A few days ago, a picture portraying a U.S. Marine sniper unit posing in front of a flag with a logo resembling that of the Nazi SS went viral on the Internet. It comes on the heels of the appearance last month of a video showing U.S. Marines urinating on bodies of dead Taliban soldiers.
The picture, taken in Afghanistan in September 2010, came to the attention of the Marine Corps at the end of last year, but an investigation found it not to be racially motivated, and the commander of the group of Marines decided that no disciplinary action was warranted. (The Marine Corps has, however, stressed that “the use of ‘SS runes’ is not acceptable.”) According to a Marine spokesman, “They didn't realize they were associating themselves with something that was racist, fascist. They saw ‘SS’ and associated it with ‘scout sniper’ rather than the Nazis.”
Compared to previous offenses perpetrated by the U.S. military, such as the Abu Ghraib prisoner abuse several years ago or the recent urinating episode, this incident can be deemed minor and rather harmless (though it has certainly triggered protests by various groups, such as the Military Religious Freedom Foundation and the Simon Wiesenthal Center). However, considering the perpetrators belong to an elite group, and that this is not the first example of inappropriate conduct by the U.S. military, I can’t help but ask myself why such incidents continue happening. Particularly in this instance, I would expect the U.S. military — for which I have great respect — to provide its recruits with comprehensive education beyond the use of weapons and military tactics, including history of past wars and conflicts. I don’t think it’s too unrealistic to expect U.S. soldiers — even young ones — to be aware of the meaning of the SS symbol, especially considering that older generations of U.S. servicemen, likely even grandfathers of soldiers currently in service, fought a war against Germany precisely to end the atrocities committed by the feared SS.
Last Friday, Marine Corps Commandant Gen. James Amos apologized to “all offended by this regrettable incident” and added that the Marines involved had been required to take a formal instructional class, “so that they fully understood the historical use of the SS symbology.” While I welcome this measure, I sincerely wish the soldiers had possessed this knowledge beforehand and had not committed this regrettable faux pas. It is for this reason that I think that thorough training — comprising topics beyond the strictly military — is crucial. I already expected a broad curriculum to be in place within such a respected body as the U.S. military, but this recent incident makes me wonder how comprehensive the current curriculum really is. Maybe this episode provides an opportunity for the Marine Corps (and other service branches within the U.S. military) to review their instruction practices and address its apparent flaws.
Even though the affair has reached the highest echelons and U.S. Defense Secretary Leon Panetta has now requested that the Marine Corps look into the matter, I suspect the incident has gone largely unnoticed amongst the broader public, and I imagine many people will wonder what the “big deal” is, especially since the incident didn't involve any casualties, torture, humiliation, or other deplorable practices.
But to someone whose great-grandfather died in a concentration camp where he was imprisoned because he did not agree with Nazi politics, the picture of the Marines posing with what clearly looks like an SS flag definitely struck a nerve. I sincerely hope the U.S. military will take appropriate action to stop such unfortunate incidents from happening again.
Photo Credit: U.S. Navy