Vincent Safuto’s Weblog

Notes and observations

Misbehavior by U.S. troops is nothing new

After reading about yet another incident of American troops disrespecting enemy dead, I have decided that I have to comment on these shocking actions, as well as the news media’s reaction to them.

For people who have never served in the military, it’s easy to conclude that the United States armed forces are the greatest, fairest, most moral and most ethical expression of the American reality to be found, and that – oddly enough – there must be something in civilian society that causes people in the military to misbehave. “The civilians made me do it” may not play that well at a court-martial, but the implication that civilians are out of touch with the military and don’t care about the troops is something every member of the military can relate to, even if it’s not true.

While civilians are presented to the troops as slovenly, fat, focused solely on money, inept, lazy, stupid and often secretly disloyal to the nation, the military is presented as a perfect society, and its personnel are deemed to be the most honorable, ethical, moral, pure and obedient people who are totally focused on defending the nation and not on their own economic status or personal advancement.

Military bases are presented as places where the old verities of respect and regimentation are still honored, where all movement stops during the raising and lowering of the flag, where everyone stands for the national anthem in a movie theater, where men hold open doors for women and where sharp lines of authority and rank make for a society where “Sir” and “Ma’am” are heard regularly. Again, unlike in civilian society.

While the military is on a mission, civilians are just there and in the way, and mostly undeserving of the service and sacrifice of our noble warriors, the logic dictates.

I saw this in the late 1970s and early 1980s, when I served in the Marine Corps, and for a time I ate it up because it made me feel that I was superior to others. That’s a heady feeling. At that time, the military was seen very negatively. Interestingly enough, it seemed that Vietnam veterans had the most negative views back then of the military and its structure and actions. That’s a far cry from today, when veterans of that war wax almost nostalgic about their service and the military. The guy who shortsheeted your rack now is your best buddy ever, and the sergeant who made life hell is now a leader on a par with Eisenhower. Time does heal a lot of wounds – unless the Department of Veterans Affairs is paying you to stay “wounded.”

In basic training from Aug. 3 to Oct. 31, 1978, I received the indoctrination that said my bodily sacrifice was worth it. Unlike the “civilian slime” out there, I was becoming a real American with a true sense of history, a real respect for the flag and a better person. Let those unpatriotic slugs who wouldn’t sign up for four years with the eagle, globe and anchor wallow in their store-bought freedom, the instructors said, we were going to provide it. Maybe no one else loved their country, but we did. Maybe no one else respected the flag, but we did.

Just below the civilians in our estimation were the enemies of America, especially the Russians. The Soviet Union was, as President Ronald Reagan would later declare, the “evil empire,” and its people had no reason to live and no inherent worth. Its soldiers deserved to die at our hands, and there were a few guys, even in the aviation unit I was eventually assigned to, who probably would have posed with dead Russians or even parts of dead Russians if they were given the opportunity.

The Iranian hostage crisis gave us another enemy to despise. Marines vowed to avenge the honor of the American hostages, especially the Marine guards who were being held by the “students” as “guests of the Ayatollah.”

A rock group called The Knack had a big hit with the song “My Sharona,” and it was common for people to sing words to the tune in a song parody called “Ayatollah.” T-shirts with Mickey Mouse giving the finger and declaring, “Hey, Iran!” were popular and sold on military bases.

I deployed on the USS Tarawa in the latter part of the crisis, and most of us were eager to go to war with Iran, convinced that we’d capture Iranians and beat them bloody and senseless for what they had done. This was odd since many of us had taken electronics training in Millington, Tenn., with Iranians whose air force had bought F-14 fighters. They went from friends to hated enemies in a few weeks.

The disaster in the desert, when mechanical failures and other errors resulted in a hostage rescue attempt that failed, showed that the military was far from perfect, but again the blame was laid at civilian society. If civilians would only let the government spend all it could on the military, the logic went, there wouldn’t have been dead Americans in the sand.

