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War is War: Horrid But Not Shocking

18 April 2012

6:32 PM

18 April 2012

6:32 PM

Commenting on the publication of photographs of American soldiers in Afghanistan posing with the severed limbs of their dead Afghan opponents, Andrew Sullivan says this is "What Empire Does":

The sickening pictures speak for themselves. At what point will we recognize that inserting ourselves into places like Afghanistan and Iraq will change us, has changed us, and will change us. Mercifully, this latest inhuman excrescence is not government policy, as at Abu Ghraib. But it exposes even more deeply the inherent failure and moral corruption of occupying Afghanistan and the need to withdraw sooner rather than later.

Oh please. This is what war does to men at arms. As Toby Harnden tweeted, most reporters who have spent extended periods of time in Iraq or Afghanistan will have seen or heard of the existence, or rumoured existence, of these kinds of "trophy" photographs. War is a gruesome business at the best of times but this kind of behaviour is scarcely unusual. Quite the contrary: soldiers have posed to be pictured with their dead enemies for as long as cameras have existed; for that matter, they have taken trphies or trinkets or even body parts for as long as men have been engaged in the fighting business.

Again, this is not something people care to dwell upon but the mystery is not that soldiers in the field sometimes behave in ways that might upset those left at home but that this does not actually happen more often. (Indeed, I suspect it happens less now than at any previous point in human history.)

Moreover, it is silly to suppose that photographs of this sort, however distasteful, "expose" anything at all, far less "the inherent failure and moral corruption of occupying Afghanistan" any more than the summary execution of German or Japanese prisoners or the robbing of corpses during the Second World War should be taken as some means of measuring the moral worth of the Allied cause in that conflict. Within reason or to the extent that they are not part of official policy, these things are independent of one another.

One may certainly agree that the Afghan war long since passed the point at which it became subject to the law of diminishing returns but the publication of trophy photographs – and your reaction to it – offers no kind of useful measuring stick for these things. We might, perhaps even should, wish these things did not happen. But they do and always have because war is a hellish business fought by men who, for all their strengths, are scarcely immune to human weakness. To be "shocked" by this kind of thing is to insist upon a kind of boastful innocence.

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