A scandal is now unfolding involving a video that administration officials reportedly believe is indeed authentic — a video showing a small group of Marines urinating on the bodies of dead Taliban fighters. Why should that video be such a big deal? Because such an act would violate the traditional norms taught by military commanders about how the U.S. military should behave. And also because the video could become a potent recruiting tool for the Taliban, Al Qaeda or for any group that seeks to gain members by pushing hot buttons to try and discredit the U.S. military…and the U.S. itself.
Reports suggest the administration and military officials are moving swiftly that those shown in it in the end won’t exactly get the same kind of payoff people may when they submit their home videos to ABC’s “America’s Funniest Home Videos”:
Defense Secretary Leon Panetta described video that apparently shows U.S. Marines urinating on the bodies of dead Taliban fighters in Afghanistan as “deplorable” on Thursday.
CBS News national security correspondent David Martin reports all four Marines in the video have now been identified, and charges could be brought within hours.
As investigators begin the job of determining who is guilty of what crime, the Marines are asking themselves a more basic question: “what made these guys think they could get away with this?”
The four Marines pictured in the video were members of a 1,000-man battalion which recently completed a combat tour in Afghanistan and returned to Camp LeJuene, North Carolina, where they apparently started showing the video around as a war trophy.
So who else knew about it? Certainly the person who took the video, but were those five marines by themselves or were others watching? And how many Marines subsequently watched the video?
According to Secretary of State Clinton, they all could be party to a war crime.
“Anyone, anyone found to have participated or know about it, having engaged in such conduct, must be held fully accountable,” Clinton said Thursday
This means if some Marines knew about it and watched the video or spread it they could be hauled in for questioning.
Martin points out that, while you can’t judge an entire unit by a few pictures, an officer who commanded troops in Afghanistan says other photos of the battalion in action last summer – showing a Marine sniper without his uniform or body armor – raise questions about the unit’s discipline.
The four Marines in the alleged urination video – and presumably the person who shot it – were also members of a sniper team. You can see one of them is holding a sniper rifle.
Two of the Marines allegedly involved have now been interviewed:
Military officials have interviewed two of four Marines in a video which shows them urinating on dead bodies sprawled out on the ground, a Marine Corps official told CNN Friday.
The Marines were not detained after the interview, the official said.
The names are not being made public, said the official, who did not want to be identified because the investigation is ongoing.
The identities were determined as officials in the United States and Afghanistan expressed shock and outrage regarding the video, which was posted Wednesday on a number of websites.
“I have seen the footage, and I find the behavior depicted in it utterly deplorable,” U.S. Defense Secretary Leon Panetta said in a statement. “I condemn it in the strongest possible terms.”
Panetta said he has ordered the Marine Corps and International Security Assistance Force Commander Gen. John Allen “to immediately and fully investigate the incident.”
“This conduct is entirely inappropriate for members of the United States military and does not reflect the standards of values our armed forces are sworn to uphold,” Panetta’s statement said. “Those found to have engaged in such conduct will be held accountable to the fullest extent.”
A senior Pentagon official said Panetta was “deeply troubled” after viewing the video.
Marine Corps Commandant Gen. James Amos said in a statement the behavior is “wholly inconsistent with the high standards of conduct and warrior ethos that we have demonstrated throughout our history.”
The video has also been denounced by the International Security Assistance Force:
The NATO-led International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) has strongly condemned the actions depicted in an Internet video clipping which showed U.S. Marines in Afghanistan apparently urinating on the bloodied corpses of Taliban fighters.
“This disrespectful act is inexplicable and not in keeping with the high moral standards we expect of coalition forces,” ISAF said in a press release.
It said the small group of U.S. military personnel who committed the inappropriate act with enemy corpses are apparently no longer serving in Afghanistan.
“This behavior dishonors the sacrifices and core values of every service member representing the fifty nations of the coalition,” the statement added.
The allied forces said “a United States Criminal Investigatory agency has launched an investigation” into the incident, and assured that “it will be thorough and any individuals with confirmed involvement will be held fully accountable.”