It’s an integral part of the military training to convince recruits that the enemy, whoever he is declared to be, is a subhuman monster who deserves no respect, alive or dead. Sometimes, that enemy status was projected on civilians because of real or perceived offenses.

Oddly, we would become horrified at the news or even rumor that an American was mistreated while being held captive. “How dare they violate the Geneva Convention,” we would say, forgetting that it also applied to those we might capture.

Unfortunately, the demands of the war have resulted in lower-quality recruits, and I believe that the indoctrination and training they are undergoing is creating the problem of American atrocities.

The thing is, that “perfect society” we call the military has a very well-developed and historic system of jurisprudence, punishment and confinement. Members of the armed forces who get into legal trouble are the exception, but if that society was so superior, would it need the famed U.S. Disciplinary Barracks at Fort Leavenworth, stockades, brigs and other confinement facilities?

Discipline can and does break down under stress, and there are even high-ranking officers serving years in military prison for offenses such as contract fraud and bid-rigging on contracts for supplies for the Iraq and Afghan wars. Repeatedly going AWOL or UA, or telling your sergeant or company commander to go jump in the lake might lead you to “6, 6, and a kick” (six months’ confinement, six months’ forfeiture of pay and a dishonorable discharge), but there are countless other offenses.

Call me disloyal, call me an America-hater, call me anything you want in the comments. I just feel that in dealing with the Afghan (and, before that, the Iraqi culture), we’re dealing with a culture that’s ultra-sensitive to offenses, and in the midst of an armed occupation by strange people with strange customs and values – to them.

Teaching young men that the culture they are entering into in Afghanistan is inferior and that the people are subhuman – especially when insurgents are mixing with the civilian population – is a recipe for disaster. If Afghans in Kabul burn a Bible, there are not explosions of protests and violence in Birmingham, Ala., and Charlotte, N.C. If there’s even a rumor that a page of the Quran was somehow disrespected, it goes viral and soon there are violent protests in Pakistan, Iraq and Afghanistan, and in the latter two countries possibly the death of U.S. troops.

To many, this is the sign of a defective culture in Afghanistan and Pakistan, but there is a bigger question of whether we can even change it. Would we want strangers from another country coming to our neighborhoods and ordering us to change? I doubt it.

Troops’ belief in the inferiority of those whose freedom they’re trying to secure leads to efforts at defense that can lead to even more violence, with a spiral of atrocities and reprisals that can turn into an endless cycle of death and destruction.

A few misbehaving troops seeking an outlet for their frustration with their lot in life and their deployment to a foreign land may seek a few moments of amusement, but the trouble is that it comes at a time when such actions can become worldwide news. Back when photos were taken, developed onto paper and then passed around, it could take time for atrocity shots to become a public furor. Today, with digital photography prevalent, photos can be passed around in the blink of an eye.

Abu Ghraib happened because poorly trained and led troops, lacking education and insight, engaged in behavior that was wrong and a total violation of military codes of behavior, and triggered violence that cost a lot of lives. The troops and their leaders were punished, but the fact remains that the deeds were done, and they can’t be undone.

Back when I was in the military, civilians were not like those of today. Most today will turn a blind eye toward troops’ misbehavior, declaring that they can understand why service members might want to “cut loose” and “sow some wild oats” in their community, so long as property damage is limited and civilian injuries are few and minor.

Not wanting to be perceived as anti-military, or focusing only on misbehavior, the news media tends to soft-pedal stories about military misbehavior out of fear of appearing to be singling out a few troops, while the majority are doing what they’re supposed to.

The trouble is that news is the unusual, and that’s what this behavior is. Bringing it out is not an easy decision, but there’s a reality about the military that needs to be faced, and goes beyond the rose-colored stories we often hear.

The news media perpetuates the myth of the “perfect military” with gushing stories about honor, devotion, sacrifice and more. We often aren’t told of all the benefits that people who are serving or who were serving in the military accrue. The paychecks may seem small, but consider that they also get free housing, free food, free medical care, mostly free transportation and, after they leave the service access to education and a system of health care set up solely for them. For a civilian society that “doesn’t care about the troops,” that’s something.

