Be honest now: Were you shocked, or even surprised, at the Los Angeles Times story last week that included pictures of American soldiers posing with the severed body parts of Afghan men? In one, a bemused paratrooper poses with a corpse's hand propped on his shoulder. In another, grinning soldiers hold up a disembodied leg.
The release of the pictures come just a few weeks after videos surfaced of American soldiers urinating on corpses.
There's a name for this phenomenon — "war porn" — and at least one veteran maintains that, with most American soldiers carrying digital cameras these days, there's a lot more where that came from. (The 18 photos, taken in 2010, were furnished to the newspaper — which published only two — by a soldier who is concerned about a lack of discipline and leadership.)
The Pentagon apologized, of course — but only after it tried to persuade the newspaper to deep-six the photos, arguing that they "do not represent the character and professionalism of the great majority of our troops in Afghanistan" and could trigger a violent backlash against our troops. As if the Afghans need American media to tell them what they are experiencing firsthand.
Besides, the people of Afghanistan have limited access to information from the outside world. In fact, a Wall Street Journal survey at the 10th anniversary of 9?/11 found that an overwhelming majority of Afghans aged 16-30 had never heard of the terrorist attacks and have no idea what the United States is doing in their country.
It's time for us to ask that question of ourselves again. The corpses in the pictures released last week were already dead and were indeed that of "terrorists," suicide bombers who had killed themselves. That doesn't compare to the slaughter of 17 people, nine of them children, by Army Sgt. Robert Bales just last month, or other incidents, both known and unknown, of "collateral damage" in what is now America's longest war.
But Afghanistan is not the pressing issue in the presidential campaign that it should be. Presumptive Republican nominee Mitt Romney apparently wants to stay there indefinitely and so has criticized President Obama's timetable that has us in Afghanistan until 2014.
A substantial majority of the American people wants to get out a lot sooner: A poll released last week by the Pew Research Center (but taken before the most recent pictures surfaced) finds public support for the war at an all-time low: Only 32 percent want to stay there until the situation has "stabilized," while 60 percent want U.S. troops out as soon as possible. Someone needs to represent them in a national discussion that is becoming ever more urgent.
In denouncing the "war porn" that surfaced last week, Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta maintained that the behavior pictured is "not who we are." It's clear, though, that many Americans are worried about what we may become.n