American Temporality and the War of Urination

By Nath Aldalala’a

This is the world of Afghanistan now, a world in which blood blends with urine; Afghanistan reached into this world through the falling of bodies coupled with a fallen dignity. On the morning of 9/11 the skies were clear as the crash of the second plane into the South Tower, signalled what Martin Amis described as a ‘defining moment’. The ‘second plane looked eagerly alive, and galvanised with malice, and wholly alien. For those thousands in the South Tower, the second plane meant the end of everything. For us, its glint was the worldflash of a coming future.’ It was to be the coming future for the Afghani and Iraqi peoples, but what a future it turned out to be?

The recent release of the video of the U.S. Marines urinating on the corpses of Taliban fighters tells us much about the temporality of the War on Terror. The theory of Temporality, as J. P. Sartre maintains, is that it is an organised structure and the only possible method by which to study temporality is to approach it as a totality which dominates its secondary structures (the elements of time: past, present, future) and which confers on them their meaning.  Initially, the war on terror managed to create its own temporality, not only through its construction of a vague and undefined enemy, but also through its own rhetoric of justice versus terrorism. Yet, gradually, the war on terror has become clearer in the poverty of its mission, its endeavours, and its execution. 

The temporality of the war on terror is evident in its core actions; these, apart from the invasion and mass killings of civilians in both Afghanistan and Iraq, are illustrated by practices which have come to define the spirit of this war. For example, early in the war on terror were the images of Abu-Graib, and the use of various ‘Enhanced Interrogation Techniques’, the secret prisons that were established throughout the world, ‘The Rendition Programmes’, non-combatant enemy(s), Haditha, Mohammadia…all the way to these recent images of Marines urinating on corpses.

Barack Obama pledged to close Guantanamo, and yet its continued existence ten years on, reveals how profoundly Guantanamo and torture are entrenched in this American temporality.  The war on terror in effect exists deep inside America’s own borders. It is very much a part of the American Zeitgeist.  Salman Rushdie has said that the British do not understand their own history because much of it happened overseas. It was not possible in those days to upload Youtube videos to view the first concentration camps where 27,000 Afrikaners died in an effort to end the Boer insurgency, or the gassing of civilians in Iraq in the 1920s. Nevertheless, the British do currently have an understanding of their history while the debate is on-going with regard to the role of their “MI6” in renditions and torture of Libyans.

The Americans also have a full understanding of their recent history, as the waves of returning soldiers, whether dead or alive, make visible their domestic involvement in and understanding of this war.  In addition, the recurring images of abuses of occupied peoples by their Marines are a reminder of “other” engagements with the enemy. However, the conventional U.S. rhetoric in response to the release of such images and videos is that “it does not reflect” American values, or as in the case of this latest video of the urinating military personnel, the U.S. Marine Corpse said “this is not consistent with our core values”. 

At the end of the day, blame will inevitably be apportioned to a particular individual, as happened during the Mỹ Lai in March 1968, when 504 unarmed civilians in South Vietnam were massacred. Most of the victims were women, children and babies, and elderly people. Many of the women were raped, victims were tortured, and some of the bodies were found to have been mutilated.  For that massacre, the American justice system convicted one single individual- Second Lieutenant William Calley. He was convicted and given a life sentence, but actually served only three and half years under house arrest!

First reactions to the video of the Marines urinating on the Afghan corpses resonate with the now customary response. James Sanborn from Marine Corps Times stated “one sentiment that we have heard in several remarks is things get pretty tense there, they are [the Marines] under a lot of strain, well you have to show some level of sympathy, may be you don’t know exactly what they were going through.”

Admittedly, any theatre of war is very stressful, but over the centuries civilised societies have created rules which differentiate, in the very minimum, between war and urinating on corpses.

What the Marines are going through is ‘the’ war on terror, and this is not the first incident of this kind. It is almost certainly true that while we become privy to such videos, there is likely to be a great number of others that do reach the public.  However, the regular supply of videos and images that exhibit the abuses by American troops remain inconsequential to the course of the war. I argue that the simple reason for this is because the war on terror is entrenched within the American Zeitgeist, and this Zeitgeist is located in the reconciliation of the American understanding of its power, and the ways in which it is executed. This has led to a skewed understanding of American values, if they have any left. Note the current election campaign how Republican candidates heavily rely on the strategy of negative ads. Note also the prevailing rhetoric on Iran, on American Aid to foreign countries, on Pakistan, on the Palestinians- the list goes on. It is a discourse that emphasises the rule of the jungle; there is no sense of the ‘civil’ when competing to be the president of the United States, thus, that tells much about the spirit of warring in the American psyche.

The war on terror, while being propped up by the logic of fear, is also sustained by an ideology of American-ness. American popular consciousness does not acknowledge guilt about the invasions of Afghanistan or Iraq. Consequently, their reduction of the enemy to a form of nothingness is merely the diktat of this war. Yet, while prisoners, “not corpses”, are tortured by the most inhumane methods, there remains no change to the American political or cultural calculations. So, how should urinating on the dead make any difference? In another recent video American Marines pulled a helpless sheep into a room and beat it with a baseball baton until it was dead. The question arises of whether there is any more degrading image than that of an elite soldier- a Marine, of the world’s superpower with its constant exclamations of  “God Bless America” –  killing a helpless sheep in a most brutal and barbaric way?

This war on terror represents its own temporality and conditionality. The urination by Marines on Afghan corpses shows how notions of revenge and brutality are integral to this war. The image of those marines, in their uniforms, standing over dead bodies and urinating, is not really dissimilar from killing a helpless sheep with a baseball baton. It is also not far removed from the scenes and torture and general degradation of Abu-Graib prisoners or the killing of innocent civilians by remote drones. All these point towards a loss of ethics, rather than the characterisation of the war itself.

American temporality confers meaning on the American present and a future that is contingent on this war. Guantanamo is no longer a prison; it is an institution, a civil one, wherein the practice of power is a manifestation of the American understanding of its mandate. The American Marines are operating within a system called the war on terror. The GULAG (Glavnoe upravlenie lagarei) was a system; the Concentration Camps were a system. However, the war on terror is different in that in addition to being a system, and an organised structure, it gradually becomes the war of urination.

– Dr. Nath Aldalala’a – School of English Literature, Newcastle University, United Kingdom – contributed this article to Contact him at:

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