There was a brief flap in the media about American marines allegedly urinating on dead Taliban fighters. Rick Perry weighed in on this as did John McCain.
On the one hand, it is easy to understand why soldiers might urinate on or otherwise desecrate the bodies of fallen foes. First, soldiers facing the sort of situation that exists in Afghanistan probably feel frustrated and angry to a degree that exceeds that felt during a more conventional war. As such, when an enemy is killed, there probably remains some desire to continue to “hurt” him. Second, getting people to be willing to kill other people already puts them in a state of mind in which they have already overcome some rather serious behavior barriers. After all, the behavioral barrier that normally prevents us from shooting other people in the head is probably a much higher moral barrier than the one that normally keeps us from urinating on the corpse of an enemy. Second, the mistreatment of the dead can be seen as part of the violence of conflict. In the past it was not uncommon for the bodies of the slain to be mutilated (sometimes in the belief that these injuries would be carried into the afterlife). As such, the desecration of the enemy is merely the continuation of the violence that began with his death.
On the other hand, this sort of behavior seems to be morally reprehensible. First, to reverse the situation, Americans were horrified when the body of U.S. Staff Sgt. William David Cleveland was dragged naked through the streets of Mogadishu as people cheered and abused his remains. Given our view of this abuse of our dead, we would seem to be obligated to be consistent in our principles and thus condemn the mistreatment of the corpses of our enemies.
Second, even though the dead are most likely not hurt by this (it seems unlikely that this mistreatment somehow carries over into a metaphysical afterlife), Kant’s arguments about the treatment of animals can be modified to be used to argue against mistreating corpses.
While a corpse cannot be harmed by the abuse (the dead are presumably beyond such things), such abuse does harm to the person engaged in it and, as Kant argued, could damage their humanity and make them more inclined to act badly towards living people. As such, the dead should be treated with a reasonable degree of respect.
Of course, as noted above, if people are already killing people, then it might seem to miss the point to be nonplussed about the killing but outraged at the urination. After all, if people are already at the point where they are fine with killing, then it could be argued that they are already morally damaged to a degree that a little urination will not increase.
In reply, it can be argued that killing in the time of war is somehow consistent with treating people with respect and that a person can be both a killer and morally decent person, at least in the context of war. While this might seem to be a bit insane, experience does seem to support this. After all, while soldiers do suffer emotional trauma, most combat troops do not regard themselves as murderers and they are generally not regarded as such.
One way to make sense of this is to consider why the soldiers are killing and the typical attitude towards what they are doing. In generally, they are killing to achieve military objectives and the attitude typically does not involve a desire to murder but rather a desire to achieve the objectives (and not die) with minimal casualties (after all, most professional soldiers prefer that the enemy surrenders as opposed to fighting to the death). In the case of desecrating a corpse, this does not contribute towards achieving a legitimate military objective and it involves a degree of personal animosity that is not typical of military operations.
As a final point, there is also the moral concern of the impact of such behavior. In the case of the endless war on terror, one major objective is to win over “hearts and minds” (something that we attempted in Vietnam). Obviously enough, urinating on dead Taliban fighters is not going to help America’s image in the region (and the world) and will serve to put American forces in the region in somewhat greater danger. As such, desecrating corpses is something that should not be tolerated.