Beheadings: Ours and Theirs

The first time I encountered a decapitated human was back in 2004. At the time, I was deployed to western Iraq’s Al Anbar province, specifically the town of Al-Qa’im, with the 1st Battalion, 7th Marines. It was early autumn. The desert was comfortably warm during the day, and a bit chilly at night. We had only been in Iraq for two months and still had another six to go. Most of the Marines in my unit were quite excited to kill Iraqis. They prayed for such encounters. Real hung-ho types.

When patrolling in Iraq, it was commonplace to stumble across bodies, body parts or what can only be described as things, that at one time were human beings but after sustaining rounds from a 50 caliber machine gun or M-249 automatic weapon, could no longer truly be identified as human.

Over time, the Iraqi Police (IP) units came under intense pressure from various Sunni militants in our unit’s “area of operations.” Many of the Sunni fighters accused the IP of collaborating with the enemy. In some ways, that was true. However some of the IP officers took the job because there was simply no other options. After all, Iraq was absolutely devastated due to US bombings, occupations and decades of sanctions. The economy was non-existent. One day in mid-October, when driving east of Al Qaim, we came across the bodies of IP officers who had been hog-tied, decapitated, and laid out in a single-file row, with each of their heads placed on the broad side of the back as their bodies lay chest-down on the side of the road.

Most of my fellow Marines took pictures as we drove by. The majority laughed. It was a gruesome scene: IP officers decapitated, Marines taking pictures and Armored Assault Vehicle commanders purposely driving over the dead bodies while Marines chuckled and hoped to snap a photo. Some angrily asked, “What’s wrong with you Emanuele?” I remained silent. What could I say? “Please stop taking pictures of people with their heads cut off.” It sounded too absurd. Plus to them, Iraqis weren’t human beings, they were “sand-niggers” and “hajis.” When I think about Camus’ concept of “the Absurd,” I often think of that moment, and many more like it.

During those events, I closed my eyes; sometimes I blankly stared off into the distance; other times I daydreamed that we were in a movie in order to momentarily stave off traumatic thoughts and eventual nightmares. None of it worked. I still get the dreams.

It’s really important for Americans to recognize the brutality inherently connected with shooting, bombing, drone-striking and rocketing human beings. Those watching YouTube videos of ISL beheading journalists are easily convinced of ISL’s inherent barbarism and brutality. Sure, a beheading is brutal. But so is the United States military machine—in fact, much more so than ISL. The only difference is that most Americans are physically and psychologically detached from their own brutality, and either unaware, or apologetic when confronted with American barbarism. At least the bodies and faces are recognizable after a beheading.

By the same token, I haven’t even mentioned some of America’s most effectively brutal weapons: jets, helicopters, assault weapons, explosives, drones, and the list goes on. Do Americans understand what a body looks like after being hit with hellfire missiles? Of course they don’t. In some cases, there is no body, it’s just, as they say, a “pink mist.” No brains; no skull; no legs; no torso—just blood-splatters and various organic matter strewn about. For 99% of Americans such a scene is utterly incomprehensible, yet often politically acceptable.

As Americans watch events unfold in the middle east on their flatscreen TVs, soda-pop and junk-food in hand, I feel it’s our obligation to remind them of American hypocrisy, and who the real barbarians are: those sitting comfortably and apathetically at home, periodically tuning in to political coverage in-between NFL football games and TV sitcoms, as their government murders, tortures and permanently scars millions in the name of American Empire.

Vince Emanuele is a community organizer, writer and radio journalist. He lives in Michigan City, Indiana and can be reached at

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