Every gun that is made, every warship launched, every rocket fired signifies, in the final sense, a theft from those who hunger and are not fed, those who are cold and not clothed. This world in arms is not spending money alone. It is spending the sweat of its laborers, the genius of its scientists, the hopes of its children … This is not a way of life at all in any true sense. Under the cloud of threatening war, it is humanity hanging from a cross of iron.
Behaving professionally is the key to success in many jobs, but coming to an agreement on what behaving professionally means in practice can often prove difficult. That seems to me to be especially true when it comes to the military. War is a brutal undertaking, especially when one considers the rules of behavior we ask those who fight to adhere to. Often the rules seem to be in conflict with human nature itself.
The desire for vengeance is a common human emotion. Under incredible duress, human beings often become enraged and behave in ways they might not have done otherwise. When someone is trying to kill you or, worst still, has killed those who share your profession in common, it’s hardly surprising that someone might experience a range of emotions that most people never will.
When a battle is being waged and an adversary retains the capacity to kill, soldiers are not asked to show mercy to those who do not share the same uniform and assault weapons in common. When the battle is over, however, and the adversary does not pose a threat, a different rule prevails. A soldier is expected to treat an adversary who no longer poses a threat the same as he or she would expect to be treated in similar circumstances, to adhere to the laws that apply to civilized human beings.
And yet it’s not always easy to distinguish between when the battle is raging and when it has ended, or to determine who is combatant and who isn’t.
In the end, military professionalism can be an elusive concept. It seems to have something to do with discipline, commitment, and skill, but trying to capture it in words is not the easiest thing in the world because war itself is fundamentally inhuman. And yet, having said this, most of those who have served in the military seem to have a pretty good intuitive understanding of what is expected of them as professionals. Take Dwight D. Eisenhower, for example, who I’ve quoted above.
Unlike Newt Gingrich, Mitt Romney, and Rick Santorum, none of whom have ever served in the military but all of whom are running to be Commander in Chief and also competing to be the first to launch an attack on Iran, Dwight Eisenhower actually served in the U.S. military. Indeed, he was the Supreme Commander of the Allied Forces in Europe during World War II and later went on to become the 34th President of the United States.
Having served in the military, he had an appreciation for its role in the scheme of things. He was a living embodiment of the concept of military professionalism. And he was not anxious to let loose the dogs of war on the world even though the world he lived in was far more dangerous than the world we live in today.
The last couple of weeks have not been good ones for those who believe in military professionalism. We have been treated to a video showing four U.S. Marines urinating on their presumably dead adversaries. Surprisingly, the incident has not seemed to evoked much outrage or shame among Americans generally. Indeed, one former Republican candidate for President essentially dismissed the whole thing as something relatively trivial. But as in so much of what he said, he was wrong, profoundly wrong.
The truth is that most of the outrage I’ve seen about that video has come from other U.S. Marines. While I’m sure I haven’t seen everything said or written about this incident, every comment I have seen from other Marines has been critical of what those four did. I have to say I find that oddly reassuring in some ways. Although it appears most Americans are indifferent, those who wear the uniform seem remarkably less so.
Here is an excerpt from a commentary by Ramsey Sulayman, who joined the Marine Corps in 1998 and is currently a major in the Marine Corps Reserve: “While I was shocked at the behavior of these Marines, I was even more shocked that so many Americans are willing to accept it. It’s perfectly O.K. to empathize with how these Marines felt about those who, presumably, were trying to kill them. Not being able to imagine the frustration of waking up every day to the prospect of losing life and limb or see that happen to your friends, and the stress that puts on Marines, strikes me as both callous and inhuman. I understand that frustration, but the bottom line is that professionals don’t cross the line.”
You can read his entire commentary on the incident here.
Sadly, these remarks are likely to be overshadowed by another development this week. On Tuesday a U.S. military judge sentenced a Marine squad leader charged with war crimes in Iraq to a maximum of 90 days in prison and a reduction in pay and rank. But because of a plea deal with prosecutors, Staff Sgt. Frank G. Wuterich won’t serve any time in the brig. In the end, Wuterich’s sentence amounts to a reduction in rank to private and a pay cut. Earlier, charges were dropped against six other Marines and a seventh was acquitted of all charges.
The trial of Wuterich, who pleaded guilty to one count of negligent dereliction of duty, ended a six-year investigation into one of the Iraq War’s worst attacks on unarmed civilians by U.S. troops. Twenty-four Iraqis died in Haditha. The dead included eleven women and children, a 76-year-old man in a wheelchair, and five men ordered out of a taxi and then gunned down. Wuterich, who acknowledged instructing his men to “shoot first, ask questions later,” defended his order to raid homes in Haditha after a roadside bomb killed a fellow Marine. He said his aim was “to keep the rest of my Marines alive.” While he apologized to the Iraqi family members who survived his squad’s attacks for the loss of their loved ones and said he never intended to harm them or their families, he went on to tell the court that his guilty plea in no way meant his squad behaved badly or dishonorably.
As one might expect, the plea deal did not sit well with the survivors and families of those killed in Haditha. “I was expecting that the American judiciary would sentence this person to life in prison and that he would appear and confess in front of the whole world that he committed this crime, so that America could show itself as democratic and fair,” said Awis Fahmi Hussein, one of the survivors, as he showed his scars from a bullet wound to the back.
It didn’t sit well with other Iraqis either: “Why is American blood so precious while the Iraqi blood is so cheap?” Hanaa Mohammed, an employee with Iraq’s Ministry of Planning, said Wednesday. “This is unacceptable ….” Lt. Col. David Jones, the military judge who presided over the sentencing (but was required to accept the plea deal), said: “It’s difficult for the court to fathom negligent dereliction of duty worse than the facts in this case.”
Whatever one may think of Wuterich and his unit’s professionalism, the Haditha killings left a lasting legacy for the U.S. in Iraq, one that will be further inflamed by the plea deal. If you want to know why the U.S. is hated in so many places around the world, feel free to take a look at this and this.
Are there lessons to be learned from all of this? Probably. But Americans don’t seem very much inclined to learn them.