Reports have recently surfaced that a few frustrated American soldiers in Afghanistan may have desecrated the bodies of two dead Taliban fighters by burning them. Beyond this they are accused of taunting nearby villagers to be “lady boys” (which I take to be a militarized cognate of Arnold’s conventional “girly men”) for not coming out to retrieve fellow Muslim bodies purposely set on fire facing the West. Perhaps the soldiers doing this thought it silly that Afghan men do not wear Western pants and at the same time believe in resurrection of the dead.

These reports are in the American media not because of a fuzzy tape sent to
al-Jazeera, but due to video coverage by an Australian news crew. If true, no
matter that there may have been stinking corpses that needed to be buried or
at least wrapped in a body bag created for safe disposal of such things, here
is yet another reminder that war brings out the stupid in people. Along with
humiliating male prisoners by forcing them to pile naked on one another in sexual
poses, these kinds of acts reinforce the overwhelming public opinion among Muslims
worldwide that the American military is, at least now, part of the problem rather
than the solution.

Context, as usual, is everything. Innocent people caught in a house fire or a fatal automobile accident are pitied because they did not want or expect to die in such a terrifying way. A soldier riding in a helicopter which crashes in flames is lauded as a hero who gave the utmost sacrifice for his or her country. But a Buddhist monk who douses himself with kerosene to protest an obscene war in his own country may also be admired for making a profound statement and equally ultimate sacrifice. Christian charity, given the firey death of many of its illustrious martyrs, would have to grant such a possibility. Small children burned beyond recognition by a cluster bomb or any victims mutilated and charred by a suicide bombing are in all cases needless victims of a horrendous tragedy. So is it different with the remains of a dead “terrorist”?

There is an obvious difference between setting yourself on fire for a cause, foolish as that might seem to most people, and deliberately burning the body of someone whose religion teaches resurrection and demands a proper burial in the ground. If American soldiers set on fire the bodies of two dead Muslims as an example for other Muslims to stop resisting, there is no difference with Nazi tactics or the brutal retaliations of Saddam Hussein. The end, even if it is demanding an end to violence, does not justify such means. If anything, this act is the most effective recruitment for “terrorist” volunteers I can imagine.

This may seem an insensitive question, but it may be useful to ask why we are so upset by the sight of a burning body? Some religions, including that of pre-Islamic Sassanian Iran, actually prescribe burning as the proper way to treat the dead. In India, before the British taught the Hindus imperial manners, elite widows were expected to throw themselves on the funeral pyres of their dead spouses. In the West many respectable secularists, conscious of the ever-expanding living space erosion of cemeteries, write wills that insist on cremation as the most civil way to go. It is also relevant that evangelical Protestant apocalypticists (who overwhelmingly supported Bush in the last election) sincerely believe that anyone who does not follow the gospel roadmap of John 3:16 will end up in eternal and literal hellfire. So the moral issue is not simply burning flesh and smoldering bones, either here and now or in the hereafter.

The debate needs to go beyond who is right or spokesmen ducking media questions
with a defensive “War-is-Hell” alibi. Left or right, Democrat or Republican, Capitalist or Socialist, there should not be anything partisan in looking at any human body being consumed by flames. But there are burning bodies produced every day of this war. Victims of cluster bombs dropped from fighter planes or smart missiles launched from far-off Navy ships are routinely burned beyond recognition. Every day, not only in Iraq, suicide bombs blow human bodies apart and often start fires that char the mutiliated body parts. Yes, the stench of burning human flesh has probably been in the air since our early ancestors first learned how to control fire. But why does it bother us sometimes more than others?

The successive revelations of the world’s major monotheisms, not to mention the many other religious and moral systems throughout history, tell us how to behave in God’s eyes. The God of the Old Testament, worshipped for several centuries with burnt flesh offerings, made an important distinction in substituting a lamb for Isaac (or Ishmael, if you take an alternative Muslim spin on the story). The moral of that story is good news for sons with psychotic fathers, but bad news for the rest of us common sheep. Since even the most ardent materialist would admit that you cannot burn a human soul, disposal of a corpse can be contextual.

The same goes for good Christian men who consign anyone who does not think as they do to eternal hellfire. But burning bodies should always mean something more than flesh and bones. Personally, I find the notion of everlasting flames for infidels (define them as you choose) repugnant. The reality that anyone can be burnt beyond recognition in this life is beyond repugnant. But what will it take to burn that idea on all our consciences? And how many moral bridges are yet to be burnt before they are crossed?

Daniel Martin Varisco