KANDAHAR, AFGHANISTAN – Several months after Americans first saw a video of Scout Snipers from 3rd Battalion 2nd Marines urinating on a group of dead Taliban, a group of Afghan soldiers is now teaching US Marines about Afghan culture to ensure similar incidents never happen again.
"We were deeply saddened by what we saw in that video," said Maj Jagran Akhtar of the Afghan National Army, through an interpreter to a seated crowd of young Marines. "Here were the United States Marines, who claimed to be the most professional fighting force in the world, and yet they did not even know how to properly desecrate an enemy corpse."
Akhtar then looked down and slowly shook his head. "I mean, they could have cut the nuts off and put them in the corpses' mouths, or even just thrown them on a pile of burning tires. But then, that is why we are here today...to share what we know with our friends the Marines," continued Akhtar, smiling broadly.
Major Akhtar is the officer in charge of the Afghan National Army's first Desecration Trainer Team, or DTT, tasked with teaching American military personnel proper Afghan body-defiling techniques. Every day, Marines eager to learn more about Afghanistan's rich culture of desecrating enemy corpses gather around Akhtar, a veteran of Afghanistan's 1980s war with the Soviet Union, to listen to his tricks of the trade from over 30 years of experience.
"Hanging a body from something and dousing it in petroleum, then setting it on fire -- this is your safe zone. When in doubt, you can always get back to basics with that. And really, there's no need to reinvent the wheel. Much of what you do will simply be devising subtle variations on this one basic theme."
"Yes, a question?" said Akhtar, pausing to call on a Marine with a raised hand.
"Like using the corpse's own intestines to hang it before you set it on fire?" asked LCpl Jason Tate, of Brattleboro, Vermont.
"See, this guy gets it," said Akhtar, bending forward to give Tate a high five.
"Never underestimate the importance of symbolism," continued Akhtar, "because that's where you Americans get into trouble with our culture. I mean, Nazi flags? Do you see any Jews around here? Of course not! We didn't even know that there had been one world war until the story about that flag came out, so how is a Nazi flag going to offend, much less intimidate, us? You must always ask yourself, 'what does this mean to my enemy?' to avoid such embarrassing and amateur mistakes."
A traditional Afghan corpse desecration festival
"Expanding upon this idea, you don't want to confuse anti-Afghan or anti-Islamic symbolism with anti-Taliban symbolism. Also, don't feel like you must always use big political and religious ideas. You can make strong statements that are much more personal or topical. For instance, when a Taliban official came to [the district of] Delaram and announced a tax on the opium crop, we stuffed his mouth and ass with poppies before hanging him in the square and setting him on fire. Yes, another question?"
"Yeah, does the symbolism also extend to what you hang them from before setting them on fire?", asked Sgt Casey Porter of Crete, Nebraska.
"An excellent question," beamed Maj Akhtar, "it most definitely does."
"So, beyond hanging bodies and lighting them on fire, what do you think of, say, chopping off heads?" asked Sgt Porter, looking up from his notes.
"Okay, let's not get ahead of ourselves," said Akhtar, who looked around in confusion at the laughing Marines until the interpreter explained the pun he had inadvertently made when his response was translated.
"To answer your question," continued Akhtar, after the laughter died down, "that's at the level of shooting down the Devil's chariot, and you're still at the level of firing rockets at the airport. Yes, I once peeled a man's skin up over his head and tied it in a knot using only his own pocketknife, but that was after many years of routine hangings and burnings."
Noting Sgt Porter's dejected expression, Akhtar then added, "But if it does come up, just apply what you've already learned. The question isn't whether or not to chop off heads, it's what you do with the head after chopping it off. Again, symbolism is everything."
Several hours later, media were invited to accompany Maj Akhtar as he reviewed the results of a practical application on the bodies of a dead Taliban mortar team to test the Marines' comprehension.
"Let's look at what you came up with. Okay, Staff Sergeant Sheppard, you took a picture of yourself shitting in the corpse's mouth while you smile and give a thumbs up. Quite frankly, I'm disappointed. Honestly, this seems to send more of a message about your sexual preferences than what happens to your enemies. Contrast that with what Cpl Callahan did. At first glance, it seems very simple -- he hung the body from a wall and lit it on fire. But look how he's carefully modified that basic theme to make it his own. First, he hung the body upside down, a simple but brilliant change, as if to say 'he died as he lived, with an upside down view of the world, for who but such a fool could have fought Cpl Callahan?'"
"Looking further, we can see that he also gutted the corpse like a beast, as if he started butchering it from sheer force of habit. To a warrior like Cpl Callahan, this was no death to be remembered, but an animal no better than one of his deer back in...?"
"Gwinn, Michigan," added Cpl Callahan helpfully, as Akhtar patted his student on the shoulder.
"Yet what's most impressive...what I'm going to remember if I'm one of Cpl Callahan's enemies...is that even though he hung the body by its feet, he also put a second noose around its neck and used it to hang the base plate from the man's captured mortar. This is powerful symbolism. It almost dares onlookers to try and pick up the weapon this dead fool thought to use against Cpl Callahan."
"It's like I've told you all day", Akhtar concluded. "It can be a little funny, or kind of extreme, but what's really important is that it makes you think. It's almost a shame to see it burn."
United States Forces - Afghanistan (USFOR-A) believes the program's development is a sign of positive engagement from Hamid Karzai's government.
"The role of USFOR-A and the larger International Security Assistance Force is to partner with our allies from the Islamic Republic of Afghanistan and develop the security situation through mentoring, arming, and training", said Lieutenant Junior Grade Keith Goodsell of USFOR-A public affairs. "But this program disproves claims that partnership with the Afghan National Army is just a one way street, and shows that we have just as much to learn from them as they do from us."
"Now, what does DTT stand for exactly?"