Marines behaving badly — Whose fault is it anyway?

I am sure by now everyone has read or heard about the U.S. Marines who urinated on dead Taliban fighters in Afghanistan. Officials on both sides as well as the media have been unflinching in their criticism of the perpetrators. There has been a distinct rush to pass judgement on the soldiers involved. We have dubbed the act deplorable, repugnant, morally reprehensible, inhuman and disrespectful to the dead. It is all that of course and I am in no way suggesting otherwise. We have been quick to express moral indignation but I wonder if we need a pause. The situation is not as black and white as it appears on the surface. Not a word has been said about the psychological impact of “society-sanctioned” killing on the soldiers. In the flush of victory when adrenaline levels run high events like this are more common than the society would care to admit. Can any of us in all honestly say there is not even a remote possibility of ourselves behaving no better under similar circumstances?

Had this event occurred in a normal milieu (i.e not war), the first thing that would have horrified us is the killing and then the post-killing act. The circumstances of war however make us overlook the killing. Instead we are focussed on what was done after. A true discussion about morality in this case would have to start with the original act of killing. But I digress. That gets into the morality and justifications for war in the first place. I am neither a war mongerer nor am I a pacifist. I am well aware that in the real world there will always be wars and to win wars soldiers have to kill enemy combatants. So yeah, we need armies to protect ourselves and to achieve that we take ordinary human beings and train them to kill other human beings. I am no expert on psychology but for most people killing other human beings is not exactly a therapeutic act. Au contraire, the person doing the killing is likely to experience great emotional distress and trauma.

In order to follow orders and do their “duty” soldiers have to come up with some means of coping. From what I understand, one commonly employed coping technique is to not think of the enemy as human. In other words it is easier to kill another person when you think they are inhuman and are clearly undeserving of common human decency. It is easy to see where this road leads to. After killing the enemy there are bound to be celebratory acts and these acts sometimes involve the victors literally taking a piss on the vanquished. Our sense of outrage is clearly misplaced. We are effectively asking our soldiers to be efficient killing machines, to only kill at order and then switch off. 

Of course this is incredibly unrealistic. What compounds this situation is the young age of the soldiers who are on the front lines in all wars. It is said that our rational brains do not fully develop till we are 25 years old. I suppose that is why the youth of the nation is the primary target for military recruiting. A completely rational individual is never going to sign up for this racket in the first place. All right, so we take these young kids, train them to disregard all concerns for their own safety, kill enemy soldiers and to disregard the fact that they will watch their friends die. On top of it all, we expect them to retain their moral compass under these most demanding of circumstances. We are in effect letting our youth (soldiers) bear the moral costs of war that should actually be borne by all of us. Frankly, it is a little too rich of us and smacks of self-serving morality.

As long as we are going to ask our younger generation to fight wars on our behalf the least we can do is equip them with proper psychological tools and training to cope better with the decidedly inhumane acts of war. Barring that, we can at least be sympathetic and understanding of their torment. For it is not they who failed us, it is us who failed them.


2 comments on “Marines behaving badly — Whose fault is it anyway?

  1. Kapil

    I had just finished replying to your post on quitting smoking when my system alerted me to your current post.

    As you are probably aware, I have served in two wars, Korea and Vietnam. Though in the Navy, I served with the Marine Corps. In Korea, I was a 19-year-old hospital corpsman serving with the 1st Marine Division hospital. By the time Vietnam came along, I had gotten a commission in the Medical Service Corps and served on the staff of the 9th Marine Amphibious Brigade. Though headquartered on Okinawa, I traveled to Vietnam to visit the hospital corpsmen serving with units under the Brigade’s administrative control.

    War does terrible things to good people. I don’t know that there is any way of preparing a youngster psychologically for what that person will face in a combat situation. No one knows how he or she will react when facing fire for the first time, or witnessing the agonizing death of the guy next to you. Those experiences wreak havoc with the psyche, with which the soldier will have to cope. Some cope better than othere, and some never get over it.

    On Christmas Eve in 1950, I returned from Midnight Mass at a little church on a hill overlooking the town of Masan. We had just been evacuated from North Korea. It was an idyllic night, crisp and cold, but not like the penetrating cold of the north. A full moon bathed the countryside in a pale, silvery glow, and we all felt a sense of serenity after attending the Mass.

    I was accompanying Father Reilly, a priest I had known years earlier in New York. When we returned to our bivouac area (we had a small hospital set up there), Father Reilly was summoned to the admissions area. There was a Korean Christian family, a man and his wife, plus wailing children and several relatives. A crazed Marine had burst into the home as the family was celebrating Christmas Eve together. In front of the children, the Marine stabbed the father, then raped and stabbed the mother.

    Several days later, as I was walking into town with our interpreter, I saw a Marine or soldier smash a Korean boy against a rock wall with the truck he was driving. For some people, killing becomes too easy, and they seem to derive pleasure from it.

    Others cope in other ways. The guys I associated with used humor. We found humor wherever we could. Some of it was pretty gross.

    As for the Marines who urinated on the corpses, the act is inexcusable. Killing them is part of the Marines’ staying alive. Pissing on the bodies was a stupid thing to do, and having it recorded on video was dumber yet. You’d think they’d learned something from the outfall after Abu Garaib. But, the Marines did a stupid, disgraceful thing and boasted about it. They deserve punishment for what they’ve done. They’ve disgraced the Marine Corps and the United States, and could very well upset the talks going on between the Taliban and the United States. And the act will certainly inflame the Afghans themselves, no matter what side of the conflict they’re on. Stupid, wanton actis like this could cost us dearly in the long term.

    Thanks for the very interesting post.


  2. I have a different perspective on it.

    Unless you know the each enemy soldier personally (in which case you can act based on what you know about that individual), they are soldiers just like you and they are fighting the war for the same reason you are. Agreed that the soldiers experience mental trauma that could lead to such behavior, but can that be used as an excuse? I could probably digest the fact that my dad or an officer I knew died during combat, but the post death acts would be tough to live comfortably with. There are reasons why they saw a need for the Geneva Convention and I strongly think the war victims should be treated with respect.

    If the act was committed and forgotten then and there, I can see that as a spontaneous act of pacifying your inner anger or celebrating your victory. But having millions of people witness it, you are bringing disgrace to your own fellow soldiers. What they forgot was that one of them could be the victim at some point. The worst thing is, American soldiers probably enjoy the best training and counseling, so it is not unfair to expect them to behave fairly even though the circumstances are rough.

    I speed and get away with it, but when I get caught breaking the law, I have no reason to complain.

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