Another Reason Not to Go to War So Often

By now, everyone has either seen or knows about the video of U.S. Marines urinating on the corpses of dead Taliban fighters. Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta said that “the conduct depicted in the footage is utterly deplorable.” According to Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, the actions of the Marines in the video are “absolutely inconsistent with American values and the standards we expect from our military personnel.” Not surprisingly, Afghan President Hamid Karzai is none too pleased: “This act by American soldiers is completely inhumane and condemnable in the strongest possible terms.”

But not everyone seems to feel that way about the incident. Rep. Allen West (R-Fla.), a former U.S. Army lieutenant colonel, says that “the Marines were wrong” but that critics need to “chill” and that “unless you have been shot at by the Taliban, shut your mouth.” But this should come as no surprise, since West is apparently from the school of “the ends justify the means.” His Army career was cut short after he fired a gun near the head of an Iraqi detainee to scare him into divulging details of a suspected ambush. For that, he was relieved of his command, fined $5,000, and given a full military pension.

GOP hopeful Rick Perry also does not condone the Marines’ behavior, but like Allen, he believes condemnation is uncalled for. Indeed, according to Perry, “what is really disturbing to me is the over-the-top rhetoric from this administration and their disdain for the military.”

Leading the chickenhawk brigade is Bill Kristol at The Weekly Standard. Kristol believes that urinating on corpses (arguably a violation of the Geneva Conventions, which forbid “outrages upon personal dignity, in particular humiliating and degrading treatment” and require that “the dead are honorably interred”) is the equivalent of Gen. George S. Patton urinating in the Rhine and Winston Churchill doing the same on Hitler’s Siegfried Line (the same arguments Rick Perry made) in World War II. Instead of The Weekly Standard, it should probably be The Double Standard, because Kristol would almost certainly be more than outraged by a video of Taliban soldiers urinating on American dead. (Read my good friend and fellow contributor Kelley Vlahos’s excellent commentary on Kristol et al.)

Beyond the arguments about the incident itself, however, are two important issues raised by what transpired.

First is that we have seemingly elevated the military — both the institution and the individuals who serve in it — to heroic status, much like Rome’s legions. To be sure, many in the military have performed heroic actions. One such person is Marine Cpl. Jarred Adams, who was awarded the Silver Star.

It was Jan. 5, 2005, and the Marine from Palmer, Alaska, was in a Humvee, providing cover for a reconnaissance team sweeping through Husaybah, the infamous gateway for guns, money and insurgent fighters making their way into Iraq.

Adams’s unit was heading for the “intersection of death,” so named by Camp Pendleton Marines and others for the frequency of sniper fire, roadside bombs, and all measures of attack.

Shots rang out, followed quickly by rocket-propelled grenades. The Humvee exploded in a mass of fire and twisted wreckage before crashing.

Adams fought his way out, alive but seriously injured. He shucked aside the shrapnel wounds to his hands and left forearm, ignored the pain from his broken right arm and a sprained ankle, and set about helping his buddies.

Armed with an M40 sniper rifle and a 9mm handgun, Adams charged back to a Humvee where some of his friends had not been so lucky. With bullets whizzing by, he retrieved the body of Lance Cpl. Julio Carneros Alvaraz, a young son of Texas who died in the explosion.

But not everyone in the military is a Jarred Adams. And just because the military has the likes of Jarred Adams in its ranks doesn’t mean that the military as a whole should have special status. For example, Disneyland offers to military personnel (active duty and retired) a 4-day discounted ticket for $138 (a similar deal is being offered to the public for over $200). There might be a case for making such deals to junior enlisted personnel (base pay for a private, E-1, is $1,491 per month, or $17,892 per year), especially those returning from a tour of duty in a combat zone. But does a lieutenant colonel with more than 10 years of service who makes $6,766 per month ($81,192 per year, exclusive of any housing or other allowances) really need a special discount? Ditto for a retired lieutenant colonel collecting 50% of his or her base pay (currently $8,199 per month, or $98,388 per year, for more than 20 years of service) who may be working as a government contractor making substantially more as a civilian.

Certainly, the men and women who serve in the military deserve our respect, but that doesn’t mean everyone who wears a uniform is automatically and unquestionably a hero. Yet many view those who serve in the military as heroes because we have been led to believe that they are defending the country and our freedom (I know this is what my daughter was taught when she was in elementary school). That may have been true during World War II. But at least since the end of the Cold War, the United States has used significant military force on at least 11 occasions:

  • 1989 invasion of Panama to arrest Manuel Noriega
  • Operation Desert Storm to force Iraq out of Kuwait in 1991
  • Enforcement of no-fly zones in northern and southern Iraq from 1991/1992 until U.S. invasion of Iraq in 2003
  • 1993 “Blackhawk Down” mission in Somalia
  • Haiti in 1994 to restore ousted President Jean-Bertrand Aristide to power and head off a potential wave of Haitian refugees
  • Airstrikes in Bosnia in 1995
  • 1998 missile attacks against Sudan and Afghanistan in retaliation for the bombings of U.S. embassies in Kenya and Tanzania
  • More airstrikes in Kosovo in 1999 against Hitler du jour Slobodan Milosevic
  • Operation Enduring Freedom after 9/11
  • Operation Iraqi Freedom in 2003 against Hitler du jour Saddam Hussein
  • Operation Odyssey Dawn in 2011 against Libya to support rebel forces against Muammar Gadhafi

Yet only one of those – the decision to take military action against the Taliban regime in the wake of the 9/11 terrorist attacks — was related to a direct threat to U.S. national security. But now — especially with Osama bin Laden killed by U.S. forces last May — the continued U.S. military presence in Afghanistan has little, if anything, to do with national security and more to do with nation-building (that and being able to conduct drone wars in Pakistan, which also has little or nothing to do with U.S. national security).

Which leads to the second issue: the policy that results in the use of military force. Like it or not, the unfortunate truth is that this sort of incident is bound to happen. There probably hasn’t been a conflict where one side or the other didn’t commit some sort of atrocity or similar transgression. That’s not an excuse for it happening, but it’s the reality of war. Why? Because the military is composed of human beings, and humans are imperfect and fallible. Mistakes and misjudgments will happen. Stupid stuff will happen. Even with a chain of command, that doesn’t mean the troops will always be under control or in control of their impulses. Probably more so when you’re talking about testosterone-infused 18- and 19-year-olds who believe what they’re doing is simply playing a Red Bull and steroids version of Call of Duty. This is why the use of military force (and putting 18- and 19-year-olds in foreign countries where they don’t speak the language, know the history, or understand the people or culture — they’re just there to kill those they believe are the enemy) should be reserved only for when U.S. national security is truly at stake.

Author: Charles V. Peña

Charles V. Peña is a senior fellow at the Independent Institute, a senior fellow with the Coalition for a Realistic Foreign Policy, a former senior fellow with the George Washington University Homeland Security
Policy Institute
, an adviser to the Straus Military Reform Project, and an analyst for MSNBC television. Peña is the co-author of Exiting Iraq: Why the U.S. Must End the Military Occupation and Renew the War Against al-Qaeda and author of Winning the Un-War: A New Strategy for the War on Terrorism.