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Displaying foes' dead hurts cause
By Eric Zorn, The Chicago Tribune

Published June 11, 2006

Showing off the enemy dead--displaying in triumph the corpses of the foe--has a long and not particularly proud history.

In mythological accounts of the Trojan War, Achilles slays the Trojan leader Hector, then offends the gods when he lashes Hector's body to a chariot and drags it around Troy.

In biblical times, Romans used crucifixion to kill, humiliate and intimidate all at once.

In England in 1535, Sir Thomas More was executed and his head was displayed for a month on a pike at London Bridge.

And in World War II, jubilant anti-fascists in Italy hung the body of slain dictator Benito Mussolini upside down on a meat hook in a public square.

The U.S. added another line to that history last week when the Pentagon released photographs of dead Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, the leader of Al Qaeda in Iraq who was killed Wednesday in a U.S. air strike on his hideout north of Baghdad.

"It wasn't necessary to display those pictures to prove we killed him," said Michael Sledge, author of the 2005 book "Soldier Dead: How We Recover, Identify, Bury, and Honor Our Military Fallen." "The proof is in the forensic evidence. Everyone knows that photographs can be manipulated."

Photoshop is a wonderful thing. And, as the Arab street no doubt knows, any nation that has the wherewithal to quickly mat and frame pictures of a battered face also has the software to make that face look like any dead terrorist it wants.

"The purpose was purely political," Sledge said. "Symbolically, possession of the body represents power not only over the body but over the spirit that body represents."

Retired U.S. Army Sgt. Maj. Herbert Friedman studies psychological operations in warfare, and he maintains that the images of al-Zarqawi were publicized not to discourage insurgents but to boost the flagging morale of Americans.

And in that effort, the vast majority of U.S. media outlets--including the Tribune--gladly participated. Al-Zarqawi's villainy in life cost him his dignity in death.

You don't have to regret that to wonder whether it was a good idea.

"Gloating is not good psychological warfare," Friedman said. "If anything, you just make [al-Zarqawi] a martyr and end up with more volunteers on their side."

Volunteer hypocrites. Any fighter in Iraq who puffs up in outrage that we violated international standards by disseminating pictures of our dead enemy--a claim some made in July 2003 when we showed photos of Saddam Hussein's slain sons Udai and Qusai--has conveniently forgotten Al Qaeda's many decapitation videos and other degrading and disturbing images of Americans.

"Of course, we have a double standard too," said Sledge, who titled a chapter in his book "All Bodies Are Not the Same." "When photos of Americans killed at Nasiriyah [in March 2003] were published, our generals declared it was a violation of the Geneva Convention."

Further, the Pentagon is famously averse to allowing cameras anywhere near the flag-draped coffins of U.S. military personnel when they arrive at Dover Air Force Base.

This sensibility--this delicate overlay to the horrible institution of war--is part of the "bellum hostile" tradition, according to military historian and author Gerald Prokopowicz of East Carolina University.

This tradition includes "accepting surrenders, not murdering prisoners, not targeting civilians and not using disproportionate force," he wrote in an e-mail conversation. "It's how Western nations fight each other, in theory at least."

The other sensibility--anything goes--is called "bellum romanum," he wrote. "Under the early written codes, this kind of war was appropriate against rebels and infidels. In our country's history, it was applied against Indians and to some extent the Japanese, neither of whom recognized Western conventions of war.

"Now we're fighting another enemy who doesn't accept our conventions and in fact is explicitly fighting against everything the West stands for.

"Under these circumstances," Prokopowicz wrote, "publishing photos of enemy dead, while suppressing photos of our own dead to protect the privacy of their families, makes perfect sense.

"The problem is that we're supposed to be defending the values of the West. But here, we seem to be saying that these values for which our men and women are dying are a luxury that we cannot afford to indulge in while the fighting is going on."

By showing the world photographs of Abu Musab al-Zarqawi shortly after we'd killed him, we made a point. By not showing them, we might have made a bigger point.

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ericzorn@gmail.com