By now, many of you have no doubt seen the video of apparent Marines peeing on dead Taliban insurgents in Afghanistan. It exploded on the Internet yesterday, and is the subject of international news coverage today.
My colleague, James K. Sanborn, is ably covering this story for Marine Corps Times. Given the focus of this blog, though, it seemed appropriate for me to weigh in here, too.
First, it’s worth noting that this appears to be an isolated incident.
The vast majority of U.S. service members do not behave this way in combat, including infantrymen I have embedded with in violent sections of Afghanistan. Obviously, there’s a natural tension, frustration and anger that goes with dealing with suicide bombs, improvised explosive devices and small-arms ambushes, but the behavior depicted in the video is not common or condoned.
Some questions do need to be answered, though. Among them:
What is the context in which this video was recorded?
The YouTube page contended that these are Marines from a scout sniper team with 3rd Battalion, 2nd Marines, out of Camp Lejeune, N.C. CNN has subsequently confirmed that they’re with 3/2, as well. The battalion spent most of 2011 deployed in northern Helmand province, Afghanistan, and lost six Marines and a sailor in combat during the deployment.
What had these men seen? What had they experienced? Maj. Gen. John Toolan, the Marine commander in southwestern Afghanistan, told me in the fall that some 3/2 scout snipers had potentially killed more than 100 insurgents each. There’s nothing definitive saying there’s a tie there, but it goes without saying that 3/2’s snipers had a dangerous, complicated mission. It doesn’t excuse the behavior, but it might explain why these Marines got carried away.
Who posted it online, and why now?
As Marine Corps Times reported yesterday, this video first surfaced on YouTube on Tuesday. It was posted by someone using an account called “semperfiLoneVoice” — quite possibly another Marine, based on the Marine Corps flavor to the name.
“I thought Marines were suppose [sic]to do the right thing when no one is watching,” semperfiLoneVoice said in a comment posted with the video.
There’s nothing saying that the individual behind the YouTube account was with the unit, though — or even a Marine. The battalion returned from combat months ago. Combat videos, including graphic footage, are shared online through e-mail and other sources, and the video could have moved beyond 3/2’s Marines pretty easily.
Was semperfiLoneVoice a disgruntled fellow member of 3/2? If so, did he try taking the video to his commander first? Or was the account user simply someone who received a copy of the video and was angry about what he saw? The YouTube account already has been closed, but the damage is done.
Who are the dead men in the video?
When a Taliban insurgent dies in combat, he is commonly carried away by those fighting alongside him. Marines and soldiers say they have a hard time determining what the body count on a firefight is for this reason.
These insurgents certainly appear to be dead, though — and no one had carried them away before the Marines reached them. Again considering that the Marines in the video may have been a scout sniper team, it seems possible that the dead were targeted at distance, and not in a run-of-the-mill firefight. We don’t have details on it one way or the other, though.
What else did these Marines do?
It goes without saying that gallows humor in combat — including inappropriate jokes about bodily functions, mothers and Afghans — is as common as bad food, bad weather and bad sleeping conditions. It helps to make life a little less scary in a life-and-death situation, and to fill in time when things are boring.
There’s a big jump between popping off at the mouth and desecrating a body, though — especially when a buddy is recording it on video for posterity’s sake.
In light of Commandant Gen. Jim Amos’ promise today to investigate the incident fully, it would stand to reason that these Marines will be put on the hot seat. If they performed this kind of action more frequently, this entire scandal could get more ugly.
What will the U.S. military do to reinforce the downsides of acting this way?
In March 2008, a video surfaced of a Marine throwing a puppy off a cliff in Iraq. It sparked widespread outrage, including among active-duty Marines. Nearly everyone likes a cute puppy, after all.
In this case, the “puppy” is a dead insurgent — and he probably wasn’t so innocent. Consequently, many readers already have downplayed the significance of the event, even if it becomes a Taliban recruiting tool, reflects poorly on the Corps as a whole or harms the war effort in Afghanistan.
Already today, military leadership has responded swiftly to make it clear they won’t tolerate it. Amos said the service “will not rest until the allegations and the events surrounding them have been resolved.” Defense Secretary Leon Panetta called the actions depicted “utterly deplorable,” while stressing that the origins and authenticity of the video was not yet confirmed.
That’s very unambiguous, but the message clearly hasn’t reached those defending these Marines — even though very few service members would even dream of recording a video like this.
A question for the future: How does the U.S. military reinforce to rank-and-file troops that just because insurgents don’t fight fair doesn’t mean our country’s ethics can be thrown out the window in combat?