“Our men can’t make this change from normal civilians into warriors and remain the same people … the abnormal world they have been plunged into, the new philosophies they have had to assume or perish inwardly, the horrors and delights … they are bound to be different people from those you sent away. They are rougher than when you knew them. Killing is a rough business.” Ernie Pyle
Ernie Pyle was one of the most prolific wartime journalists that ever lived, in fact he was killed by Japanese machine gun fire on the island of Ie Jima while with the Army during the Okinawa campaign. Ernie Pyle understood war and the men that fight it. If he was alive today I imagine that his comments about what happens to men in combat would be no different now than it was then.
In the past two days we have heard much and seen a distressing video of four U.S. Marines from a Scout-Sniper Team of 3rd Battalion 2nd Marine Regiment urinating on dead Taliban fighters. The images are disturbing and because they are raw and offensive they have created a furor that could define the NATO campaign in Afghanistan as much as the Abu Ghraib torture photos harmed U.S. efforts in Iraq and the broader Middle East. When I was in Iraq I heard Marine leaders talking about the Abu Ghraib incident with distain and saying that those few soldiers that recorded their torture of prisoners were costing us the war.
3/2 was deployed in the northern area of Helmand Province and lost 6 Marines and a Navy Corpsman during their deployment. According to the Marine Corps Times Battle Rattle Blog author Dan Lamothe, Major General John Toolan said that the Scout Snipers of 3/2 may have killed up to 100 insurgents each during their tour, which would mean that they were engaged in many dangerous combat engagements. This in no way condones or excuses their actions but it does provide some context to view what happened.
However wrong the actions may be and how stupid it was for the Marines in this unit to record them and allow them onto the internet the truth is that war changes people. Ordinary men do things that they would not have contemplated before it including breaking the codes of honor that they pledge to uphold when volunteering to serve. Ernie Pyle understood this far better than most journalists before or since. In fact he understood it far better than the minuscule percentage of Americans who have ever served in the military much less in combat. Pyle wrote:
“Their life consisted wholly and solely of war, for they were and always had been front-line infantrymen. They survived because the fates were kind to them, certainly — but also because they had become hard and immensely wise in animal-like ways of self-preservation.”
E.B Sledge who served throughout the Pacific War as a Marine infantryman and whose writings are dramatized in the HBO Series The Pacific wrote about fellow Marines that harvested gold teeth from dead Japanese soldiers, urinated in the mouths of the corpses of the Japanese and shot civilians. He was patriotic, religious and after the war wrote in his book With the Old Breed: At Peleliu and Okinawa:
“The fierce struggle for survival in the abyss of Peleliu had eroded the veneer of civilization and made savages of us all. We existed in an environment totally incomprehensible to men behind the lines-service troops and civilians.”
Mind you this is not an excuse for what these Marines did but it does offer an explanation for the act that they committed to video that we view without any context as to what led up to the incident or what they had been through. It seems that people are rushing to judgement and that this will be compared to Abu Ghraib as a defining image of the Afghanistan as much as Abu Ghraib became symbolic of Iraq. This is despite the fact that apart from being committed to video they are different. The Marines were infantrymen in one of the most desolate and dangerous combat zones of Afghanistan and the Abu Ghraib soldiers were jailers that had complete control of the prisoners. There is a major difference between the actions as deplorable as both are.
I see the American wounded every day, Marines and Sailors whose lives have been radically changed by service in Iraq and Afghanistan. They have seen horrors committed by Taliban, Al Qaida and other insurgents against their comrades as well as against Iraqi and Afghan civilians. The war is every bit as brutal as was waged in the Pacific and they fight a brutal and unforgiving enemy that is intent on driving the infidels out of Afghanistan.
The uncomfortable fact is that an incredibly small number of Americans are fighting a war that at best will be a draw and quite probably a strategic and political defeat despite our troops not losing any battles. The fact is that the action of these Marines will be used to not only prosecute them but to demonize them just as the actions of Lieutenant William Calley and his platoon at My Lai were used to demonize the Americans that fought in Vietnam. The sad truth is that most of those that will engage in such demonization have never served in harm’s way or even known military service. Sledge wrote of critics of the Marines following the Second World War:
“In the post-war years, the U.S. Marine Corps came in for a great deal of undeserved criticism in my opinion, from well-meaning persons who did not comprehend the magnitude of stress and horror that combat can be. The technology that developed the rifle barrel, the machine gun and high explosive shells has turned war into prolonged, subhuman slaughter.”
I know that a thorough investigation will be conducted and that we will find out what happened in this unit that caused this obvious breakdown in discipline. Right now we don’t know who even posted the video on the internet and why they did so. Hopefully this is an isolated incident otherwise the incident will only grow in significance. During the investigation as well as news reports and interviews we will learn about the individual Marines involved in this action as well as their leaders. It will likely be uncomfortable and sad to watch. It could well damage the reputation of the Marine Corps in the eyes of many even if it is an isolated incident. What happened has already and will continue to reverberate here and in Afghanistan for a long time to come. I just wish that we our media and politicians were as wise as Ernie Pyle and Eugene Sledge in judging these men as individuals before we know the whole story.
As someone that has served with Marines in harm’s way and know something of the stress that small teams of Marines can experience I have mixed feelings on this. I cannot approve of desecrating the remains of any human being at the same time I wonder what happened before this that might have contributed to the incident. Of course we will hear more details than we want.
P.S. I have written a number of articles about the political, ideological strategic and moral aspects of war which I have listed here:
War Without Mercy: Race, Religion, Ideology and Total War
Why History Matters: The Disastrous Effects of Long Insurgency Campaigns on the Nations that Wage them and the Armies that Fight Them
The Ideological War: How Hitler’s Racial Theories Influenced German Operations in Poland and Russia