This first appeared in The Havok Journal on March 28, 2014.
Recently the Marine Sniper at the center of the “pissing on the bodies” incident spoke to the Marine Corps Times on camera. There are two (as with anything) glaringly obvious, completely different, opinions on the resulting punishment. Actually, there are three predominant opinions, but I’m going to exclude the one I think is irrelevant (those that simply disagree wholeheartedly with the act, and judge the man completely and without remorse because of it), screw you guys… I disagree. But the other two, I want to continue the debate on, because it seems I may side with the minority by reading comments on articles regarding the situation.
Let me start with why I feel the way that I do. War is hell, I completely agree. The shit we on the front lines go through on a daily basis, whether action occurs or not, is enough to make a person crazy. And as such, many men do go crazy and in varying degrees. The Infantryman (insert your own combat arms profession if you desire) must have the ability to laugh and find humor even in war. This is true for any stressful situation in life. If you stay constantly stressed, sad, depressed, horrified, mentally beaten… in any situation… you will, inevitably, go insane (possibly become a serial killer or commit suicide). I lost a leg. Doesn’t matter how I lost it (IED), but I lost it. I have to find humor in it. I make jokes about it. My feet only smell half as bad as they used to, I save a lot of money on socks, the girl I date is grossed out by feet so with me she has one less to deal with… you get the point.
If I just sat around and moped about the fact that I’ve lost that leg all the time, I’d go mad, I wouldn’t be able to function as a normal person. Warfighters are trained to kill, duh… we know that, it’s in the job description. You’re hardened to the thought of it as much as you can be before ever entering a combat situation. So, you spend your days as an actual warfighter going on patrol after patrol, wondering in your mind if you’re going to make it back alive that day. Whether you receive contact or not, that messes with your mind. Then eventually you do receive contact, often times it’s just rockets or IEDs, and the enemy gets one or more of your friends. But we don’t get any of them; they aren’t there to be gotten. The bombs or mortars were on an unmanned initiation device. It’s frustrating. You just watched your friend get blown up, and there’s nothing you can do about it right then.
Finally, one day you get contact, and this time you get them. The feeling is euphoric. It validates to you that you’re not just losing your brothers for nothing. You high-five each other because you are elated, thrilled, excited, HAPPY, that you finally got one of the bastards who have been sucking your life force energy from your very soul and making you feel less and less alive. To quote Captain Spears from Easy Company, “Blithe, the only hope you have is to accept the fact that you’re already dead”. That’s how I felt after leaving the wire the first few times. The anticipation of what was possible caused me to lose part of myself, writing death letters to my loved ones sealed it off forever. I came to abrupt grips with my own mortality and the fact that I may not ever live to experience my perception of a full and normal life, and all of this at a young age. So I fully understand the need for the morbid, crass, disdain humor towards our enemy. We bond over it, we take comfort in it, and it helps us to still feel human.
However, I do not fully or blindly condone these Marines’ conduct. I have been there, done that. My credentials on the matter speak for themselves. I do not claim to have the kills that these men have. But I was there. I lost my friends, my comrades, my own leg. I have policed up bodies both of the enemy and my own brother’s. I lay in the hospital at Walter Reed, in Ward 57, listening to the screams of the men in agonizing pain. It felt like torture at times, just having to listen to my fellow wounded. It often made me cry silently and wish for it to stop, simply to save myself the discomfort of having to hear it. And also, there were times where it was me who was screaming in pain so loudly; that I know my brothers could hear me in every room on that floor. None of that changes the fact that I, personally, would not piss on the enemy. I wouldn’t drag their bodies behind my vehicle. I would not set them on fire. I wouldn’t cut off ears or fingers and keep them as trophies. I’d keep a rifle or a sidearm, maybe a knife, but that’s about the extent of what I would take from a dead enemy combatant.
Does this make me less of a soldier than you? Damn you if you think so. I can promise with all the conviction in my heart that I would have no problem putting effective fire on the enemy, even today (minus my ability to shoot very well as I also lost most of the vision in my right eye) I would have zero remorse for any body-count I created. Aside from innocents as collateral damage, I have no remorse. Even when it comes to the innocents, as long as I know it was accidental, my remorse is low because war IS hell. I don’t have a hard time sleeping at night due to remorse. Honestly, I romanticize war… I miss it, almost all of it really in some way.
