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Study: soldiers who desecrate dead bodies see themselves as hunters

May 21, 2012
Courtesy of the Economic & 
Social Research Council, U.K.
and World Science staff

Sol­diers are far more likely to des­e­crate en­e­mies’ dead bod­ies when they view their en­e­mies as ra­cially dis­tant—and see them­selves as hunters of a sort, new re­search finds.

The re­search chal­lenges con­ven­tion­al wis­dom hold­ing that fight­ers who mu­ti­late en­e­my corpses or take body parts as tro­phies are pri­marily suf­fer­ing from se­vere bat­tle stress. The be­hav­ior orig­i­nates more com­monly from "a so­cial his­to­ry of rac­ism and in mil­i­tary tra­di­tions that use hunt­ing metaphors for war,” said Si­mon Har­ri­son of the Uni­vers­ity of Ul­ster in Ire­land, who car­ried out the stu­dy.

But this type of think­ing al­so has close par­al­lels in some trib­al so­ci­eties that al­so help them­selves to “tro­phy” body parts in bat­tle, he added.

While rare in mod­ern war­fare, this type of mis­con­duct “has per­sisted in pre­dict­a­ble pat­terns since the Eu­ro­pe­an En­light­en­ment,” Har­ri­son said. “This was the pe­ri­od when the first ide­olo­gies of race be­gan to ap­pear, clas­si­fy­ing some hu­man popula­t­ions as clos­er to an­i­mals than oth­ers."

Har­ri­son details his his­tor­i­cal and so­cial re­search in­to the sub­ject in a book, War tro­phies in the West­ern mil­i­tary, to be pub­lished in June by Berg­hahn Press. The re­search is funded by the U.K.’s Eco­nom­ic and So­cial Re­search Coun­cil.

Eu­ro­pe­an and North Amer­i­can sol­diers who have mu­ti­lated en­e­my corpses seem to have drawn ra­cial dis­tinc­tions be­tween close and dis­tant en­e­mies, he added: they “fought” close en­e­mies, but “hunt­ed” dis­tant ones, whose bod­ies could be­come tro­phies to dem­on­strate mas­cu­line skill.

Peo­ple tend to as­so­ci­ate head-hunt­ing and oth­er trophy-taking with “prim­i­tive” war­fare, Har­ri­son con­tin­ued—but the sym­bol­ic as­socia­t­ions be­tween hunt­ing and war that lead to des­ecra­t­ion are re­markably si­m­i­lar in mod­ern mil­i­tar­ies and cer­tain trib­al cul­tures. In both cases, mu­tila­t­ion oc­curs when en­e­mies are rep­re­sented as an­i­mals or prey, he said. Parts of the corpse are re­moved like tro­phies at “the kil­l.” Metaphors of war-as-hunt­ing that under­lie such be­hav­ior 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, he said.

In World War II, he ob­served, trophy-taking was rare on the Eu­ro­pe­an bat­tlefields but rel­a­tively com­mon in the Pa­cif­ic the­a­ter, where some Al­lied sol­diers kept skulls of Jap­a­nese com­bat­ants as me­men­tos or made gifts of their re­mains. There have been in­ci­dents in Af­ghan­i­stan in which NATO per­son­nel have des­e­crated Tal­iban com­bat­ants’ corpses, he added, but there is no ev­i­dence of such mis­con­duct oc­cur­ring in the con­flicts of the form­er Yu­go­sla­via.

This be­hav­ior can’t be called a “tra­di­tion” as it’s sel­dom ex­plic­itly taught, and sol­diers are of­ten un­aware of how much it oc­curred in past con­flicts, Har­ri­son said. Fur­ther­more, at­ti­tudes to­wards the tro­phies change as the en­e­my ceases to be the en­e­my. Veter­ans af­ter the Pa­cif­ic con­flict or their fam­ilies often lost the desire to hold on to grisly mementos and do­nat­ed them 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 de­tach them­selves from a dis­turb­ing past.

Trophy-taking “will probably oc­cur, in some form or oth­er, when­ev­er war, hunt­ing and mas­culin­ity are con­cep­tu­ally linked," Har­ri­son said. "Pro­hi­bi­tion is clearly not enough to pre­vent it. We need to rec­og­nize the dan­gers of por­tray­ing war in terms of hunt­ing im­agery."


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Soldiers are far more likely to desecrate enemies’ dead bodies when they view their enemies as racially distant—and themselves, as hunters of a sort, new research finds. The research challenges conventional wisdom holding that fighters who mutilate enemy corpses or take body parts as trophies are primarily suffering from severe battle stress. The behavior originates more commonly from "a social history of racism and in military traditions that use hunting metaphors for war,” said Simon Harrison of the University of Ulster in Ireland, who carried out the study. But this type of thinking also has close parallels in some tribal societies that also help themselves to “trophy” body parts in battle, he added. While rare in modern warfare, this type of misconduct “has persisted in predictable patterns since the European Enlightenment,” he said. “This was the period when the first ideologies of race began to appear, classifying some human populations as closer to animals than others." Harrison describes his historical and social research into the subject in an upcoming book, War trophies in the Western military, to be published in June by Berghahn Press. The research is funded by the U.K.’s Economic and Social Research Council. European and North American soldiers who have mutilated enemy corpses seem to have drawn racial distinctions of this sort between close and distant enemies, he added: they “fought” close enemies, but “hunted” distant ones and such bodies became trophies to demonstrate masculine skill. People tend to associate head-hunting and other trophy-taking with “primitive” warfare, Harrison continued—but the symbolic associations between hunting and war that lead to desecration are remarkably similar in modern militaries and certain tribal cultures. In both cases, mutilation occurs when enemies are represented as animals or prey, he said. Parts of the corpse are removed like trophies at “the kill.” Metaphors of “war-as-hunting” that lie at the root of such behaviour 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, he said. In World War II, he observed, trophy-taking was rare on the European battlefields but relatively common in the Pacific theater, where some Allied soldiers kept skulls of Japanese combatants as mementos or made gifts of their remains. There have been incidents in Afghanistan in which NATO personnel have desecrated Taliban combatants’ corpses, he added, but there is no evidence of such misconduct occurring in the conflicts of the former Yugoslavia. This behavior can’t be called a “tradition” as it’s seldom explicitly taught, and soldiers are often unaware of how much it occurred in past conflicts, Harrison said. Furthermore, attitudes towards the trophies change as the enemy ceases to be the enemy. The study shows 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 detach themselves from a disturbing past. Trophy-taking " will probably occur, in some form or other, whenever war, hunting and masculinity are conceptually linked," Harrison said. "Prohibition is clearly not enough to prevent it. We need to recognise the dangers of portraying war in terms of hunting imagery."