“Mankind’s true moral test, its fundamental test … consists of its attitude towards those who are at its mercy: animals.” — Milan Kundera
Some things just can’t be unseen. They etch themselves into our consciousness waiting for the right moment to leap into view and remind us how utterly contemptible the world can be, and, too frequently, the depths of depravity to which humans willfully descend.
Last week, as the major networks and newspapers burned hot with the story of four young U.S. Marines urinating on the bodies of several dead Taliban fighters somewhere in the unforgiving wilds of war-torn Afghanistan, a video crossed my desk showing U.S. service members engaged in behavior so barbarous that it makes piss-gate look like a Boy Scout cookout. And yet, despite the fact that it depicts similarly clad troops operating in the same theater of war, chances are you haven’t even heard about it.
You’re lucky: My dreams are still plagued by what I saw. But I’m going to share it with you anyway—not just because as citizens of this nation it is our responsibility to know what the people wearing our flag are doing in our names, but because just like Team Golden-Shower, these boys will be returning home one day, and I’m afraid someone might wind up living next door to them. (Lucky for us, there aren’t too many things these morons don’t capture on video these days.)
The video—which first ran back in November on liveleak.com and was posted to the website of People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals on Jan. 13th—opens with a young Afghan boy dragging an obviously distressed sheep into a sparse room where about eight U.S. soldiers clad in standard-issue desert camouflage are waiting. The terrified animal struggles to escape but is forced forward, toward a man dressed in western civilian clothes (also identified as a U.S. service member by some sources) who proceeds to beat it over the head and back with an aluminum bat nearly a dozen times as his comrades laugh and cheer him on. The video, which mercifully lasts only 30 seconds, ends with the sheep, now little more than a bloody clump, being dragged off screen.
Those of you who still feel the need to view the video shouldn’t have any trouble finding it with a simple Google search (a word of warning: I wish I hadn’t). The behavior it depicts would be troubling enough if it was an isolated incident; but unfortunately this isn’t the first time evidence has surfaced of acts of animal cruelty inflicted by GIs. Videos posted to YouTube and elsewhere show U.S. servicemen (they are exclusively men) shooting a dog, throwing a puppy from a cliff (a lance corporal, David Motari, was dismissed in 2008 over that incident), taunting an injured canine with rocks and trying to blow up a dog with an IED.
And that’s just what’s been caught on camera. And yet these incidents receive little media coverage. With the exception of the U.K.’s Daily Mail and a handful of animal welfare groups, the sheep video initially got zero coverage.
In a recent commentary on the video, Dr. Nath Aldalala’a, who teaches literature and linguistics at Britain’s Newcastle University, writes:
“The question arises of whether there is any more degrading image than that of an elite soldier—a Marine, of the world’s superpower with its constant exclamations of ‘God Bless America’—killing a helpless sheep in a most brutal and barbaric way?”
I think there probably is; but urinating on a dead enemy body isn’t it. Don’t get me wrong, pissing on a corpse is an act of purposeful humiliation—one that is particularly degrading to devout Muslims, who are fastidious about cleanliness. The Marines in the golden-shower video not only showed a complete lack of professional judgement, but their cultural insensitivity—caught on camera—probably put more of their comrades in harm’s way. That said, pissing on the bodies of the people who just tried to kill you is at least in the realm of understanding.
The blatant torturing of innocent animals for sport, however, reflects a level of sociopathy reserved for serial killers and aspiring dictators.
Which is why it’s vital that the soldiers in the sheep video be identified so they can be prosecuted to the full extent of military law. Except for one little problem. Under the Uniform Code of Military Justice, they didn’t technically do anything wrong. That’s because while animal cruelty is a felony in more than 40 U.S. states, it is not now, nor has it ever been, listed as a crime under the UCMJ (unless the animal happens to be government-property, that is).
In 2009, a panel of legal experts met to discuss adding animal cruelty as a crime to the UCMJ, but Congress has yet to approve the change.
It should be said that the Marines and soldiers guilty of abusing animals represent a fraction of the honorable men and women serving in our military, and at least one Marine has launched a Facebook page to draw attention to the problem.
Nevertheless, animals don’t have a very good track record with the U.S. armed services. For years the Department of Defense has used live animals to conduct trauma training, inflicting life-threatening battle wounds on pigs, sheep and goats so they can try to put them back together again. According to the group Physicians Committee for Responsible Medicine, more than 6,000 animals—in particular pigs and goats—are shot, stabbed, burned, plied with chemical agents and inflicted with forced amputations every year as part of U.S. military trauma training courses, despite the existence of viable alternatives.
Here’s how Petty Officer Third Class Dustin E. Kirby, a Navy corpsman, described his training in a 2006 article in the New York Times:
“The idea is to work with live tissue. You get a pig and you keep it alive. And every time I did something to help him, they would wound him again. So you see what shock does, and what happens when more wounds are received by a wounded creature. My pig? They shot him twice in the face with a 9-millimeter pistol, and then six times with an AK-47 and then twice with a 12-gauge shotgun. And then he was set on fire. I kept him alive for 15 hours. That was my pig.”
If you found that passage disturbing, you’re not alone. Last year the German government denied U.S. medics authority to conduct live-animal trauma training in their country on the grounds it violates EU law. Even Bolivia recently stopped using animals in military training exercises.
Congressman Bob Filner, a California Democrat, is hoping to hold the U.S. military to the same standards. In April, Filner introduced the Battlefield Excellence through Superior Training Practices Act (H.R. 1417), which would outlaw the use of animals in trauma training. It’s been sitting ever since in the House Armed Services Committee. The bill has received the support of Charles J. Rosciam, a retired captain with the U.S. Navy’s Medical Service Corps, and 16 other former military physicians, medics and nurses, as well as numerous lawmakers and animal rights advocates. You can do your part by using this form letter to tell your congress members they need to support the legislation.
Meanwhile, I’m happy to report that as I write this, the sheep assault is starting to get some media attention. USA Today reported on it on Wednesday, and a petition seeking a government investigation of the case so far has nearly 15,000 signatures.