To Secretary Panetta: A Plea for Compassion in the Case of Desecration by U.S. Marines
Last week, first lady Michelle Obama announced a renewed level of commitment to support research and aide for the mental health of America’s veterans. A growing number of those returning from Iraq and Afghanistan are suffering from Post Traumatic Stress Disorder, and/or depression -- diagnosed or otherwise -- and an overall difficulty assimilating back into civilian life. While science is scrambling to understand these disorders (as well as the enigmatic conditions that sometimes result from brain injuries), alcoholism, divorce, unemployment and suicide statistics among veterans remain some of the highest of any other groups. Mrs. Obama’s focus was on medical educational institutions training new doctors in the treatment and understanding of these difficult conditions.
Despite the First Lady’s efforts to call the attention of the nation to these issues, the prevailing story circulating the 24 hour news networks since last Wednesday is the apparent desecration of alleged insurgent dead by four US Marines in Afghanistan. If it is, in fact, how it seems, anyone would condemn these actions as reprehensible. But no condemnation should be without compassion, and no compassion can be without an attempt at understanding.
It is within the bizarre and cruel tableau of war that men do bizarre and cruel things to each other. But these Marines are not monsters; they are human. And despite what some would say, our adversaries in the Global War on Terrorism are human beings as well. It is precisely because of this humanity that war is such a horrible and tragic ordeal, and thus so mentally trying. As civilians, this now notorious act of desecration would have seemed unthinkable to these Marines. It is only after enduring constant combat operations day in and day out that such an immoral act could be considered acceptible, even humorous.
Indeed these Marines should have considered how images of their insensitive act would endanger their brothers and sisters in arms, and ultimately serve to weaken the efficacy of the American mission in Afghanistan. One moment of indulging in an act of sick gallows humor can partially undermine years of nation building. Whoever leaked the video, regardless of his or her intentions, should be reminded how the United States responded to the desecration of American bodies in Iraq in 2004. The US responded with the second invasion of Falluja. A single image can motivate thousands to act, and in this day and age someone is always watching.
But those who sit in judgment of these Marines and their wildly inappropriate actions should take a moment to remember that we ask more of them than we will likely ever ask of ourselves. Urinating on a dead human body is a deplorable act, but given the situation, the Marines likely regarded the act of taking the insurgents’ lives with more weight and severity.
These Marines deserve admonishment, but not without compassion. Secretary Panetta, in his zeal to “punish those responsible” would do well to apply equal energy toward the identification and prosecution of those who desecrated the remains of U.S. servicemembers whose partially-cremated remains were so callously and improperly dumped in a Virginia landfill. These Marines who have been tried and convicted in the court of public opinion, who may have never committed a crime, and continue to struggle with the ghosts of this war deserve our compassion most of all.
Once this story has played out, and the fickle attention of the national media has shifted to the next shiny bauble to catch its eye, perhaps we can all refocus on the truly critical tasks at hand: winning wars and caring for our warfighters.