A Case of Strategic Debasement

What the infamous Marine urination video teaches us about war and the U.S. military.

Gregory D. Foster

US Marines from 1st Battalion 8th, Bravo company pose as they unpack containers of mineral water at Talibjhan base in Afghanistan on January 19, 2011. (Dmitry Kostyukov/AFP/Getty Images)

What message should we take, what lessons should we draw from the video posted last week on YouTube of U.S. Marine snipers urinating, with unconcealed glee, on the bodies of presumed enemy dead in Afghanistan? 

This episode is, first and foremost, about indiscipline—the conscious or subconscious rejection of restraint and self-control.

Should we – whether Americans or non-Americans, civilian or military, veterans or nonveterans, liberal or conservative, pro-war or anti-war – be concerned, alarmed, even outraged? Yes. 

Should we accept the inevitable argument of institutional defenders and assorted sanctimonious true believers (who presume to understand war and the military) that this incident, however serious (or not), is merely an aberration, a momentary lapse perpetrated by a few bad apples in an otherwise healthy institutional barrel? Ask most people in uniform what they think; or listen to the likes of erstwhile presidential hopeful Rick Perry: Eighteen to 19-year-old kids make mistakes, and that’s what happened here.” 

The significance of this particular episode should be seen as part of a larger pattern of abuses and incidents by U.S. military personnel that number in the hundreds each year and have for at least the past two decades (since the start of the Clinton administration, when civil-military relations in this country started to receive renewed scrutiny). Remember Chinese-American Army Private Danny Chen, who committed suicide last October in the face of hazing by his brothers in arms”? Remember Staff Sergeant Calvin Gibbs – yes, a uniformed noncommissioned officer – and eleven other soldiers charged with 76 counts of civilian murder, mutilation, and other forms of assault in Afghanistan? Remember Haditha, and Abu Ghraib, and Guantanamo, and Bagram? 

Let us start, but not stop, with the recognition that these are U.S. Marines – The Few, The Proud,” First to Fight” – whose motto, Semper Fidelis, commands those who wear the Eagle, Globe and Anchor to be always faithful to comrades, to The Corps, to country; whose self-generated and espoused core values are honor, courage, and commitment; whose conception of honor involves never lying, cheating or stealing; abiding by an uncompromising code of integrity; respecting human dignity; respecting others.” 

But this is also war – thankless, dangerous, monotonous, frustrating, fog-blanketed, hellish war, where, as with its antithesis love, all’s fair. When you’re miserable, frustrated, hunting to avoid being hunted and waging dirty war in the shadows against insensate adversaries, anything goes. Right? Wrong. 

This episode is, first and foremost, about indiscipline. Not the discipline (and associated good order) those in uniform profess to value and practice, but the conscious or subconscious rejection of restraint and self-control, obliviousness to the need to separate action from thought, denial that, especially in the postmodern age, all the world may be looking all the time. 

It is about ignorance. Willing or unwilling ignorance of cultural norms, values and sensitivities; ignorance of the institutional and strategic consequences of one’s actions, however ostensibly remote, obscure and isolated. 

It is about intolerance, and the associated aggression that together constitute the dark side of all militaries. Intolerance of, hatred of, dehumanization of the generalized Other: the enemy, Jihadis,” ragheads,” camel jockeys,” gooks,” faggots.” They’re all the same, aren’t they? 

It is about inhumanity. Man’s inhumanity to man writ large, which war excuses, rationalizes and glorifies. 

It is about immaturity. Childish, infantile, sophomoric behavior, the largely unrecognized feature of military culture that prompts manly men to strive for manliness in the face of other manly men. Why else would you urinate on a body? Why else would you treat another human being like an animal? 

It is about inexperience. Not the experience of repetitive combat tours conducting repetitive, standardized operations, but inexperience in understanding and dealing with the human behavior and motives that are so central to the wars of today. 

It is about incompetence. Not a lack of operational, technocratic skills for waging war American-style, the focus of most military training; but ethical incompetence born of a pronounced lack of attention to developing the intellectual capacity of those in uniform necessary for distinguishing right from wrong in the face of ambiguous operational circumstances. 

It is about incomprehension. Incomprehension of the self-corruption that is endemic in war; that makes its practitioners less than they ought to be, even as they seek to be more than they are; that nurtures and sanctifies the most uncivil, inhumane, degrading behavior among war’s participants. 

It is about insularity. The alienative distance that has developed between an all-volunteer military and the larger society it should represent, but doesn’t; the belief that one’s actions in combat can be justifiably hidden from an uncaring, clueless, ethically challenged society that doesn’t share the pain, responsibility, or integrity of those in uniform. 

Even if it is a safe bet that this latest, execrable act will not diminish the standing of the military in the eyes of the American public, it is a safer bet that antipathy, resentment and the attendant further diminution of U.S. credibility and legitimacy abroad will be fueled. No matter who is held accountable – and experience has shown it’s not likely to be anyone of weight” – irreparable strategic damage will have been done, and neither the U.S. military nor its civilian overseers will have anybody to blame but themselves.

Gregory D. Foster is a professor at the Industrial College of the Armed Forces, National Defense University, Washington, D.C. The views expressed here are his own.
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