The origin of the video, which was reproduced by several news channels around the world, nor who posted it online, is unknown.
And although most professional military, government officials and veterans would deplore what is in the video, at least one conservative blogger is reportedly virtually applauding it. But this has become par for the course now in 21st century America: if there something occurs that in the past was considered outrageous, some will defend or praise it for political reasons. But, then, America has always had a fringe element.
UK’s The Telegraph notes that the video came at a delicate time for the United States:
Leon Panetta, the US defence secretary, wasted no time to denounce the behaviour shown in the latest embarrassing video of American forces in Afghanistan. He had little choice, for this incident has occurred at a singularly sensitive moment.
By announcing that its combat role in Afghanistan will end in late 2014, the US has implicitly conceded that it must seek a negotiated settlement with the Taliban. America and her allies are not bidding for total victory; instead their relatively modest aim is to bring the Taliban into talks and reach an agreement that will allow an honourable exit.
Covert contacts with Taliban commanders are believed to have been happening for some time. But this quiet diplomatic effort has become semipublic with the announcement that the Taliban will open an office in the Qatari capital, Doha.
This highly significant step is designed to give the extremists an “address” and recognised representatives, with whom America and her allies can deal. Now that this sensitive process has finally begun – after numerous false starts – the US wants to deprive the Taliban of any excuse to walk away.
Its first response to the video suggested that the Taliban will not exploit the incident in this way.
“The video will not harm our talks and prisoner exchange because they are at the preliminary stage,” said the regular Taliban spokesman who styles himself Zabihullah Mujahid.
CBS’s Laura Logan says the video is a gift to the Taliban:
A video circulating of four U.S. Marines purportedly urinating on the bodies of dead Taliban fighters in Afghanistan characterized a “frat boy mentality” that is sure to set back American efforts to win hearts and minds and to bring the conflict in that country to an end, said CBS’ Lara Logan.
“It’s a gift for the Taliban, really, because it reinforces all of their propaganda,” Logan said on “CBS This Morning.” “They want the world to believe, they want Afghans to believe that the U.S. has no regard for the Afghan people and no regard for Islam. This video enforces that message of theirs, so it essentially does their job for them.
“The fact that U.S. Marine and U.S. soldiers have built mosques, for example, the length and breadth of Afghanistan, no one cares about that. That is not the image that will endure. This is the image that will endure and the damage is already done.”
Logan said that the video will no doubt aid the Taliban’s recruitment of new fighters to their cause.
“It’s a stupid thing. It’s the thing you expect them to do when they’re out drunk and there’s no excuse for it,” Logan said. “They’ve unfortunately tarnished the image of every other Marine and soldier that’s out there, and the other guys know this. They’re all going to be mad at them for that.
(PERSONAL NOTE: As someone who covered Camp Pendleton as one of my beats while working as a staff reporter on the San Diego Union newspaper in the 1980s and who has known many Marines, this behavior is most assuredly not typical and will cause most Marines to sadly shake their heads.)
According to NPR, the Marines are concerned over this video:
This morning, NPR’s Tom Bowman tells our Newscast desk that Marine officers he has spoken with are “worried about what impact the video will have on their operations” in Afghanistan. Helmand Province, where the incident allegedly occurred, “has seen a decrease in violence over the past year,” Tom says, and the officers are concerned about an increase in violence there now because of outrage over the video.
Here’s the 40 second video as posted on You Tube by the national post (with faces blocked out):
Hillary Clinton’s reaction:
CBS video offfers this excellent summary report including the questions the video raises:
Russia Today’s take on it:
Graphic via shutterstock.com
Joe Gandelman is a former fulltime journalist who freelanced in India, Spain, Bangladesh and Cypress writing for publications such as the Christian Science Monitor and Newsweek. He also did radio reports from Madrid for NPR’s All Things Considered. He has worked on two U.S. newspapers and quit the news biz in 1990 to go into entertainment. He also has written for The Week and several online publications, did a column for Cagle Cartoons Syndicate and has appeared on CNN.