Belfast Telegraph

Monday 14 July 2014

This is not about 'bad apples'. This is the horror of war

How many other abuses took place off camera? How many Hadithas? How many My Lais?

The US Marine Corps said it would investigate video footage appearing to show Marines urinating on Taliban bodies

So now it's snapshots of US Marines pissing on the Afghan dead. Better, I suppose, than the US soldiers pictured beside the innocent Afghan teenager they fragged back in March of last year.

Or the female guard posing with the dead Iraqi prisoner at Abu Ghraib. Not to mention Haditha or the murder videos taken by US troops in the field – the grenading of an old shepherd by an Iraqi highway comes to mind – or My Lai or the massacre of refugees by US forces in Korea or the murder of Malayan villagers by British troops.

Or the Bloody Sunday massacre of 14 Catholics by British troops in Derry in 1972. And please note, I have not even mentioned the name of Baha Mousa.

The US Marines' response to the pissing pictures was oh so typical. These men were not abiding by the "core values" of the Marines, we were informed. Same old story. A "rogue" unit, a few "bad apples", rotten eggs. Maybe.

But if there is one game of pissing on the dead, how many others happened without pictures? How many other shepherds got fragged in Iraq? How many other Hadithas have there been? There were plenty of other My Lais.

As laptop filmography gets better, so it all comes slopping out, the rapes and slaughter – and yes, by the Taliban the stoning of young women for supposed sexual misconduct in Afghanistan; by al-Qa'ida, executions and throat-cuttings in Iraq.

And no – the Americans are not the Nazis, the Brits are not the French Paras of 1960 Algeria (but surely we're not comparing the French paras to the Nazis). The Canadians handed prisoners over to Afghan thugs for brutal questioning but the Canadians are not like Saddam's secret police – and, I suppose, the Taliban are not Stalin's NKVD or Putin's KGB (before he became a statesman). And you can't compare – surely – the Soviet invaders of Afghanistan in 1979 with Genghis Khan.

So let's take a little guessing game. A British Sunday paper reveals shocking revelations of torture and cigarette burning, of physical brutality where prisoners must be hospitalised for a week, of possible electric torture. The French in Algeria? Saddam's mukhabarat? Nope. It's The Sunday Times Insight Team's report of 7 May 1972; the victims, of course, IRA suspects in Belfast. A "rogue" unit? A "few bad apples"? I doubt it.

When the Gloucestershire Regiment went on a rampage near Divis flats, smashing every window in the street the day before they were due to leave Belfast, the line was changed. They had been under "enormous strain" – but weren't these the "Glorious Gloucesters" of Imjin River fame? And the killer Paras of Derry – weren't these the same Paras of Arnhem Bridge?

And so we go on. Yes, British troops murdered SS prisoners after Normandy – just as the Red Army did in the Second World War and the Americans. And all this gets a bit dull, doesn't it?

Dresden was worse than the Blitz – but who started it? Hiroshima was worse than Pearl Harbour (ditto). The Canadians bayoneted German prisoners in the First World War – but the Germans really did committed atrocities in Belgium in 1914. And what about Waterloo? What did we do with the heaps of French dead? Why, we honoured them by shipping their corpses off to Lincolnshire and using them as manure on the fields of East Anglia.

If war were not about the total failure of the human spirit, there would be something grotesquely funny about the American reaction to the pissing pictures.

For note, it was not the killing of these men that worried the Marine Corps in the US – it was the pissing. Nothing wrong in killing amid the "core values" of the Marine Corps; you just shouldn't urinate on the corpses. And even more to the point: YOU MUSTN'T DO IT ON CAMERA! Too late. It comes to this. Armies are horrible creatures and soldiers do wicked things but when we accept all these lies about "bad apples" and the exceptionalism of crime in war – "there may have been some excesses" is the usual dictator-speak – we are accepting war and going along with the dishonesty of it and we are making it more possible and easier and the killings and rapes more excusable and more frequent.

And how should armies react? With one word: guilty.

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