Suicidal standards for America’s troops

US Department of Defense

Marines with Headquarters and Headquarters Squadron walk in formation during a conditioning hike aboard Marine Corps Air Station Miramar, Calif., Dec. 9, 2011

Article Highlights

  • If true, the Marines who urinated on Taliban bodies brought dishonor on themselves and unwittingly gave aid to their enemies

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  • After the 1968 Lai massacre, a new moral standard was set for our armed forces that persists to this day

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  • The Marines who misbehaved will be disciplined, while those who are trying to exploit the images to undermine their mission never will be

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Let’s stipulate three things about this video purportedly showing four Marines urinating on the bodies of their Taliban foes.

First, we don’t know the whole story of how or why the video was made or even the context. Second, if those Marines did do what it shows them doing, they brought dishonor on themselves and have unwittingly given aid and comfort to their enemies.

Third, there are those who are consciously giving that aid and comfort by using the video to traduce the most civilized and humane fighting force in history.

It’s true that warriors desecrating their dead foes is at least old as Homer’s “Iliad—true but irrelevant. It’s also true that Americans in previous wars have behaved as badly in the heat and aftermath of battle as these Marines, and even worse.

"To this mindset, Abu Ghraib trumps the crimes of Saddam, Gitmo overshadows the horror of 9/11 and four men peeing on a corpse nullifies our mission in Afghanistan."--Arthur Herman

Cpl. Eugene Sledge’s memoir of fighting on Peleliu and Okinawa in World War II has harrowing scenes in which his Marine buddies collect the gold teeth of dead Japanese—although, Sledge was quick to add, “I never saw a Marine commit the kind of barbaric mutilation the Japanese committed if they had access to our dead.”

Nor did he see his fellow Americans deliberately murder civilians, as Japanese and German soldiers regularly did in that war. Sledge and his comrades never condoned the random acts of barbarism of their comrades, but they understood it in the context that their enemy lived by doing far worse.

That’s pretty much the way it was from the American Revolution to Korea. Then something happened in the Vietnam era, when those who opposed the war decided they could speed up an American withdrawal by turning us into the bad guys.

The 1968 My Lai massacre offered that opportunity, and they greedily seized it. A new moral standard was set for our armed forces that persists to this day. It said how our troops behave under fire would be as important to judging the success of the mission as whether we won—indeed, in the minds of many, more so.

The catch phrase was and is, how we fought a war had to reflect “who we are as Americans”—meaning as civilians sitting at home comfortably removed from battlefield death.

After Vietnam, our politicians demanded that our armed forces be trained to wield the most lethal weapons ever made, with the moral and cultural sensitivity of Peace Corps volunteers. To anyone who knows history, our troops have met this challenge with overwhelming and unprecedented success—as our real record in Iraq and Afghanistan attests.

But it has left our military trapped in a strange double bind, one reflected in the furor over this video. If Somalis drag our dead through the streets or Iraqi insurgents dismember captured Marines or the Taliban gang-rape and mutilate women to enforce their vicious version of sharia law, the media treat it as irrelevant to understanding who we are fighting, or why. They even suppress those stories and images—such as the beheadings of Daniel Pearl and Nick Berg. Their grounds for that censorship is that such reporting might “inflame hatred”—in other words, make us fight harder.

On the other hand, if an American warrior oversteps civilized bounds, his behavior becomes proof that our mission is a moral failure and no longer deserving of support.

To this mindset, Abu Ghraib trumps the crimes of Saddam, Gitmo overshadows the horror of 9/11 and four men peeing on a corpse nullifies our mission in Afghanistan.

This perspective is profoundly sick. It’s divorced from reality—one reason, I suppose, that it appeals to politicians and the media.

It’s even suicidal, as our enemies have been quick to discover. Who can forget Saddam Hussein’s “milk factory” during the first Gulf War or the al Qaeda manual that instructs trainees to cry “torture!” the minute they’re captured? It also led to the shooting at Fort Hood; no one dared to stop a raving jihadist in uniform for fear of being called an Islamophobe.

After all, who were the greater culprits in Vietnam, the men who fired on innocent civilians at My Lai or those who used it as an excuse to hand South East Asia over to the communists and genocide?

If experience is anything to go by, the Marines who misbehaved in that video will be disciplined and punished—while those who are trying to exploit those images to undermine their mission never will be.

Arthur Herman is a visiting scholar at AEI.

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About the Author


  • Arthur Herman is a historian and author of the Pulitzer Prize finalist Gandhi and Churchill: The Epic Rivalry That Destroyed an Empire and Forged Our Age (Bantam, 2008), the Mountbatten Prize–nominated To Rule the Waves: How the British Navy Shaped the Modern World (HarperCollins, 2005), the New York Times bestseller How the Scots Invented the Modern World (Three Rivers Press, 2001), and many articles on foreign and military policy. At AEI, Dr. Herman authored a new book that traces the mobilization of American industry, technology, and material production over the course of World War II.
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