Don’t get me wrong, if I was there again, it’s not like I would never complain or long to be home again. But it’s a double-edged sword for me. Do I miss seeing my buddies die? No, but I do miss being part of a group of men performing a job of such great importance that our own lives were held in the balance. I miss the camaraderie, as do most who have served and gotten out. I miss the adrenaline rush of hearing bullets whiz by, the jump in my heart when a mortar went off nearby. The rush I felt when a rocket flew just over my head and exploded into the mountain behind me. I can honestly say I loved war more than I hated it, it cost me a lot personally and a lot of my fellow warriors much more. Yet I wouldn’t change a thing. It was an honor to serve, and I will forever carry that service with me for the rest of my life.
We signed up for the US Military, not the French Foreign Legion, not Al Qaeda, not anyone else’s military, but the U.S. Military. You are told from the very beginning that you are to be held to a higher standard. We learn that once an objective has been cleared, anyone left alive is to be given quarter and treated in accordance with the Geneva Conventions. It irritates me to see people brush off the Marine’s conduct simply because “war is hell”. So what? I lived it; I don’t feel the need to desecrate the bodies of the enemy. If I can restrain myself, so can you. Now, do I believe that the Marines in question were bad apples who deserved to be shunned and discarded? No, absolutely not. They were in the moment and they didn’t think it through. I would not have thought it was cool to see them piss on the bodies, but I would not have hated them for it.
I would have laughed in the awkward way I do when any of my friends do something I find embarrassing, probably would have said “Damn, ya’ll ain’t right” and would have gone about my day. But that’s about as far as I could let my brothers take it. You better believe I would take issue if you started cutting off body parts. And that’s where the issue really lies. You have to have some standard of ethics and conduct even during war. Oh sure, we could be savage and ruthless and just kill, rape, and pillage everything in our path like Armies of the past have done. But then we would be viewed as horrible people, not just by the rest of the world, but also by our own citizens, probably even many in our own families. It’s not what we do. We’re America, supposedly the worlds shining light of hope and freedom, and we sit on the moral high ground atop all other countries. At least, that’s what we tell ourselves. And that’s what we strive for.
The real issue here to me was that they filmed the act. And yes, because of that, they deserved punishment. Was I the leader in the field that day and my men did it without a camera, I would have simply laughed it off, scolded them comically for it, and drove on with the mission. But if I found a guy cutting off digits or facial tissue, best believe I would slam him for conduct unbecoming a U.S. Soldier. Here the men made that mistake, in the moment, of filming something that they should know would stir up a shit storm if it ever leaked to the masses. They made a very big political statement. It sucks, and I hate that their careers were ended, but I would not simply give them a free pass considering the video. An example had to be made, otherwise, the leadership would be turning a blind eye and encouraging that behavior, which would inevitably lead to worse behavior.
Our goal in this war is not to wipe the Afghani people off the map, although truth be told, I would be ok with it. I hate that culture, and I don’t see any way to really change them, try as we may. Total annihilation is the only thing I believe will ever get rid of the horrible way they treat women, Bachi Boys (“dancing boys”, these are young boys used as sex slaves), and in general themselves and others. But the rest of the world would have issues with this, and so would many of our citizens. So as the army of the leading civilization in the world, we are attempting to assimilate the Afghan culture. Convince them slowly but surely that our culture is better and more humane than theirs. We can’t do that if we are acting like adolescent bullies, desecrating their kin, making light of their personal losses.
Regardless of the fact that they were trying to kill us, to their fellow countrymen, they are a brother, cousin, son, or father. No matter what kind of atrocity anyone that close to you committed, I am sure that you wouldn’t want the body of your brother, uncle, father, son desecrated. They will not respect us for it, and what’s more, even if some of them fear us for it, more of them will be emboldened to fight us over it. It will give the enemy that much more credit, make those sitting on the fence say ‘fuck it’ and side with the Taliban, they have more in common with them anyway. It is not a recipe for success. So I say to any of you who defend the men blindly by saying ‘war is hell, it’s not cupcakes and rainbows” that I am glad you are not in charge of this civilization, because if you were, I would be afraid to see what kind of society we could devolve into. Yes, there is a place for a steely-eyed killer in my Army, but that killer is also a professional who DOES know when to have compassion, heart, respect, and at the very least, restraint (you may not respect your enemy, but you can at least restrain yourself from inappropriate actions). Yes you can have both. There have been many before you who conducted themselves that way, and there will be many more after you. That is this warfighter’s opinion anyway.