The Marine Corps acted swiftly this week to begin an investigation of four scout snipers from 3rd Battalion 2nd Marines (3/2) who were shown in a YouTube video, apparently urinating on the bodies of three dead Afghan combatants in Helmand Province. Public reaction to the video has been mixed but for the most part is clustered at the extremes: either horrified condemnation or obscene justification of the Marines’ actions. It is difficult to maintain a dispassionate demeanor when observing desecration of the dead.
My own reaction has been less emotional and more professional. I served as a platoon commander in 3/2 from 2004 to 2007, during which time the battalion lost 17 Marines and sailors killed during combat actions in Iraq. One Marine died in my arms. I am no stranger to the unnatural passions elicited by close combat, stark terror and the gruesome death of blood brothers. Let me add some context to an otherwise wholly incomprehensible incident. Those who have not borne the burden of combat would do well to sequester their own reaction away from the court of public opinion: You simply don’t have enough evidence for an informed judgment.
Infantry Marines are enlisted for the purpose of, trained in the practice of, conditioned emotionally for, and recognized publicly for: killing. There it is.
The Marine Corps recruits young, aggressive men and subjects them to Spartan living conditions, draconian discipline, and months of charismatic indoctrination into a warrior culture. By the end of Boot Camp they have become more than men: they are Marines. Out in the Operating Forces new Marines are rigorously trained in the practical application of targeted violence. Their bodies are conditioned to endure the grueling hardships of war and their minds are conditioned to operate above a survival level in the most terrifying, brutal, and unforgiving environment known to man. The Marine Corps does this because it is expert at fighting and winning our Nation’s wars and it knows that in order to win you must have trained men willing and able to kill.
Even with all of the training, preparation, and conditioning, combat is a shock to the novice. It is surreal – at first – and the screaming violence takes an immediate physical, mental, and emotional toll. But good Marines revert to the training that was performed over and over and over and over so that it has become as natural as moving an arm or taking a breath. The mind finds comfort in performing the routine and the Marine Corps has ensured that the routine is good enough to win. So Marines kill – when they have to – and they win. And because they win, they do it again and again and again.
The challenge is that when we teach men to kill, we create loaded weapons. Loaded weapons must be handled with care, or else we risk damaging the weapon and injuring others. The Marine Corps has done its best to build a safety into each loaded weapon – the safety is a set of conditions that must be met before killing actions are triggered. Unless those conditions are met, killing is murder. But just because a set of arbitrary conditions is met does not mean that the Marine is able to rationalize the taking of a human life: the prohibition against murder is ingrained so deeply in our personal psyche and social taboos that it is nearly impossible for a sane man to ignore a flash of conscience when he kills. This is an emotional problem that has been addressed in one official and many unofficial ways.
Officially, the military has structured all of its infantry training into conditioning men to break the social taboo of murder by viewing the enemy as a “target”. Firing ranges have green “Ivan” silhouette targets so that infantrymen learn to associate an enemy’s head and shoulders with a standard target shape and subsequent reward and recognition. This clean, clinical approach has much utility and has been an often-documented factor in the increasing effectiveness of the US military after World War II. The emotionally-detached prosecution of enemy “targets” within accepted parameters as stipulated by the local rules of engagement (ROE) is the infantry ideal.
Less ideal, but fairly common, is the unofficial but popular dehumanization of enemy combatants, usually through the use of pejorative or slang terms. In Iraq our enemy was “muj” or “hadjis” – rarely “man”, “woman”, or “child”. Each of us is aware of the importance and influence of a label – our names are precious to us. By labeling an enemy with a derogatory term, infantrymen are able to simultaneously dehumanize him and begin to hate him – not as a human being, but as an object of wrath and the author of his own misery, fear and pain. Dehumanization of the enemy is effective at numbing the conscience and reducing emotional turmoil after a kill, but it also taps into primal areas of hate and rage, which are usually suppressed by the conscience and social conditioning. This might help explain how normally upstanding young men could act with mocking brutality after killing a dehumanized enemy.
I vividly remember a foreign correspondent rushing up to me on a debris-strewn street in Karabilah, Iraq on the fifth and last day of Operation SPEAR in June 2005. A Marine had been killed the day before and I was emotionally depleted, physically exhausted, and dutifully planning an assault on the last uncleared corner of the town. The reporter was incensed.
“Are you the leader of these men,” he asked belligerently, gesturing vaguely down the street.
“Some of them,” I replied, not at all interested in entertaining a reporter when I had an attack to plan.
“I just saw them run over a dead body in the street!” His tone was accusing and haughty; I decided that I disliked him. Peering down the dirty street past crumbled walls and the smudge of burnt out vehicles I couldn’t see the crushed body that he was pointing to.
“It’s a narrow street – military movement has priority. I’m sure they didn’t see it.” I didn’t really care if they had – what did he want me to do about it?
“I saw them swerve to run over it! It was brutal and unnecessary!”
I stared at the man’s thin, angry face. Mine was impassive. Unmoving. It would have been difficult for him to report that I gave a shit.
“Huh,” I grunted. Then I left him standing angrily in an Iraqi street, cleared of Al Qaeda fighters by the same Marines that he wanted to condemn. His mistake was thinking that as an officer I was compelled to act on his assertion. If what he said was true, I strongly disapproved of the Marines’ actions; if I had seen something like that, I would have grabbed the Marines involved and had a short, one-way lesson on right and wrong and maintaining the moral high ground. That would have ended the incident, preserved their respect for my office, and set an example for other Marines in the unit.
The YouTube incident is slightly different than my experience in Iraq. It is my professional opinion that the scout snipers in the YouTube video acted contrary to Article 15 of Convention I for the Amelioration of the Condition of the Wounded and Sick in Armed Forces in the Field, ratified in Geneva on 12 August 1949:
At all times, and particularly after an engagement, Parties to the conflict shall, without delay, take all possible measures to search for and collect the wounded and sick, to protect them against pillage and ill-treatment, to ensure their adequate care, and to search for the dead and prevent their being despoiled.
If the Marines hadn’t made and posted a video for the whole world to see, their actions would have filled the unwritten annals of the unknown wrongs committed by men at war throughout the ages. But someone recorded their actions and brought them into a glaring spotlight. There is no impromptu lesson that can ameliorate the damage done to the reputation of the Marine Corps, or assuage the anger of the Afghan people. With publicity comes public accountability.
Scout snipers are selected for intelligence, physical fitness, and uncommon self-discipline. I am certain that the four Marines in the video are personally courageous, generally upstanding, and, presently, wholly immersed in a tumultuous world of anger, shame and regret. Their actions in the video were wrong, but I do not think that we should condemn their entire character or pan the nature of their service. Seven of their brothers died during that deployment to Afghanistan – that says a lot about the nature of the battle and implies some of the reason behind the hate and rage demonstrated in the video.
It would be premature to assume the result of the Marine Corps investigation or the outcome of any judicial proceeding; however, likely charges under the Uniform Code of Military Justice will be Article 92 “Failure to Obey an Order or Regulation” and Article 134, Clause 2 “Conduct of a nature to bring discredit upon the Armed Forces”. I believe the Marine Corps will thoroughly investigate the circumstances surrounding the actions depicted in the video; follow due process in any follow-on legal proceedings; and afford the Marines a fair hearing that is impartial to the howling condemnation of the world at large. Good Marines deserve nothing less. Justice demands nothing more.