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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