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 The Evolution of God and a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize. He is a former senior editor at The Atlantic.

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