A military perspective on the Taliban urination video

Political commentary on the video of Marines urinating on Taliban corpses has been somewhat muted, thankfully.  Those who have waded in mostly done so along predictable partisan lines.  Some Conservative commentators have taken the position that “war is hell” and our troops should always get our unconditional support, especially when it provides an opportunity t0 score points against the Obama Administration.  This viewpoint is misguided.  This is not a political issue, it is a military discipline issue, and it should be left to the Marine Corps to handle the way they always handle discipline issues.

War is hell, indeed.  But war is also the extension of politics by violence.  The way a war is fought reflects on the character of those fighting it, and can directly influence the attainment of political goals from the conflict.  Therefore, war must be conducted in a manner consistent with the strategic objectives and political identity of the country waging it.  In the case of the US, we are the good guys, and we expect our wars to be fought consistent with the values we embrace as Americans.  We go to war for just causes, and we expect our wars to be fought with a sense of justice.

It is easy for things to get out of hand during war, even for the good guys.  Wars are fought by young men, many in their teens and early twenties, with still developing values and character.  They are placed in an environment where life is cheap and death is common, and are forced to make life and death decisions.  It is too much for some of them, especially in a counterinsurgency environment, where guerrillas hide within the population and appear to benefit from their support.  Anger, frustration, opportunity, and capability can combine in dangerous and tragic ways.  War crimes happen in every war, by every country participating.

Military commanders are responsible to make sure that things do not get out of hand.  To keep things under control under extreme duress, they rely on discipline.  Discipline is doing what you should do when you do not want to do it, and not doing what you should not do when you want to do it.  It is resisting impulses and urges in favor of exercising self control.  Discipline is the core of military professionalism.  Discipline must be practiced until it becomes automatic, so that under extreme circumstances it will not fail.  Discipline gives young men under fire a framework to fall back on when things get confusing and ugly.  By following the rituals of military discipline, soldiers continually reinforce the habit of adherence to standards and policies.

Sometimes military discipline can seem trivial, but it is a method born of long experience.  Professional military leaders from the time of the legions know that the best way to avoid big offenses is to prevent small offenses.  Once you get used to flouting the rules, any rule or law can be flouted.  Small crimes can become large crimes.  Mistreatment of the dead can become mistreatment of the living.  It is a slippery slope from mistreatment to rape, murder, and pillage, and Americans are not immune.  Military discipline is what keeps us from going there.

The United States Marine Corps is one of the most disciplined military forces on earth.  But every organization has individuals that fail to meet standards, and the Marines are no exception.  This video was a serious breakdown of discipline.  Mistreatment of enemy or civilian remains, to include photographing or videoing enemy remains, is prohibited under US policy and expressly against general orders issued to all US military personnel in Afghanistan.  The offending Marines were certainly aware of these orders, but they chose to ignore them.  The Marine Corps will NEVER tolerate that.

This video was not an inconsequential act.  US troops will die because of this video, just as surely as if those Marines had deserted their posts.  In counterinsurgency, the core challenge is to build trust with the local population so that they will cooperate with local security efforts.  Much effort is expended to build this trust, and many US troops have died conducting operations to establish local security and build trust in the population.  Any act that undermines this trust undermines those operations and wastes the sacrifices of the troops who died to build trust.

Muslims have very strong beliefs on the proper treatment of their remains, even those of the enemy.  Mistreating corpses makes us seem like barbaric animals to the Afghan population we are trying to win the trust and cooperation of.  This video gives the Taliban easy propaganda to undermine our efforts, and will help them recruit more suicide bombers.

Some commentators have tried to excuse this incident by pointing to Patton pissing in the Rhine.  Equating the two acts is rather stupid, since Patton peed in a river, not on a corpse.  Beyond that, this argument displays a fundamental lack of understanding of who Patton was and how he behaved.  Patton was known for exceedingly strict military discipline; for example, he instituting fines for not shaving daily in combat, and he had military police patrol war zones to enforce uniform infractions such as not wearing leggings.  Beyond that, Patton was an avid practitioner of information warfare, with a keen appreciation for the effect of public gestures. Much of his flamboyant persona was a deliberate act to give his troops a larger than life image to rally around.  His pissing in the Rhine was exactly the kind of calculated grand gesture he was famous for.  Were he in command in Afghanistan, he would have been apoplectic at the pissing video, because of how it undermined his strategic goals there.  He also would not have tolerated disobedience of general orders.

Others have taken offense at public denunciations by Clinton and Panetta.  Those of us who consider ourselves strong supporters of the troops need to understand this: the Secretaries of State and Defense are doing their duty.  Our allies are watching closely, and potential partners in the Muslim world are watching closely.   The US must quickly and strongly denounce this act, or it will drag on forever.  It is Clinton and Panetta’s job to make a vigorous condemnation, then pivot smoothly to subjects more favorable to the US.  It’s Public Affairs 101, folks.

I understand and share the urge to “support the troops” unconditionally.  But your urge is misguided in this instance.  What those Marines did has endangered their fellow Marines who are still in combat, who will now have to deal with extra RPGs sent their way by newly recruited insurgents who think we routinely piss on Muslim corpses.  Support those Marines, not the idiots who have made their job harder.

The bottom line is that the Marine Corps cannot and will not tolerate this kind of indiscipline.  They will move swiftly and decisively to punish those responsible.  That punishment will take place within the Universal Code of Military Justice (UCMJ), administered bya military judge and jury, and it will be consistent with the Marine Corps standards of discipline.  Most importantly, the outcome will be the same whether the President is a Democrat or a Republican.  The rest of us should keep that in mind and not fan the flames on this issue further.  Let the process work.