Saturday, January 14, 2012

Semper fi?

Recently in the news has been a report of U.S. marines who desecrated the corpses of slain Afghani insurgents.  Much give-and-take has been had and will be had on the subject, but there are some angles to this worth bearing in mind.

The readiest is an appeal to that fundamental maxim, "Be excellent to one another."  There's a term floating around, about which much more shall be spoken at another time, as it's become foundational to certain schools of philosophy, psychology, and anthropology, and their extensions into politics.  That term is "monkey sphere".  To illustrate in brief, a person's monkey sphere is the social group towards which the person owes a certain standard of behavior.  One doesn't steal from a member of one's monkey sphere, or deceive them, or treat them badly.  From a strictly evolutionary standpoint, though, everyone else is fair game.  The only limit to what you can do to them is what they can do to prevent it.

However, it's one of the conceits of ethics that one's morality can grow beyond one's monkey sphere.  "[...]for you were strangers in Egypt", "[...]and love your neighbor likewise", and yes, even, "be excellent to one another."  Moral enlightenment comes when we can grow our monkey sphere to encompass the entire world.  Even our enemies.

Our moral aspirations, the "arrow of longing [we] shoot beyond [ourselves]", say that we can exceed our neurobiology.  That we can treat even our enemies with respect.  That being a moral human being means not desecrating the dead, even the hated dead.

"But," you say, "you yourself have in the past held up Achilles as the exemplar of a certain standard of behavior.  A behavior you yourself have felt worthy of emulation.  And Achilles desecrated the body of his fallen foe, Hector."

True, yes, he did.  But remember, Achilles is an 'eros.  He is not quite a god, but more than a man.  He rages as the gods rage, and his slaying of Hector is as a deific act.  Then Priam visited him in the night, and even Achilles repented.  At that moment, he became human, and as a human, he became capable of shooting the arrow of his longing beyond himself.  He could aspire to be a better person.  Achilles repented.

Some have said that the dead enemy should be desecrated.  That they "did it to us, first."  Is that how we want to be remembered by this cold, uncaring universe once we are gone?  As not being any better than we are, not any better than our enemies?  Has the arrow of our longing fallen so short?  Or have we forgotten to fit it to our bow?  Surely we can do better than that.  Nothing we do means anything, therefore what we do means everything.

What if we could imagine a new species of warrior?  Ones who could mourn and praise the dead, even as they fall? "Teach us to care and not to care."
"If we do this, then we will show our ferocity."  There is no doubt that fear is a force multiplier.  When one must use force or the threat of force, then fear becomes a tool in the toolbox.  The Assyrians built pyramids of skulls.  The Mongols conscripted their defeated enemies to be fed into the maw of the next seige.  The Luftwaffe fit sirens to the Ju-87 (and apparently the Galactic Empire did the same with the TIE fighter, in defiance of the conventional acoustics of vacuums).

But desecrating the dead is not a force multiplier.  It does not gain one an advantage.  One looks monstrous, yes, but not terrifying.  There is no use for this is the mathematics of conflict.

Doing this sort of thing simply disgust those who would try to allies.  It disgusts foes.  In a war of signs and propaganda and ideology such as the U.S. is engaged in, the only victorious endgame is to make peace with the enemy.  To remove the reasons the enemy is fighting.  To paraphrase Lincoln, "I make my enemy my friend."
At the same time, this sort of behavior is predictable.  War, as so many have noted, is hell.  It takes its toll on those who fight it.  In order to fight effectively, one must eschew being a man of peace, and become a man of war.  "One who fights with monsters must take care that he not become a monster."

One must expect atrocities in war.  There is no such thing as a war crime, because in truth, all wars are crimes.  Because the sword is so terrible, one must always use exacting care in choosing to unsheath it.  Acts like these are the ugly consequences of war, and one of many reasons why war must never be entered into casually.  Even the living are casualties of war.

Googlebombing for a cause:

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