As a former OCS trainee who has seen first-hand the high quality of person in the Marine Corps, I’ve been greatly saddened to read of the scandals that have been rocking it recently. And one is caught with the completely true contradiction in terms, that on the one hand what the various groups and individuals have done is not reflective of the entire Corps, that such behavior is not condoned by or in the spirit of the institution. And on the other that at some level incidents such as these do put the entire institution at fault, and cause doubt in the integrity and reputation of a fighting force that prides itself on both.
The response from various Marine and Marine-affiliated publications has been interesting, and in general encouraging. Richard Hicks’ column in the Marine Corps Gazette from January 17th does a good job laying out the issues and reaction to the Marines who urinated on the bodies of dead Taliban fighters. Most of us have heard about this case by now. Then, of course, is the recent verdict of “not guilty” in the trial of sergeant for the hazing of a lance corporal who later committed suicide has gotten everybody talking about that particular incident again. And now comesthe notorious picture of Scout Sniper Marines posing with an American flag and a very prominent banner beneath it, on which are SS runes. A USMC investigation determined that the use of the runes was not “racially motivated”, and that the soldiers involved may not have understood the implications of using the SS symbol. Given the amount of popular mythology out there regarding the Waffen SS and the Wehrmacht in general, I wouldn’t be surprised if that is indeed the case. An investigation of the wider implications of the incident is being conducted at the Secretary of Defense’s behest. Word is that it’s long been common to associate the SS runes with Scout Snipers. If that’s the case, it’s long been wrong, incorrect, and reprehensible. Brett Friedman’s article, again from the Marine Corps Gazette, makes a number of very good points, and has a lot of links to relevant articles. Going out on a bit of a limb, I’d generally agree with his incrimination of bureaucratization drowning professionalism as well. You can advance all the counter-claims you want, but I see little of value in a perfectly creased trouser leg while the body in the uniform has been left deficient in understanding the laws of war or the difference between good and bad moral symbols. You can be perfectly turned out as a Marine, or any member of the armed forces for that matter, but if you fetishize the Wehrmacht, let alone the Waffen SS, I say you are seriously deficient in the moral training any democracy or morally-conscious government should expect in its military.
On a more positive note, and speaking of leadership, Lt. General Hejlik’s blog, at the U.S. Marine Corps Forces Command, has a lot of good, thoughtful, and practical things to say about leadership–the kind of leadership to which everyone, in the Corps or not, should aspire. The gist of it is, leadership is a learned trait for most of us, and a lot of it is counter-intuitive to what we normally think of regarding the quality. If this is the case (and I think it is), then that only makes the issue that more important for the entire institution–top down and bottom up. I tend to be optimistic about the USMC where leadership and ethics are concerned, because I believe that the Corps’ leadership does take values, symbols, and behavior seriously. We’ll see where all this goes.