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Soldiers who desecrate dead view themselves as 'hunters'

Washington, Mon, 21 May 2012 ANI

Washington, May 21 (ANI): Present day soldiers, who mutilate enemy corpses or take body-parts as trophies, are typically considered to be suffering from the extreme stresses of battle.

But, research funded by the Economic and Social Research Council (ESRC), shows that this sort of misconduct has most often been carried out by fighters who viewed the enemy as racially different from themselves and used images of the hunt to describe their actions.

"The roots of this behaviour lie not in individual psychological disorders," said Simon Harrison, who carried out the study.

"but in a social history of racism and in military traditions that use hunting metaphors for war. Although this misconduct is very rare, it has persisted in predictable patterns since the European Enlightenment. This was the period when the first ideologies of race began to appear, classifying some human populations as closer to animals than others," he added.

European and North American soldiers who have mutilated enemy corpses seem to have drawn racial distinctions of this sort between close and distant enemies.

They fought their close enemies, and bodies remained untouched after death, but they 'hunted' their distant enemies and such bodies became the trophies that flaunted masculine skill.

It was found that almost always, the enemies who were viewed as belonging to other 'races' have been treated in this way.

"This is a specifically racialised form of violence and could be considered a type of racially-motivated hate crime specific to military personnel in wartime," said Harrison.

People tend to link head-hunting and other trophy-taking with 'primitive' warfare.

They consider the battles fought by professional militaries as rational and humane.

However, such contrasts are inexplicable.

The study reveals that the symbolic associations between hunting and war that can give rise to abnormal behaviour such as trophy-taking in modern military organisations are remarkably close to those in certain indigenous societies where practices such as head-hunting were a recognised part of the culture.

In both cases, mutilation of the dead enemy occurs when enemies are represented as animals or prey.

Parts of the dead body are removed like trophies at the kill.

Metaphors of 'war-as-hunting' that lie at the root of such misconduct are still strong in some armed forces in Europe and North America, not only in military training but in the media and in soldiers' own self-perception.

Harrison quoted the example of the Second World War and claimed that trophy-taking was rare on the European battlefields but was relatively common in the war in the Pacific, where some Allied soldiers kept skulls of Japanese combatants as mementos or made gifts of their remains to friends back home.

The study also gives a more recent comparison of incidents in Afghanistan, in which NATO personnel have desecrated the dead bodies of Taliban combatants but there is no evidence of such misconduct occurring in the conflicts of the former Yugoslavia where NATO forces were much less likely to have considered their opponents racially 'distant'.

However, it would be wrong to suggest that such behaviour amounts to a tradition.

These practices are usually not openly taught.

Indeed, they seem to be quickly forgotten after the wars end and veterans often remain unaware of the extent to which they occurred.

Furthermore, the attitudes towards the trophies themselves alter as the enemy ceases to be the enemy.

The study revealed that how human remains kept by Allied soldiers after the Pacific War became unwanted memory objects over time, which ex-servicemen or their families often donated to museums.

In some cases, veterans have made great efforts to seek out the families of Japanese soldiers in order to return their remains and to distant themselves from a disturbing past.

Harrison claimed that human trophy-taking is evidence of the power of metaphor in structuring and motivating human behaviour. (ANI)


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