Even before photos were published Wednesday showing American troops posing with the bodies of Afghan insurgents, U.S. officials condemned them. Now, while not condoning the photos, others say that they can understand why such tasteless acts happen in war zones.
Gen. John R. Allen, commander of the International Security Assistant Force in Afghanistan, said the “action of the individuals photographed do not represent the policies of the ISAF or the U.S. Army.”
Defense Secretary Leon Panetta called the pictures, taken in 2010, a violation of America’s “core values.” He said an investigation would be launched that could lead to discipline for the soldiers involved.
President Barack Obama’s chief spokesman Jay Carney said the incident was “reprehensible.”
The photos were published by the Los Angeles Times, whose editors chose to publish two out the 18 images they were provided by a soldier from a unit of the 82nd Airborne. The soldier told The Times he brought in the pictures to reveal a lack of leadership and discipline in the ranks that endangers security.
The Pentagon sought to stop publication of the pictures, saying they could incite Afghans and put troops in danger.
The photograph revelation follows several widely condemned incidents in Afghanistan in recent months by U.S. troops. In January a YouTube video surfaced of Marines urinating on Afghan corpses. In February, the burning of Qurans sparked violent protests and revenge killings of six Americans. Last month, 17 civilians, mainly women and children, were killed in a nighttime rampage, allegedly by Staff Sgt. Robert Bales.
Among some military leaders and veterans, however, the pictures were also seen as graphic examples of how war is indeed hell, with trophy-taking a long tradition. They say that stories of such misdeeds of a few often overshadow the stories of the hundreds of thousands of American troops who honorably serve in the military without incident.
“This is war. I know that war is ugly and it’s violent,” Panetta also said, “and I know that young people sometimes caught up in the moment sometimes make very foolish decisions.”
Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., responding to an audience question at the Carnegie Endowment on Wednesday, spoke in a similar light.
"It’s deplorable what occurred and I am sure justice will be rendered, but what bothers me more than anything else is that 99.9 percent of young Americans serving over there have the highest standards,” McCain said. “I've seen with my own eyes thousands of acts of kindness and generosity that our men and women in the military show to the Afghan people.”
Retired Sgt. Maj. Herbert Freidman, who spent 26 years in the Army, said such pictures are trophies that soldiers in all wars have sought out. In Iraq, American soldiers took pictures with dead and burned Iraqis, he said. He said he’s sure Afghans have done the same to Americans.
“I’m not saying it’s a good thing, but it’s certainly not a breakdown of discipline. The guys are just grunts being shot at all day long and they have a very dark sense of humor. A lot that humor is about death. Taking pictures with someone's hand on your shoulder? That’s all it is.”
Jonn Lilyea, a retired Army sergeant who writes the blog “This Ain't Hell,” said Wednesday that the media overly emphasizes negative stories about the troops and underplays positive stories.
The high-profile news coverage of the photographs "is a perfect example of the media blowing (expletive) out of proportion as long as the only ones who get hurt are the troops and their reputations,” Lilyea told msnbc.com.
He pointed to the case of Sgt. Dennis Weichel, of the Rhode Island National Guard, who gave his life to save an Afghan girl last month.
“Sure everyone covered (Weichel) but not to the extent they covered the urination videos or the burn pit Korans, or (alleged massacre of civilians by Sgt.) by Bales.”
While many online commenters vigorously condemned the actions of the soldiers who took the pictures, others said they can understand how posing with body parts could happen.
“War isn't pretty and soldiers do what they have to do to cope with and find or fake enthusiasm for the true Hell they are stuck in,” Merritt J Swift said in Facebook comment. “Perhaps a photo gives an illusion of power over a remorselessly cruel enemy that denied the posing soldiers a sense of control or even a sense of sanity in their world.”
Said Nancy Baalman in a Facebook comment:
“Perhaps, in order to survive the conditions they must separate themselves, their souls, from their enemies. Could you survive those situations, could you imagine being in their place? Not excusing that behavior, don't approve of it, and will never accept it as normal. But I wonder if the stress of horror, death, killing, and endless hours of survival instinct, force some to dehumanize others. Such action allows them for a moment to forget their enemies are human.”
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