Thursday, October 20, 2005

Speaking of apples, corps, and corpses....

This is starting to gather attention. I heard this morning on NPR "headlines" (so no link at that Australian TV had broadcast a film showing American troops burning bodies in Afghanistan (desecrationof a corpse, apparently, for Islam). Here is the story at the Guardian, and here's the AP version at ABCNews.

This is the basic story, per AP:

In the footage, which was seen by the AP, two soldiers who spoke with American accents later read taunting messages that the SBS said were broadcast to the village, which was believed to be harboring Taliban soldiers.

Dupont said the soldiers responsible for the taunting messages were part of a U.S. Army psychological operations unit.

The U.S. military said the Army Criminal Investigation Division had opened an investigation into alleged misconduct that included "the burning of dead enemy combatant bodies under inappropriate circumstances."

"This alleged action is repugnant to our common values," Maj. Gen. Jason Kamiya said in a statement from the U.S. base in Bagram, Afghanistan. "This command takes all allegations of misconduct or inappropriate behavior seriously and has directed an investigation into circumstances surrounding this allegation."

Islamic clerics warned protests may break out.

"This is against Islam. Afghans will be shocked by this news. It is so humiliating," said Faiz Mohammed, a Muslim leader. "There are very, very dangerous consequences from this. People will be very angry."
Atrios (first link above) has the link to the response by CENTCOM.

Guardian credits AP as well, but gives us a bit more of the story (which says as much about ABC as it does about the U.S. military):

According to a transcript of the television program, the broadcast by soldiers from the psychological operations unit called the Taliban ``cowardly dogs.''

``You allowed your fighters to be laid down facing west and burned. You are too scared to come down and retrieve their bodies,'' said one message, according to the transcript.

Muslims in Afghanistan face west, toward Mecca, when they pray. When the dead are buried, their heads point to the north, their feet to the south, and just their faces toward Mecca.

Cremation of bodies is not part of Islamic tradition, which calls for remains to be washed, prayed over, wrapped in white cloth and buried within 24 hours.

The video did not show the messages being broadcast, though it did show some military vehicles were fitted with speakers and playing loud music.

Dupont told the AP the messages had been broadcast in the local dialect but were translated into English for him by members of the Army psychological operations unit.

He declined to provide further information.

Dupont said the soldiers who burned the bodies said they did so for hygiene reasons. However, Dupont said the incendiary messages later broadcast by the U.S. army psychological operations unit indicated they were aware that the cremation would be perceived as a desecration.

``They used that as a psychological warfare, I guess you'd call it. They used the fact that the Taliban were burned facing west (toward Mecca),'' Dupont told SBS. ``They deliberately wanted to incite that much anger from the Taliban so the Taliban could attack them. ... That's the only way they can find them.''

The SBS report suggested the deliberate burning of bodies could violate the Geneva Conventions governing the treatment of enemy remains in wartime. Under the Geneva Conventions, soldiers must ensure that the ``dead are honorably interred, if possible according to the rites of the religion to which they belonged.''

Furthermore, the rules state that bodies should not be cremated, ``except for imperative reasons of hygiene or for motives based on the religion of the deceased.''
Of course, at this point, it's really just a matter of: "The more things change, the more they remain the same."

UPDATE: More on this, via Magpieblog. And there is a print article here from SBS in Australia(the TV station which broadcast the footage), which adds this to the tale:

The footage showed two US soldiers reading two messages from a notebook that they said had been broadcast earlier.

"Attention Taliban, you are all cowardly dogs," one message said.

"You allowed your fighters to be laid down facing west and burned. You are too scared to retrieve their bodies. This just proves you are the lady boys we always believed you to be."

Another stated: "You attack and run away like women. You call yourself Talibs but you are a disgrace to the Muslim religion and you bring shame upon your family. Come and fight like men instead of the cowardly dogs you are."

The Geneva Convention requires soldiers to dispose of war dead in an honourable fashion and "if possible, according to the rites of the religion to which the deceased belonged".
The transcript of the SBS story is linked here, along with a link to the video. This conclusion to the report pretty much says it all (and say much more than I've ever heard from any U.S. news source):

Unable to travel far from their fortified bases, the troops are resupplied and flown in and out on choppers. One soldier told me he felt like he was fighting on the moon.

Afghan President, Hamid Karzai, recently told journalists he didn't think there was a need for US military activity in Afghanistan any longer and operations such as house searches and air strikes should be curtailed.

But as this footage from photojournalist Stephen Dupont reveals, the US-led operations are still being carried out. In the south, where these troops are based, more than two dozen Afghan soldiers, 18 police, two US soldiers and five aid workers have been killed in the last fortnight.

The response US troops are provoking with their psychological warfare is set to continue well into the future and Australian troops operating from the same base as these men will also be in the firing line.
Having said that, I can only note that the NYTimes is actually on this story, and links it's on-line report to the SBS website. The Times adds still more to what we know:

According to the program's translation of the taunts, which were delivered in the local language by American forces on the scene, a soldier identified as Sgt. Jim Baker, said: "You allowed your fighters to be laid down facing west and burned. You are too scared to come down and retrieve the bodies. This just proves you are the lady boys we always believed you to be."

Several senior officials said preliminary indications suggested that the video and the program's translation were accurate, and that the incident posed the potential to do further harm in the Islamic world to the image of the United States, already badly tarnished by the Abu Ghraib prisoner abuse scandal.

The reference to the bodies "facing west" appeared to be a deliberate mocking of the Islamic requirement to face Mecca during prayers. The Muslim faith prohibits cremation and holds respect of the body of the dead as a central tenet.

The American soldiers told a freelance photojournalist who recorded the incident that they burned the bodies for hygienic reasons, he said in an interview in the studios of the SBS program "Dateline."
And why are the soldiers doing this?

In the interview with the producers, Mr. Dupont explained that the American soldiers had been trying to bait the Taliban fighters to shoot at them. "They want the Taliban to fight them because they can't find them otherwise."
But, as Dr. Rice told the Senate committee yesterday: Remain calm; all is well.

Meanwhile, reality is busting out all over.

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