It’s easy to point fingers and place the blame for the latest atrocity, but we have to realize that our troops are serving, and most are serving honorably, in a strange culture, under pressure that civilians such as myself can only imagine. That doesn’t justify posing with dead bodies, but let’s be realistic here: it’s been done before in all militaries.

It’s not right, and it’s something that needs to be stopped. I would hope that back when I was in, if we had gone to war with Iran and if the opportunity had presented itself to pose with dead enemies, some sergeant or officer would have ordered a halt to whatever we were doing.

In peacetime, serving in the military is almost a privilege, and it’s becoming that way again as cuts are beginning as the wars wind down. The Pentagon, seeing less growth in its budget, sees the drawdown as a bad thing, but it’s a chance for the military to repair itself and be ready for its next challenges.

As the need for troops declines, the military again can be very picky about who it accepts, and that should decrease the incidences of bad behavior. In the meantime, we have to be respectful of the military, but also realistic about its people.


April 20, 2012 - Posted by | Life lessons, Living in the modern age | , , , , , ,


  1. Couldn’t have said it better myself. Well done!

    Comment by Steve Couitt | April 22, 2012 | Reply

  2. Good insight. You write well. I agree to some extent. Many civilians do not know the difference between a Colonel and a Lance Corporal and it is a bit frustrating to see and hear families of field grade and above officers receiving “military discounts” and the like. I live near Quantico, and see a lot of this going on. You are also spot on with your contrast in the treatment of veterans in the 70s and today. Back then, the media and many in civilian life portrayed American troops as unstable and violent, largely to blame for a few real (and many imagined) atrocities in Vietnam.
    Of course, most of the invective against Vietnam vets was based on lies and misconceptions. Nearly all served honorably and well, even if they weren’t recognized at the time.
    Today public opinion has moved to the opposite extreme, painting every Tom, Dick and Sue who enlists or receives a commission on a par with Audie Murphy. This attitude is also based on misconceptions……about what the military does, what it can (and cannot reasonably) do, the quality of life for the average enlisted (which is way ahead of where it was only 35 years ago) and a general a lack of understanding about the military culture, which has become more and more distant from that of the average American as the last draftee citizen soldiers now apply for Social Security.

    Comment by James Benisek | March 2, 2016 | Reply

    • Thanks for your comments, James.
      I will confess that I have taken advantage of some free stuff for veterans, such as the Denny’s special on Veterans Day, the free Applebee’s burger and, last year, the free tickets to the Tampa Bay Rays.

      The latter was so successful that they finally had to make some rules because a few enterprising people were trying to sell the tickets, which were on the field level behind home plate. They’re doing it again this year, but only on Mondays (I work on Monday nights, so no more free tickets.)
      I had been very tempted to re-enlist in 1982, though they weren’t offering any more inducements (like money or stripes). I’m glad I didn’t. It was a fine thing to do, serving for four years, but I wanted to experience more in life.
      It’s interesting to read in the Military Times papers that many Marines now say they are bored. After all, as the guy who draws “Terminal Lance” put it, for the past 12 years they’ve been cycling through combat deployments and dwell time and home, and compared with that, just going out and training seems pointless.

      Troop boredom in peacetime is a problem, of course, and I saw it in the late 1970s. Even before World War II, morale in the draftee Army was pretty low. Check out the articles on Army life in Life magazine from 1940 to 1941 (pre-Pearl Harbor, of course) (available on Google books in full). The magazine had numerous articles on how frustrated soldiers were back then. Needless to say, that feeling ended after Dec. 7, 1941.

      I agree on the distance in American life between the military and civilian worlds. I always try to point out that while the military does have its good points, like any place else there are aspects that are not so good, and there are plenty of disgruntled people in the ranks.

      Take care, and thanks for commenting.

      Comment by Vincent Safuto | March 2, 2016 | Reply

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