Center for Strategic Communication

by Chris Lundry (with R. Bennett Furlow)

It did not take long for the images of the US Marines urinating on corpses of Taliban fighters to go viral. A moment of lapsed judgment will circulate as long as anyone is interested in seeing it, certainly long after short attention spans move on to other things and the fallout – including, presumably, disciplinary actions for the soldiers – settles.

Predictably, extremist sites have been all over this. In Indonesia, the story has run on Voice of al Islam, Hidayatullah, ar Rahmah, and others. Voice of al Islam made a clever play on words in their headline; they cited the Council on American-Islamic Relations by using its acronym CAIR, which means “liquid” in Indonesia. The headline “CAIR Kutuk Penodaan Mayat Anggota Taliban oleh Marinir AS” means “CAIR condemns the desecration of Taliban Corpses by US Marines,” but it could be read “Accursed Liquid Desecrates the Taliban corpses by US Marines.” The story itself is a pretty straightforward account of CAIR’s reaction – writing to secretary of Defense Leon Panetta, issuing a condemnation, and hoping for justice.

VOI’s subsequent post ratchets up the rhetoric, however. “Animals! American Marines Piss on Taliban Mujahidin.” The story quotes Taliban spokesman Qari Yusuf Ahmadi, who stated that “actions such as this make the Taliban want to continue to attack America.” For emphasis, the quote was highlighted and used as a pull quote in the text. The behavior is condemned as abominable, wild, and animalistic.

Ar Rahmah’s coverage invokes the Crusader master narrative, linking the act to centuries of perceived conflict and occupation. The headline quotes Taliban Spokesman Zabihullah Mujahed’s statement that there are hundreds of similar unreported cases.

The story is also being repeated in the Arabic-speaking world. The bladialyoum blog embedded the video, and refers to the soldiers as barbarians, condemning the occupation of Muslims lands, and linking the act to other perceived acts of aggression against the Muslim world. In this post on Arabic.rt, comments condemn the act, and link it to the abuses at Abu Ghraib. Taliban spokesman Zabihullah Mujahed denounced the act as “barbaric.”

That extremist sites are reporting this story should come as no surprise, nor should it be surprising that mainstream media outlets are covering it as well. In Indonesia, for example, both English language dailies – the Jakarta Post and the Jakarta Globe – ran stories, as did most Indonesian language outlets such as Kompas, which embedded a link to the video on its website. Al Jazeera has been following the story, and updating it as details emerge (such as this report about the identification of US soldiers). These mainstream outlets reach exponentially more readers, and their coverage is nearly identical to the extremists, minus the hyperbole and the explicit anti-Americanism.

Not to say that those interested in combating extremism shouldn’t be paying attention to the extremist sites, but the readers of the mainstream sites are important too. Most of those few who follow the extremist sites have already chosen sides, but many in the mainstream media audience are “middle ground” observers, who may not have a strong opinion about the conflict. Stories such as this may push them toward sympathizing or even supporting extremists.

The story also shows the importance of non-verbal communication in the digital age. The despicable act itself was communication, but seeing and hearing it for oneself has much more of an impact than simply reading about it. Will the images inspire copycats and image manipulators in the same way the infamous images from the abuse scandal at Abu Ghraib did? Will they become memes? Cartoon parodies have popped up, in both liberal and (neo)conservative media.

Domestic reaction to the images is mixed. Public officials and military spokespeople are nearly unanimous in their condemnation. So are many among the commentators on mainstream new sites. But many other sources  are not, arguing, essentially, that it is “no big deal.” Floundering presidential candidate Rick Perry’ argued, essentially, that it was no big deal, and criticized President Obama’s (and just about every other public figure’s) reaction. Islamist sites duly reported Perry’s words, and continue to follow the story, reporting on new details such as the identification of the soldiers.

It is, however a “big deal.” The internet age has drastically changed strategic communication, which is why it’s unfathomable that these soldiers thought it was a good idea to film this. As Robert Wright in the Atlantic writes in “The Banality of Urination,” that the act itself was committed is not particularly surprising:

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, rather, the “transparency of war” and the danger that the act will spread hatred and revulsion among those who view it.

The attention surrounding this act gives the extremists symbolic ammunition and may make the “middle ground” readers forget about the Taliban’s horrendous atrocities, such as their bombings of weddings, volleyball games, and other events that kill Muslims, or training children to behead their enemies. It may appear that they have gained the “moral high ground” for a brief period. Swift and public disciplining of those responsible may help reduce the fallout, but as the conflict in Afghanistan winds down, this is another reminder why the US needs to go to great lengths to try to minimize negative perceptions in the Muslim world.