In 2010, just a few months before he deployed to Afghanistan as part of the troop surge there, my husband attended a training session about mortuary protocol in the field, including proper disposition of enemy remains. One of his classmates and coworkers, a younger soldier who had not been overseas, leaned over and muttered, "Why does it matter how we treat their corpses? They're the enemy."
He replied, "Because that's what makes us not them."
This week, the Los Angeles Times published photographs of U.S. Soldiers posing gleefully with the remains of Afghan insurgents in 2010. As I have listened to pundits, friends, and members of the military community discuss the photographs,I have heard that same question phrased in many ways. Why is this is a problem? They're just terrorists.
One soldier's answer still rings true.
The enemy may be terrorists, but U.S. Soldiers are not, and this is simply not how America does things. This kind of behavior is the way the enemy does things. The terrorists against whom this war is waged post graphic videos of executions, but American Soldiers and their NATO colleagues are not terrorists. U.S. Soldiers are dedicated, highly-trained professionals who will do whatever it takes to fulfill the mission, defeat the enemy, and ensure the safety of their country and their comrades; antics like those depicted in the 2010 photographs are not the actions of such professionals. America holds itself and its defenders to a higher standard of conduct, one which U.S. troops consistently and proudly uphold.
As a veteran soldier, bound for the war zone again, so clearly understood, "that is what makes us not them." That standard of respectful, ethical, professional conduct and basic humanity is the fundamental essence of all that America's troops are fighting to defend. When stories like this one break, it is worthwhile to remember that the overwhelming majority of those troops defend that standard by living it.