Once again, the vagaries of war have gotten some attention. The Los Angeles Times published photographs showing American soldiers posing alongside Afghan corpses. This comes only months after the bad publicity resulting from a video showing Marines urinating on Taliban corpses and in the midst of other U.S. scandals in Afghanistan, the organized burning of Korans and an Army sergeant's cold-blooded massacre of innocent villagers.
Predictably, top U.S. officials responded to the LA Times photos by decrying the indecency they captured. Defense Secretary Leon Panetta says he "condemned what we see in these photos" and that the recorded behavior "is not who we are."
Also predictably, the Obama administration lashes out against those who would publish these photos. They diminish morale and embolden America's enemies, we are told. Panetta explains: "The reason for that is those kinds of photos are used by the enemy to incite violence, and lives have been lost as a result of the publication of similar photos."
The same outrage was expressed in April 2004 when the Abu Ghraib photos were first released. A similar mentality was seen when the Obama administration condemned WikiLeaks for fanning the flames of anti-Americanism by exposing the truth about American atrocities.
The only solution to this is to stop the indecencies that are being recorded for the world to see. Blaming the publishers of these photos is entirely the wrong approach. It puts the chill on free speech whenever the government insists upon secrecy. Let's address the underlying issue and stop blaming the messenger.
To this point, we might focus on Panetta's most telling comment: "This is war. I know that war is ugly and it's violent..."
Many would see this as a throwaway line, meant to lend some context to the obscenities, yet it dismisses the true core of the problem. Wars, particularly modern wars, necessarily entail indecencies and atrocities -- yet some would have us believe that a "few bad apples" are all that is tainting an otherwise justifiable and moral war. Surely militarists and the administration encourage this view, but so do some opponents of the administration who imply the war could be waged much better under different leadership. Similarly, liberal critics of Bush sometimes implied that a more capable executive, like Kerry or Obama, would wage war without excessive intervention many Democrats often claimed to characterize Bush's foreign policy.
NBC's Col. Jack Jacobs argues that the problem is a lack of sound leadership, but we might be forgiven for wondering which major war in memory -- or even in the last century -- was devoid of such indecency on the part of soldiers. Where has there ever been a war whose "leadership" guaranteed the "professional behavior" whose decline Jacobs laments?
Sen. John McCain calls the soldiers' photographed conduct "deplorable and despicable" and feels bad for the shadow it casts over the "99.9 percent of these young Americans who are serving over there" who "have the highest standards." Yet, as base as their actions were, perhaps we should stop short of categorizing them into the bottom one percent of American troops. It could have been far worse -- they were not caught killing or raping the innocent to burn off steam.
In any event, so long as we blanch at the site of desecrated body parts or soldiers urinating on corpses while we tolerate perpetual war that makes such actions (and even much worse) inevitable, we are totally missing the point. The attempt to ascribe this indecency to a handful of soldiers or poor leadership is a distraction from the full indecency of war itself, much like the Abu Ghraib photos were used to deflect attention from questions of U.S. detention policy.
As of August 2011, Obama's drone wars killed an estimated 168 children in Pakistan. That is a consequence of U.S. policy. In the last 20 years of U.S. operations in Iraq, Iraqi citizens have suffered under exponential loss of innocent civilians. Much of this misery results from the U.S.-UN sanctions implemented and enforced by the Bush and Clinton administrations. Both administrations have fallen short of accomplishing their missions to prop up a thoroughly backwards regime, defeat an al Qaeda network that is hardly there anymore, and fight an unwinnable war on opium. Obama's considerable escalation of the war efforts has not yielded greater protection of the Afghan people, who suffered a record number of civilian deaths last year -- the fifth straight year that casualties rose.
The Obama administration asks that we look beyond the scandalous photos at the "big picture" of the war in Afghanistan. Supposedly, this means we should focus on the progress that top officials claim to have made. Yet the situation is as unstable as ever. U.S. officials are negotiating with the Afghans to maintain a serious presence there for more than another decade, as though this prolonged engagement will finally bring about whatever the administration hopes to accomplish there.
Eventually, the U.S. military will withdraw from Afghanistan, and perhaps from its imperial presence throughout the world. Only then will we rid of the indecencies intrinsic to war.