The Banality of Urinating on Taliban Corpses

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If you had asked me a few days ago, before news broke that American soldiers have urinated on Taliban corpses, whether American soldiers have ever urinated on Taliban corpses, I would have said: Probably.

You send hordes of young people into combat, people whose job is to kill the enemy and who watch as their friends are killed and maimed by the enemy, and the chances are that signs of disrespect for the enemy will surface--and that every once in a while those signs will assume grotesque form.

War, presumably, has always been like that. But something has changed over the past couple of decades--two things, actually--and they amount to a powerful new argument against starting wars in the first place.

First, there's the new transparency of war. Infinitely more battlefield details get recorded, and everyone has the tools to broadcast these details. So it's just a matter of time before some outrageous image goes viral--pictures from Abu Ghraib, video from Afghanistan, whatever. These images will make you and your soldiers more hated by the enemy than ever--and hated by civilians who may identify with the enemy, whether because of national, ethnic, or religious kinship.

The second big change is that hatred is now a more dangerous thing. America faces no serious threat from any nation-state, but the more amorphous threat from radical Islam, if mishandled, could mushroom and, years from now, reach massively lethal proportions. And the lifeblood of radical Islam (like the lifeblood of many radical things) is hatred. The more Muslims there are who hate Americans, the easier life is for recruiters from al Qaeda or some other such terrorist group.

The growing lethality of hatred, like the growing transparency of war, is a product of technology. New information technologies make it easier for people who share a hatred to organize around it. Witness the global recruiting reach of even ragtag terrorist groups. And once hateful groups are organized, they stand a better chance than a few decades ago of getting their hands on massively lethal technologies--not just a nuclear weapon but, increasingly, biological weapons.

In other words, though radical Islam is the current example of how dangerous grassroots hatred can now be, the danger itself has grown for more generic reasons. So the change is fundamental: In the old days national security could be had by making sure all foreign governments either liked you or feared you; now national security requires (among other things) that as few people as possible hate you.

I think we should reflect on that before we start another war.

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Robert Wright is the author of, most recently, the New York Times bestseller The Evolution of God and a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize. He is a former writer and editor at The Atlantic. More

Wright is also a fellow at the New America Foundation and editor in chief of Bloggingheads.tv. His other books include Nonzero, which was named a New York Times Book Review Notable Book in 2000 and included on Fortune magazine's list of the top 75 business books of all-time. Wright's best-selling book The Moral Animal was selected as one of the ten best books of 1994 by The New York Times Book Review.Wright has contributed to The Atlantic for more than 20 years. He has also contributed to a number of the country's other leading magazines and newspapers, including: The New Yorker, The New York Times Magazine, Foreign Policy, The New Republic, Time, and Slate, and the op-ed pages of The New York Times, The Washington Post, and The Financial Times. He is the recipient of a National Magazine Award for Essay and Criticism and his books have been translated into more than a dozen languages.

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