In March I returned from Afghanistan’s Helmand province after handing about 12 square miles of villages and farmlands to the 3rd Battalion, 2nd Marines, the unit that is allegedly responsible for recording a video of Marines urinating on the corpses of Taliban insurgents. The actions of these few Marines have rightfully garnered widespread disdain, but for me the affront is personal. In a 42-second video, these Marines undid everything that my unit spent seven months working to accomplish.
Many civilians I’ve talked to about the incident act like it’s no surprise. Hollywood and media depictions have convinced them that war is filled with atrocities such as this one and that, but for lack of coverage, they’d hear more about them. But those of us who have worn the uniform don’t excuse these acts by saying, “War is hell.” There’s right and wrong in war, and we probably know that better than anyone else, because we’ve seen the life-or-death consequences of our decisions.
Before my first deployment, though, I wondered if it was true. People don’t usually talk about the wars they fight in. Maybe it’s because the things they would say are dark and unjustifiable. But then I went to Iraq and Afghanistan, where I faced combat and death, and I discovered that it’s nothing of the sort. There’s a shock the first time you deal with the aftermath of combat, but that soon subsides because there is a lot of work to be done. We would collect enemy bodies so we could engage in the macabre task of identifying them and gathering intelligence. When that was done, we’d hand the bodies over to the Afghan soldiers and police we worked with so that they could receive proper burial.
In my unit, I’m not ashamed to admit, we celebrated the death of the enemy. After one hard day in 2010 when we lost a Marine, we discovered two insurgents planting a bomb along a road. As the insurgents drove away, we shot a missile at them, killing one. Alongside the jubilation, we felt that justice had been served. At the same time, the insurgent who survived the blast was brought by locals to one of our bases for medical attention. So amid the euphoria, we also provided aid to the enemy. Doing so was required to accomplish our mission of building local support. But celebrating victory in battle is different than desecrating the dead. And it’s discipline and training that not only keep your moral compass pointing north, but also give you the courage to stop what you know is wrong. That’s what I saw time and again with 20-year-old corporals and lance corporals leading their units, ensuring that they didn’t stray from right into wrong. And that sense of morality is what I see missing in the video.
I can’t imagine what went through the heads of the men in the video, because desecrating the dead goes against every custom and value that the Marines hold dear. When the enemy is dead, they’re no longer treated like combatants. Despite the mortal conflict you’ve just engaged in, their humanity is revealed by their death. And in Afghanistan, you often have to look their family members in the eye as you hand over the body of their dead father, brother or son.
My mission with the 1st Battalion, 8th Marines Regiment was to make our sector of northern Helmand province safe for Afghan civilians through a combination of state-building, political development and security operations. The fight was tough and the enemy frustrating, but we were successful because of our commitment to winning over the local populace.
During our deployment, we worked to make the roads safe, strengthen the local economy, and befriend villagers and our Afghan army and police counterparts. We knew that building trust required thousands of cups of chai, countless meals sitting cross-legged on mud hut floors and a deep respect for the local culture and traditions. Five Marines in my company died in Afghanistan doing just this. After returning to the United States, we stood at a memorial for them and told their families that their sacrifices weren’t in vain.
It was true then. But is it now? Marines and all other service members understand intuitively the effect that this video will have on the war. Whatever comes of an investigation, this is a significant blow. Already, some are saying that this will affect peace talks. But the consequences for the Marines on the ground will be felt in the increase in bombs under their feet and bullets flying by their heads. Before I left Afghanistan, we worked with the local government to install cellular towers in the area where this video was shot. Now, with a basic cellphone from the local bazaar, members of the Taliban can show villagers at every shura in the district what Marines do to Muslims when they’re dead.
That’s why my fellow Marines and I are infuriated by this video. We know there’s no moral gray area when it comes to dealing with the dead. When you’ve killed your enemy, the fight is over — and in Afghanistan, you hand the bodies over for a Muslim burial. If we can handle Osama bin Laden’s body with respect, we can do the same for an insurgent fighting for what he believes is his family pride.
My old unit is going back to Afghanistan now. Talking to the Marines before they left, I knew they were going into a tough fight. They’re headed to an area not too far from where we and the 3rd Battalion, 2nd Marines were stationed last year, and they’re going to do the right thing. Because that’s what the military does. Except the fight just got a lot tougher.