Apparently some Marines in Afghanistan had some difficulty understanding why it is okay to  desecrate a life by killing it, but not okay to desecrate its bodily remains by urinating on it. 

According to news reports, a video surfaced yesterday on YouTube that showed several US Marines urinating on the lifeless bodies of Taliban fighters. 

The uproar is palpable, but perhaps like the Marines in the video, I don’t get it. 

For one, I don’t understand the reverence generally afforded bodily remains.  Certainly the deceased can’t care what is done with his corpse once he’s gone.  That’s sort of the whole thing about being dead.  No matter what happens with the body once dead, the pain of living is done.  Why should the living treat a corpse with more respect in death than the human being inhabiting it received during life? 

If the video is proved true, it would no doubt violate the Geneva Convention laws of war. 

I’ve never understood the phrase, “law of war”.  Law is the bedrock upon which civilization stands.  It represents the agreement men make amongst themselves about what is acceptable and unacceptable behavior in society.  Wholesale acceptance of societal laws and customs is the necessary antecedent before savagery and anarchy can give way to civilization.  Though war is often waged by internally-civilized peoples, it is the antithesis of civilization.  It is barbarism in the service of some societal goal.  The laws of a society engaged in war are expressly ignored as regards their antagonists.  Law has no meaning outside of the society from which it arises. 

Consider the Ten Commandment prohibition against murder, i.e., against the unlawful killing of another human.  The ancient Hebrews had no problem with embracing the prohibition of murder within their society while at the same time promoting the killing of every man, woman and child in Canaan outside of it, a land where their method of acquisition (stealing) was also prohibited as amongst themselves. 

War is a conflict between two or more societies or cultures.  The laws of a culture only apply to the relationships of individuals within the culture, thus there are no laws in war.  There is only victory or defeat.  The victors may try to be nice (there are a great many legitimate reasons why the victors might wish to be only as barbaric as is necessary) by, for example, not pissing on the corpses of the people they’ve killed, but there is no law compelling them to do so.  The option of desecrating corpses comes with victory.  

Inevitably, some law of war, maybe the Geneva Convention, maybe the Uniform Code of Military Justice, will be invoked to punish these Marines.  But the phrase “law of war” is like the phrase “human altruism”, describing something that does not, and can not, exist.  The idea that law exists in war is a lie civilized societies have agreed among themselves to believe, in order that they feel less bad about the barbarism involved in killing and destroying human life, the protection of which otherwise forms the foundation of their society.

It is because humans curiously honor the lives of the deceased by attending carefully to their human remains that desecrating a corpse in war so attractive.  It shows the disdain the killers feel for the life they have extinguished, and the culture it belongs to.  Desecration of corpses in war, even by the “good guys” is far more common than one “oops, the truth got out” video posted on YouTube reveals.   It rarely is a good strategy, except when the aim is to completely annihilate an enemy society, because of the hatred it engenders in the surviving population.  Which is why these Marines, if proved to have done what they seemed to have done, will be punished.  Not because they may or may not have violated some non-existent law through which societies wage war, but because they made the mission of subjugating the society to the will of the one harboring the Marines that desecrated the human remains that much more difficult.

Still, the outrage makes no sense.  The time to refrain from desecrating human life is before it has been violently and intentionally extinguished.