The Stench

by Dewaine Farria

NAIROBI—On August 29, 2012, the U.S. military disciplined three Marines for urinating on Taliban corpses in Afghanistan last summer. The Marines received an as yet unspecified non-judicial punishment. Non-judicial punishment under Article 15 of the Uniform Code of Military Justice includes measures such as reduction in rank, extra duty, forfeiture in pay, or restriction to base. Let me be plain here: In the Marine Corp, being “NJPed” is a slap on the wrist.   

People who have not served in the military are often hesitant to criticize those who have. We are even more hesitant to criticize those who have been in combat. Since the end of the Cold War, there has been a palpable disconnect between those who have served in our nation’s wars and those who have not. The United States has been engaged in combat operations in Afghanistan for over 10 years, and it has hardly affected most U.S. citizens. While the U.S. military has been at war, the rest of us have been watching American Idol. The vague sense of guilt this inspires further mutes our criticism of the military. It shouldn’t. The American public not only has the right but the responsibility to ask tough questions about what is done abroad in its name. Americans want to recognize something of themselves in the men and women in the armed services. Defiled corpses don’t reflect our values. Urinating on a human corpse is repulsive. What compels a group of young men to do such a thing?

It is impossible to serve in the Marine Corps without it having some effect on your personality. I joined young and did a lot of my growing up in the institution. For a time, I found my place in the Corps. It still feels like my hometown. Ask a Marine what he loves most about the Corps and the words you will hear mentioned most frequently are camaraderie, esprit de corps, tradition, history, and ethos. I loved the unembarrassed talk of honor, courage, and commitment. Marines say heartbreakingly cheesy things about the Corps with straight faces:  “There are no ex-Marines—only former Marines,” or, “You don’t join the Marine Corps—you become a Marine.” To this day, I listen to myself talking about the Marine Corps and find that I’m gushing. Part of the bond is the shared trial of Marine Corps Boot Camp. 

One of the things Boot Camp is designed to do is make would-be Marines comfortable with violence. The second or third Boot Camp training day is something called, “Combat Hitting Skills.” This involves being issued a beat-up pair of boxing gloves, placed in a small ring, and instructed to whale on a fellow recruit for 30 seconds. Your opponent is only allowed to defend. Then it’s his turn. Finally, you’re given a thirty seconds free for all. The drill instructors remove recruits with boxing or martial arts backgrounds: You are guaranteed an opponent just as clueless as you. We had only been training for two or three days. Most of us didn’t know how to fight yet (not really). So, what was the point?

A lot of kids have never been in a fight before. It’s important for these kids to understand that they won’t fall apart when they get hit; important for them to understand what it means to inflict “hurt” on command. Strike first. Strike fast. Strike hard. Once you’ve crossed the threshold of violence, you must allocate all of your resources to it. This is not an easy thing to do. Violence makes most people uncomfortable. We expect, no, we demand that 17-year-old Marines not only be comfortable with violence, but have the ability to dish it out, on command, in a controlled manner—to selectively dehumanize—to see another person not as a human being deserving of respect and kindness, but as an enemy to be shot. 

At the school of infantry, I sat in classes on the Geneva Conventions. The Marine Corps takes this topic very seriously. Instructors would illustrate points by citing flagrant examples of human rights abuses. I’d sit in class thinking, “Never.  Not me.  Never.”  During my five years in the Marine Corps, I only drew my weapon with the intention of shooting someone once. When it didn’t happen, my first feeling was not relief, but disappointment. I had been anxious to kill someone who had never done a thing to me and disappointed that I didn’t get the chance to. My ability to selectively dehumanize went awry. I caught a whiff of something repugnant in my soul. It was a difficult stench to shake.

Urinating on something makes that something less than human. That’s exactly how we demand those Marines view a living member of the Taliban—subhuman enough to be shot. The moment after the rounds strike, the Marines are expected to flick off the selective dehumanization switch. If the wounded combatant is captured, he should be rendered medical care; if he’s killed, the corpse should be viewed as human enough to not be defiled.

I am not offering excuses for the actions of these men. I am suggesting we view these actions for what they are—selective dehumanization gone awry; gone awry out of a misguided thirst for revenge or a young man’s desperate need to convince himself that he hasn’t just committed murder. Selective dehumanization, comfort with violence—traits the Marine Corps instilled (or at least reinforced)—gone horribly wrong. I am also suggesting we take a long, hard look at ourselves when discussing what was (for many of us) an unsatisfying verdict. 

How often do we have to be comfortable with violence?  For most of us, this trait holds less value than skill in parallel parking. As a society, our view on the use of violence abroad is at best skewed, at worst dangerously schizophrenic. Discussing war we use euphemisms. We talk about collateral damage, neutralizing, pacifying. We don’t like to talk about our government taking actions to destroy things and kill people. In the hyper-ultra-über-macho culture of the Marine Corps, we referred to ourselves as the “pointy edge of the spear.” As a young Marine I didn’t think much about the concept of someone wielding it. Policy makers, the public, all of us, use euphemism to intentionally obfuscate the details and realities of what is done in our name. As the old chestnut (usually attributed to George Orwell, but sometimes credited to Winston Churchill) goes:

“We sleep safely in our beds at night because rough men stand ready to do violence on our behalf.”

We demand these men be rough—comfortable with violence—but sleeping soundly in our beds we would prefer to be spared the details. What the speaker doesn’t mention is that that violence comes at a cost, both to those rough men and to those on whose behalf they act. Take a deep breath. You can catch a whiff of the stench at the end of the spear too.

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January 2012 was a good month for the U.S. Navy SEALs. On the night of January 24th, the same SEAL team that carried out the operation on Osama bin Laden’s compound in Pakistan parachuted through a low opening from a high altitude plane into Puntland, Somalia, took on a band of kidnappers and freed two hostage humanitarian aid workers. It’s the stuff of Tom Clancy novels. I happened to be in Puntland on mission when the news broke—I woke up in Galkacyo on January 25th to the American press cheerleading these brave men. They deserve the praise.

But we shouldn’t forget that this heroic act was carried out by men able to kick in a door, stare at another human being, and then put two rounds in his chest. The SEALs killed nine Somalis that day. And we cheered. We cheered men comfortable with violence.

Awful acts like that of U.S. Marines urinating on an enemy corpse have always happened in war. It’s naïve to believe that U.S. troops are immune to the strain of sustained combat operations. Most people will never have to point a loaded gun at another person; if the new normal is maintenance of forces that do so on a regular basis then we should recognize our role behind the spear and be prepared for the side effects. Ultimately, for better or worse, the American public gets the military that it demands.     

Now take a deep breath.

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Dewaine Farria is a Field Security Coordination Officer in the UN’s Department of Safety and Security.  He blogs at: http://fsconotebook.blogspot.com/.

[Photo couresy of Kevin S. O'Brien]

Originally posted on our partner site, the World Policy Journal Blog.

The World Policy Blog is the online counterpart of World Policy Journal - selected readings, expert analysis, and original opinions that complement the broader agenda of the quarterly magazine.