Much has been made of this incident on which I reported Friday, and it reminds me of something else I witnessed many years ago. I was serving in the Army in Germany, and the year was 1985. I hadn’t been in my unit there very long when an opportunity arose to see a bit of the German countryside. Of course, the area I was able to look at on this trip wasn’t something most people younger than 35-40 really remember or understand, and it wasn’t a pleasure trip. Periodically, the battalion would charter a bus and take all the new people who’d arrived over the last ninety days on a tour of the border between West Germany and Czechoslovakia. It was a part of the unit’s effort to show us the ground we would likely defend, and the nature of the enemy we would face if a war broke out between the Soviet Union and NATO. On that fateful trip, our tour triggered an “international incident” due to the behavior of one of my fellow soldiers.
At various points along the path, the bus would stop, and we would unload and be told about the things at which we were looking. One of those stops took us right up to the border, onto a road that runs parallel and on the west edge of what had been the frontier between East and West. We could see the fences, and the razor-wire were hung with dew on the cold, damp, dreary morning. In easy earshot, never mind rifle shot, of a guard tower, we unloaded and looked around. We were under strict instructions to do no pointing or make any gestures of any kind, because they could be taken as a sign of hostility, and could lead at the very least to a serious incident, since the guard towers had not only machine-gun emplacements, but also cameras with which to document our tour. One of the geniuses in my unit thought it would be a great idea to walk off by himself and drop trow facing East, and take a whiz facing directly at the tower.
The public affairs officer who had us on the tour saw this and fairly tackled the guy. It was too late, as we could hear the rapid shutter snaps as a pictures were taken. It was nearly a three hour ride by bus back to our installation, and nobody said a word. As we pulled up at the Headquarters building, our Battalion Commander and our Sergeant Major(the battalion’s highest ranking enlisted man) were waiting on the sidewalk. The incident had been reported already up the chain on the Eastern Bloc side, traveled through diplomatic channels, and down through our chain of command, beating the bus back to our post by more than two hours. The Sergeant Major stuck his head in the door of the bus as fast as it opened, and pointed at the offending soldier and said simply his name and “You’re with me, NOW!” He and the Lt. Colonel disappeared through a crowd of suits I hadn’t noticed before, but our comrade in arms was effectively gone. This incident began the end of his short Army career. Even in 1985, the Department of Defense didn’t take lightly the notion of giving the “adversary” a propaganda victory.
The reason I recount this to you is because on Friday, after Congressman Allen West’s statement made mention that the Marines in the current incident should receive Field Grade Article non-judicial punishment, and there was murmuring from some quarters that nothing should happen to them at all. I wanted you to know that such a punishment was precisely the first step in disciplining a soldier back in 1985 when our unit’s urination incident occurred. While it’s easy for you and I to say that yes, “Hooah, piss on those corpses,” more is at stake in this situation than four Marines’ momentary indiscretion. At present, our government is negotiating with the Taliban, and whether you or I, but particularly those Marines like it or not, they are servants of this nation’s foreign policy, no matter how much any of us think that policy is mistaken. Soldiers don’t make foreign policy, but must serve the chain of command in implementing it.
My fellow veterans will know precisely what I mean, because they understand that once you put on that uniform, you are not a sovereign individual for the length of your service. This is one of the reasons I chastise police officers who occasionally like to think of themselves in terms of a military organization. As I point out to them, if they’re in the midst of a stand-off, they can surrender their badge and walk away, and other than the difficulty they might have in ever working in that field again, they face no real consequences. If a soldier tries that on the battlefield, he may well be shot. It’s for this reason, this matter of unit discipline that these soldiers must be prosecuted and punished in some form by the chain of command. I don’t like it in this case, and I wish it weren’t so, but that’s the truth of the matter, and I owe it to tell you so, much as any person among their chain of command might feel sympathy for their position, but must nevertheless contend with the issue at hand.
It’s for this reason that I understand Allen West’s statement all too well. It’s the mark of a solid leader that he understands what must happen in this case, despite the fact that he may well not like it. These four Marines are in for a hard time over this incident, and you had better prepare to read of their eventual punishment.
On the other hand, I suspect the Obama administration may seek to make an unduly harsh example of these four, and I hope that isn’t the case. Since the State Department has been negotiating quietly with the Taliban for some time, I expect this will now become a new sore spot. While I believe that we shouldn’t be negotiating with these people, it is nevertheless current US foreign policy, otherwise known as “elections have consequences.” I just hope for the sake of these Marines that they’re not dealt with in a severe fashion in order to appease the Taliban. That’s the biggest worry they now face, and I hope this will serve as a reminder to service-members everywhere that you are an instrument of US foreign policy, so it’s best not to do these things, and it’s certainly not a good idea to record it, much as I suspect I’d have felt and perhaps acted in much the same way had I been among them.
Note: For those of you who are too young to really remember the Cold War, or in fact, for anybody who wishes to refresh their memory, I’d encourage you to check out this site, from which the image above was gathered, as the gentleman who runs the site seems to have served there contemporaneously with me, and you can learn a good deal about what it was really like.