COLUMBIA — For every action, it is natural to expect a reaction, and — in the interest of hyperbolizing for effect — there is often a calculated overreaction. As has become the rule rather than the exception, this was the emotional response to the unfortunate incident of four Marines urinating on dead Taliban.
Before I take this any further, this is not an attempt to justify this behavior. It was immature and wrongful — a regrettable source of embarrassment to the Commander International Security Assistance Force, led by Marine General John Allen, and particularly to the subordinate Marine Battalion Commander, currently relocated stateside.
Nevertheless, they are not war criminals nor does their offense rise to the level of trial by courts-martial. However, when you view press conferences called by the Secretary of Defense and Secretary of State, the former calling for prosecution and the latter likening it to a possible war crime, one may correctly feel unease that these Marines could be thrown under the bus as a sop to public opinion here and abroad.
The incident is a legitimate news story and, as such, was the subject of the entire spectrum of coverage — newspapers, television, syndicated columnists and politicians. There has been condemnation, understanding, exaggeration and overreaction galore — enough to temporarily move the Republication campaign for president off the front page.
"Urinategate" (will we ever be freed from Watergate and its litany of successors?) as it is now known was put in perspective succinctly and correctly by U.S. Rep. Allen West, R-Fla. His assessment was that these Marines were wrong — that they should receive Field Grade Officer's Article 15 (nonjudicial punishment). He said in his final note, "As for everyone else, unless you have been shot at by the Taliban, shut your mouth. War is hell."
West speaks from experience, he commanded an Army infantry battalion in Iraq and is more than somewhat familiar with combat and the stressful nature of the aftermath. While not excusing the behavior, unless one has experienced seeing a buddy killed or maimed by rifle fire or roadside bomb or viewed the remains of those tortured by the Taliban, one has never walked in those shoes.
Media outlets, politicians and celebrities jumping to conclusions prior to fact-finding is not unusual, particularly as it applies to the military spheres of action. As has virtually every misdeed from the Iraq and Afghanistan wars, this urination on the Taliban resulted in the dredging up of old history — Abu Ghraib, Guantanamo Bay detention camp, Haditha and even Vietnam's My Lai as acts influencing our enemy to engage in retaliatory atrocities.
In review, each of these incidents were uncovered by military investigation and the culprits punished. The Abu Ghraib prison incident resulted from the nonsupervision of a small cadre of low ranking Army Reserve military police. The ensuing inane effort by media and Congressional anti-war activists to tie this disciplinary failure to the secretary of defense and the president went for naught. The culprits received punishment appropriate to the offense.
The 2005 Haditha incident was a horse of a different color. A squad of Marines was accused by a Time magazine reporter of murdering civilians in an Anbar Province attack. The late U.S. Rep. John Murtha, D-Pa., climbed on that bandwagon, accusing the troops of cold-blooded murder, likening it to Vietnam's My Lai without waiting for evidence.
The subsequent Article 32 investigation, the military version of a grand jury, resulted in the dismissal of charges against seven of the eight Marines. The remaining one is awaiting trial for negligent homicide. Murtha, a former Marine himself, cost himself the respect of his peers.
Our military's unflagging pursuit of good order and discipline requires leadership up and down the chain of command — that leadership, as is every human trait, is tested severely during actual combat. We see former military personnel treated for post-traumatic stress disorder after they return to civilian life — is not that stress equally acute during or immediately following a firefight?
The Marines' desecration of the Taliban dead is an abnormal act — but, what of war is normal? The mission of our armed forces at its lowest common denominator is to "break things and kill the enemy." There are rules of war; however, even when they are followed to the letter, there is little of war that is civilized or gentle.
The notion that the limited instances of wrongful behavior by our troops will incite our enemies to commit like atrocities has little basis in fact. The present enemy has a long history of barbaric behavior — beheading, stoning to death; they need no incentive.
We can all agree that these wrongful acts cannot go unpunished and that the incidents are news that must be published. But, for politicians and other celebrities to involve themselves before the facts are investigated is unhelpful at best. Government officials should limit themselves to offering regrets and condolences before the facts are presented and await the report of the investigative unit assigned the task under the Uniform Code of Military Justice.
Finally, I echo Congressman West's admonition — if you haven't been there, your opinion has little value.
J. Karl Miller retired as a colonel in the Marine Corps. He is a Columbia resident and can be reached via email at JKarlUSMC@aol.com.