The Green And The Gray
Copyright © by Len Holman, 1/21/12
The noble United States Marine Corps has a very red face. There is that video which shows four Marines urinating on three insurgent corpses. There is outrage and horror and consternation among those who are in the “winning hearts and minds” business—especially with talks with the Taliban imminent, as well as those charged with taking a fat kid from the city, this kid through boot camp, and turning him or her into one of the finest fighters in the U.S. military. This video certainly shows us as Ugly Americans, but its core feature is the reality check the Marines have, up ‘til now, been mostly free from facing: the gray miasma which is our culture.
The Commandant of the Marine Corps is quoted as saying that the incident is “wholly inconsistent with the high standards of conduct and warrior ethos that we have demonstrated throughout our history.” Well, General, welcome to the New Age. The Marines have fallen victim to the formless, public, leaderless, sloppy mess we call life in the 21st Century, and it is a big blow to them—one which they must withstand, one they must overcome if they are to maintain their mythos, and recapture the raison d’etre which makes them what they are. This messiness has infected the ranks and made some an embarrassment. The Marines operate, have operated, with an 18th century mindset, a samurai mindset, a Klingon mindset—all of which has allowed them to do the impossible, to continue forward where other services find the way blocked. This is a zealot’s mindset which has aided the Corps to do the horrific, self-immolating things it has be ordered to do.
Now, we have a Marine sniper team caught doing something truly unMarine-like, and the video is everywhere and the Marines have now realized that when the Emperor, however briefly, is without clothes, it’s no longer a private, in-palace affair. The Marines must be especially chagrined because they pride themselves on excellence of leadership—not just at the officer level, but all the way down the line of rank, so that if there are only two privates to make a decision, the senior one makes it. This incidence reeks of NO leadership at all; it’s a complete failure of a core Marine value, and one that is now public fodder. Chesty Puller, Dan Daly, Smedley Butler, Belleau Wood, Guadalcanal, Iwo Jima, Khe San, Falluja, Afghanistan—these names and places resonate with Marines and serve as place markers for the cultural landscape which is the U.S. Marine Corps. Only 19 men have received the Medal of Honor twice, and seven of them were Marines. Only two of these men got their medals for separate actions. There was Verrnice Armour, the first female African-American combat pilot in the U.S. military; “Pappy” Boyington, also a Medal of Honor winner, who commanded the “Black Sheep squadron; Evans Carlson, of “Carlson’s Raiders”; Ira Hayes, who helped raise the flag on Iwo Jima fame, and a host of other Marines who are legends. Without that context, they are just another very good fighting force and might as well be merged with the Army.
Those legendary Marines of yore are gone. In their place has risen a machine more gray than green. The fabled Marine Recon teams are almost gone, merged with special ops groups. The Green Machine is being asked to fight in dirty wars with few guidelines and no clear idea of what constitutes victory, while politicians fight over definitions and tactics and everything else. We, as a nation, pay homage to “fallen warriors” and all the rest of the clichés, while sending men and women—on the slightest pretext or to indulge a grudge or alter some geopolitical issue which cannot or will not be altered by diplomatic means—to die or spend the rest of their lives in physical and mental agony. Now the public gets to peek behind the curtain at some egregious behavior, and the fact the insurgents have done far worse is no argument for the incident at all. The most telling part of this is the lack of Marine leadership. It stands out so starkly because, while there is little to no leadership anywhere in our system, the Marines have always been one of the few exceptions. There is so much gray, so much slipperiness, that it’s almost impossible to say what is a lie or what is the truth, what is worth keeping and what needs to be thrown out—Abu Grahib, Blackwater and the Haditha messes clearly show that accountability is gone except for the lowest members of the military. The Marines have finally been caught by this mush of non-ideas and falsehoods and critiques and they must stand and deliver. They have never been ones to pass the buck—not from Captain to gunnery sergeant; not from staff sergeant to private. Their leadership classes and training demand accountability, especially since Haditha, where members of a Marine squad killed 24 unarmed civilians, and for which Staff Sgt. Frank Wutherich is presently standing court martial. That rattled the Marine Corps and led it to emphasize tighter rules of engagement.
The issue behind the urination incident can’t be fixed with a couple of classes. The Marines need to acknowledge the environment in which they now operate, that private citizens aren’t the only ones to be living in glass houses in this world of no secrets. Marines need to shore up their leadership and train from the top down. In case the Corps hasn’t been paying attention, President Obama is the “Military President” and has a 10-year plan for the military, and sooner or later that’s going to mean more combat for the United States Marine Corp—more messy, unclear, perhaps pointless, wars. If the Marines are to retain their unique status and keep their mythos for themselves, they must adjust. A Marine Corps without leadership is like Afghanistan without sand. The Marines can re-boot because they know what they need. Those Marines in the video are not The Proud, but they are The Few.
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