles with PTSD and the suicides of returning soldiers stem partly form our attempts to deny the beast rather than to honor it.
I am certain, though, that as long as there are wars, there will be atrocities. To pretend otherwise -- to pretend that war can be clean and neat and moral -- is a lie. If our goal is to avoid atrocity, the only answer is peace.