Defense Secretary Panetta, Secretary of State Clinton and others in the Obama administration have condemned the Marines’ action since it’s likely a violation of the international Law of Armed Conflict and may even be classified as a war crime. Perry, who was asked to respond as if he were president, apparently didn’t realize the potential negative foreign policy implications. Furthermore, he obviously didn’t understand that as commander in chief, and at the top of the military chain of command, his comments could be construed as undue command influence and actually hamper the investigation and any subsequent disciplinary action. Perry, himself a former USAF officer, should know better.
As a potential commander in chief, Perry missed the mark with his response even though he was trying to make allowances for these young Marines (a sniper team deployed from Camp Lejeune, N.C.) who were operating in and reacting to a very stressful combat environment. The axiom “war is hell” certainly implies that, on occasion, the psyche of even the most highly trained warriors may give in to impulses that seem to defy logical human explanation such as the desecration of enemy dead; and history is full of examples. But Perry’s reasoning, and the ensuing debate that has arisen over this incident, highlights something that’s been troubling me for a decade: the long-term impact our post-9/11approach to fighting the terrorists has had on the men and women in our military.
In the immediate post-9/11 years, the previous administration, under the pretext of keeping America safe, set a precedent that compromised some of our most basic and long-held fundamental values by authorizing the use of “enhanced interrogation techniques” (better known as torture), the indefinite detention of any person by simply classifying them as an enemy combatant and the use of rendition (the illegal transfer of a detainee from one country to another, usually for nefarious purposes). While a few shrill voices on the political right still declare we gained “actionable intelligence” from these measures, these claims have been widely discredited by numerous sources. Writer and film director Sebastian Junger, who spent a year embedded with a group of soldiers in Afghanistan and directed the movie Restrepo, says this attitude has helped contribute towards the dehumanization of the enemy in the minds of our troops.
As Junger sees it, “When the war on terrorism started, the Marines in that video were probably 9 or 10 years old. As children, they heard adults and political leaders talk about our enemies in the most inhumane terms. The Internet and news media are filled with self-important men and women referring to our enemies as animals that deserve little legal or moral consideration.” In explaining the impact, he points out that as a society, Americans are disgusted by seeing the Marines urinating on dead Taliban fighters, but are unfazed by the fact that these same Marines presumably just fired high-caliber rounds into the dead men. As Junger succinctly points out, “A 19-year-old Marine has a very hard time reconciling the fact that it’s okay to waterboard a live Taliban fighter but not okay to urinate on a dead one.”
The young men and women who volunteer to fight our wars come from our society. And while it may seem somewhat illogical, there are rules of war that America’s fighting forces are expected to follow. If we, through our elected leaders and their policies, have contributed to a permissive society that has arisen through the compromise of our basic values and sends a signal that this kind of activity is acceptable, then we need to re-focus on the principles, morals and ideals that made our country the envy of the world for so many decades. Regrettably, that means holding these young men accountable for their actions; but we also need to hold ourselves and our elected leadership accountable. After all, it’s “we the people” who form this more perfect union.
Ken Lynn is a retired USAF colonel and is an adjunct online instructor with the USAF Air University.