Feature

Why soldiers desecrate the dead

The taking of battlefield trophies is as old as the history of war.

Joe HeimThe Washington Post 

“We’ve seen these images before,” said Joe Heim. In every recent war, photographs have surfaced of grinning soldiers posing with the mangled corpses of their enemies or war trophies such as ears and fingers. It happened again last week, with the publication of photos showing American troops holding the severed legs of Taliban suicide bombers in Afghanistan. Military officials apologized, and “everyone expressed appropriate outrage.” But is anyone really surprised? Similar photos were taken on the battlefields in Iraq and Afghanistan, Bosnia and Berlin, Okinawa and Vietnam. Indeed, the taking of battlefield trophies is as old as the history of war. Even though it may violate society’s mores, the impulse to take “scalps and skulls” is part of the warrior’s psyche. When soldiers see their buddies die, their wish for revenge is inevitable. So is the periodic need to express relief: The dismembered body here is that of my enemy, not mine. Safe at home, we civilians are understandably appalled. But these photos should remind us that war dehumanizes those we send to fight it, and can “create monsters of schoolboys.”

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