Robert Wright makes an obvious but necessary point:

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.

It is appalling what happened, but not surprising. Did you ever read Paul Fussell’s great memoir of his combat service in World War II, “Doing Battle”? Here is a passage in which Fussell admits his revulsion at what war does to one’s humanity:

At dawn, I awoke, and what I now saw all all around me were numerous objects I’d miraculously not tripped over in the dark. These were dozens of dead German boys in greenish gray uniforms, killed a day or two before by the company we were replacing. If darkness had mercifully hidden them from us, dawn disclosed them with staring open eyes and greenish white faces and hands like marble, still clutching their rilfes and machine pistols in their seventeen-year-old hands. One body was only a foot or so away from me, and I found myself fascinated by the stubble of his beard, which would have earned him a rebuke on a parade groudn but not here, not anymore. Michelangelo could have made something beautiful out of thse forms, in the tradition of the Dying Gaul, and I was astonished to find that in a way I couldn’t understand, at first they struck me as awful but beautiful. But after a moment, no feeling but horror. My boyish illusions, largely intact to that moment of awakening, fell away all at once, and suddenly I knew that I was not and would never be in a world that was reasonable or just.

… The captain called for me, and as I ran down a forest path, I met a sight even more devastating. The dead I’d seen were boys. Now I saw dead children, rigged out as soldiers. On the path lay two youngsters not older than fourteen. Each had taken a bullet in the head. The brains of one extruded from a one-inch hole in his forehead, pushing aside his woolen visor cap so like a schoolboy’s. The brains of the other were coming out of his nostrils.

At this sight, I couldn’t do what I wanted, go off by myself and cry. I had to pretend to be, if not actually gratified, at least undisturbed by this spectacle of our side victorious. …It wasn’t long before I could articulate for myself the message the war was sending the infantry soldier: “You are expendable. … You are just another body to be used. Since all can’t be damaged or destroyed as they are fed into the machinery, some may survive, but that’s not my fault. Most must be chewed up, and you’ll probably be one of them. This is regrettable, but nothing can be done about it.”

It should be noted that Fussell doesn’t believe that he bears moral fault in the conventional way for the killing of these German soldiers. They wore the uniform of the enemy, and the enemy was an evil regime — indeed, one of the most evil that ever existed. Nevertheless, this is what war is, and what it does to one, even when one does one’s duty.

An Orthodox friend says that the Orthodox church requires soldiers who have killed in combat, even in a just war, to go to confession before being readmitted to communion. I don’t know if this is true, but it makes sense to me. Even if one had no real choice but to kill — and only a radical pacifist would be able to say that killing is always and everywhere wrong — the idea is that to take a human life is to dirty one’s own soul. War is at best — at best — a necessary evil. But even necessary evils are evil.

I can see a case for murdering the Iranian nuclear scientist. If you are a citizen of Tel Aviv, you may regard this man’s work as equivalent to the work of a German scientist working on new, improved gas chamber engineering, circa 1934. I’m not saying that this is a case I endorse, but I am saying it’s not irrational. Nevertheless, it’s disturbing to read a report of Rick Santorum’s remark:

“On occasion, scientists working on the nuclear program in Iran turn up dead. I think that’s a wonderful thing, candidly,” Santorum said at a campaign event in October.

He should have been less candid. But it’s not like this sentiment comes from nowhere. On many occasions, Iranian president Ahmadinejad has spoken of his intention to wipe Israel off the map. If Iran were to develop nuclear weapons capabilities, the Iranians could keep that promise. If you’re an Israeli, how do you regard a scientist working to give that power to Ahmadinejad? Ahmadinejad could not possibly have signaled more clearly what his intentions are.

To be sure, I’m against war with Iran, and the main reason I would never vote for Santorum is that he relishes the thought of war with Iran. However, I am by no means certain that it was wrong for the Israelis to have killed this scientist, given that they are in a state of de facto war with Iran, and that the Iranian leadership has publicly and repeatedly vowed to exterminate the Israelis. My point here is that even if the killing of the Iranian scientist is justified as self-defense, it is nothing to be called “wonderful.” A grim, tragic necessity? Perhaps. But “wonderful”? We must not allow ourselves to bless these things, much less glory in them, as Santorum has done.

A friend told me not long ago about someone she knows, back from the Iraq war, deeply changed by the killing he had to do. As far as that soldier knows, all his killing was legal, and he did it justly. But it was still killing, and it haunts him profoundly. He will never be the same. Paul Fussell killed Nazi soldiers, for crying out loud, and the act of killing, and facing the results of killing, even in that just war, broke something in him.

I don’t want my sons to be the kind of men who piss on the corpses of human beings, even of vermin like the Taliban. War could do it to them. It could do it to any of us.