When the first photos surfaced of Iraqi prisoners at Abu Ghraib being abused and humiliated by their U.S. military captors, a ranking Army officer said, "You're looking at the idiots who could cost us this war."
In the end, that particular embarrassment didn't cost us the war, but it arguably made it more difficult and it was one of a series of missteps where we strayed from our principles — torture (the euphemism "enhanced interrogation techniques" fooled no one); the punitive detentions at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, without trial; the seemingly casual U.S. attitude toward civilian casualties — that cost us the moral high ground.
Now, in time for the 10th anniversary of the arrival of hooded and shackled prisoners at Guantanamo Bay, comes a video purporting to show four Marines, members of a sniper team from a unit based at Camp Lejeune, N.C., urinating on the corpses of three Taliban fighters.
Nothing has surfaced to suggest that the video is anything but authentic, and it quickly appeared on YouTube and the Web. If it hasn't already, the video will also receive prominent play on the websites of Islamic radicals as proof of their point that regardless of what the U.S. says, this is a war against Islam and Muslims. Copies are likely already for sale in Pakistani bazaars.
Defense Secretary Leon Panetta condemned the action, calling it utterly deplorable and pledged that those who perpetrated it "will be held accountable to the fullest extent."
The U.S. military has been aggressive and effective in prosecuting atrocities by its soldiers, but the verdicts come long after the damage is done. The timing of this episode could be especially unfortunate because the U.S. is engaged in delicate preliminaries leading to peace talks with the Taliban.
The Taliban issued a statement that denounced "this inhumane action by the wild American soldiers," more or less saying: What else can you expect from the Americans? But, importantly, the Taliban said the incident would not impede peace talks.
The greater danger is that Afghan President Hamid Karzai, our mercurial and eccentric ally, will use this to block or delay peace talks, especially since they may ultimately be out of his control.
It is a lame and beside-the-point truism to say that these things happen in wartime, but they do and, unfortunately, evidently this time it was our guys who did it. Considering that they are of the generation of the cellphone camera, they should have at least known better.