Last week, a video surfaced on the internet that shows several young U.S. Marines urinating on the bodies of dead Taliban insurgents in Afghanistan. Immediately, there were calls for an investigation. World leaders talked of their disgust. U.S. Military leaders promised that they would get to the bottom of the story, and would punish those involved. A Republican Presidential candidate and many pundits on the right of the American political spectrum asked what the big deal was, and even wanted to celebrate these young Marines for their spirit.
And, the drumbeat began for the incident to be blamed on those young Marines seen in the video. It was an aberration… another case of just a few bad apples in the United States Military. Just like the incident with the Abu Ghraib photos, right?
There is a lesson I learned when I became a Sergeant in the United States Army. I had a soldier who was a bit of a screw-up. One morning I was in my First Sergeant’s office getting yelled at for something my soldier had done over the weekend, and I made the mistake of saying “Top, Specialist So and So is just a bad soldier.”
The First Sergeant gave me a look that could have shattered steel, and said “there’s no such thing as a bad soldier, Sergeant Pyle… there are only bad leaders. Either accept that, or give me back your Sergeant’s stripes.”
Those young Marines desecrating the corpses of the enemy, and then putting the video of that desecration on the internet was a failure of military leadership. It was a failure of military leadership to instill in those Marines the necessary and required ethics, morality, and professionalism that we must have as an operating military in today’s world, strategic paradigm, and combat environment. It was a failure of leadership to not recognize the potential for such behavior in these Marines, and train it out of them. It was a failure of leadership in that said Marines were obviously not properly supervised. It was a failure of military leadership that said Marines violated operational security, even after having committed the desecration, by posting the video on a public server. It was a failure of military leadership that the bodies of a fallen enemy were not being properly searched, marked, tagged, and recovered.
What we saw in that video was the end result of a long series of failures of military leadership. Though those Marines are indeed responsible for their action, that responsibility is proportional to the failure of said military leadership… and the greater proportion of that responsibility must always go to the Non-Commissioned and Commissioned Officers lawfully appointed over those young Marines.
And, the responsibility does not stop there, for our military is not a force unto itself. We as a nation are responsible for the actions of our military. We are responsible for how professional it is, how ethical and moral it behaves. We, the politicians we elect, and the civilian authorities they appoint are responsible for the actions of even a young 19 year old kid in Afghanistan, peeing on a dead Taliban insurgent on Youtube.
And, as my First Sergeant told me once, those civilian authorities need to either accept that, or give back their stripes.
The military knows we have a problem with Professionalism. Ten years of fighting several wars without the necessary resources and support to do it right have led to many compromises. Too many compromises. We have worn our soldiers into the ground with repeated deployments. Recruiting standards were lowered to levels that never would have been accepted before. The focus on the mission we had to accomplish led to corners being cut that should not have been cut. The reliance on military contractors (mercenaries) for many tasks has shifted the meaning of what it means to be a soldier. Regular regimes of inspections and preparations were set aside to meet the ever increasing operational tempo of multiple wars.
The military leadership, seeing this problem, has begun to address the standards of professionalism in the military. As always, the training begins at higher levels, and must filter through the ranks. This is the way it has always worked… you train the trainer, who trains the trainer, who trains the trainer, who trains the troops. But this time, we have an additional problem we have not had before. Two really.
First, we are operating in smaller military elements than we ever have before. In WWII we fought as companies, or several hundred soldiers with maybe 8-10 officers and dozens of sergents. Each of those officers had training in ethics, professionalism, and moral decision making, and led from that base and center. They were in place to both teach and moderate the behavior of the young kids we put in uniform and give weapons to. In that there were several officers in each company, they also held each other to the proper military standards of ethics and professionalism.
In Vietnam, the basic unit size engaged in combat operations was smaller, now a platoon of 50 or so soldiers, with one, maybe two officers and maybe five sergeants. With this shrinkage of officers and non-coms at the point of the spear, we saw a marked decrease in the professionalism and moral decision making of those combat forces.
Skip ahead to today. We now operate often in squad or team level combat elements. The person called upon to exercise good moral judgment in the moment is likely not a college grad officer with training in ethics, morality, and professionalism. It is more likely a 20 year old kid from either an inner city of a rural farming community, who has been exposed to the abyss of war without the proper mental and spiritual preparation to face such hell and chaos.
Frankly, I’m surprised, and even somewhat gratified, that all those young Marines were doing was peeing on those deal Taliban insurgents. And that all they did was post the video on Youtube… and that is our second problem. There is nothing the military does that will not eventually end up on Youtube, it seems.
Yours in Faith,