Looking for a Few Good Men: Military Ethics in the Internet Age

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Its been, as we say in my family, a ‘festive’ week to be a military ethicist with the breaking and then worsening and widening of the Marines United nude photo scandal detailed here. Scandal

Even describing it as a scandal about the sharing of nude photos fails to capture the multiplicity of ethical violations and problems detailed in the story about the Marines, and now more broadly, members of the other services, veterans and others. It is not clear what we should call these actions – there was sharing of photos but other actions, words and threats to the women, their defenders and now investigators have been detailed. In the words of my students, “I literally can’t even.” But as a philosopher and ethicist, I am called by my profession to try and make sense of this and bring what little perspective is possible at this point.  (As a philosopher, I reserve the right for continued reflection and I invite civil and serious discussion. Please direct all death threats to my agent.)

The first issue is to be clear on what exactly we are dealing with here. The first suggestion is this is indicative of the state of the larger sexual culture in our society that we cannot expect our military members and  veterans to be exempt from.  I see this as a variation on Socrates’ argument about the lack of morals in the youth and the general moral decay of society; this is hardly a new argument. Sexual mores change yes. Does that explain this? It may be part of the picture, but it is not sufficient.

Second, the suggestion has been made that this a variation on hazing. This is an interesting idea, but hazing (whether in the military or larger civilian society) usually involves humiliation, subjugation and exploitation as a means to test and challenge those looking to enter a group or who are new to a group. It is a rite of passage imposed by those who are already members and presumably went through some kind of rite themselves. The details in the accounts do not match this kind of scenario. Again, part of the picture but not sufficient.

Third, one might argue that is an expression of the objectification and degradation of women that is part of our larger civilian society and  related to the ‘Warrior’ idea of masculinity central to the military self conception (at least for some.) I won’t go into detail here but see  https://angrystaffofficer.com/2016/12/14/stop-calling-us-warriors/  as well as Chapter 7 of my book. https://www.amazon.com/Warrior-Military-Ethics-Contemporary-Warfare/dp/1409465365

One thing to note about the Warrior idea that may be helpful is that there are special permissions given to the Warrior (which is also an idea that may be seen in some ideas of military professionalism) by society and those have included the idea of exerting lethal and other forms of power over ‘enemy’ or subgroups that threaten the Warrior is his society. In addition, sexual permissions have historically been seen (either explicitly or implicitly) as one of the permissions that one is entitled to as a Warrior. This has been part of military life and is part of the reason for the resistance to integration of ‘feminine’ (or less than ‘Warrior Masculine’) groups like women, homosexual and transgendered or non-binary persons.

However, such ‘traditional’ ideas run afoul of contemporary understandings of military professionalism in all the military branches in the US. The actions and especially the responses by Marines United and their allies are a direct challenge to the ideas of respect, trust, good order and self regulation of the moral community of the profession. The responses from USMC leadership, especially the Commandant, make clear that these actions and responses represent a failure to embody and direct violations of the Core Values and moral standards of the professional community. They are additionally a direct threat to discipline and good order so central to unit cohesion and combat effectiveness because it is a betrayal of one’s own teammates.

So what is going on?  One avenue of reflection takes us back to Sebastian Junger’s book Tribe Tribe where he discussed the difficulty that veterans have in coming home, especially the problem with re-entry. He thinks the problem is the lack of community that vets experience when they come home to an individualistic and consumer driven society that is so markedly different from the world they inhabited in the military.

I would add another issue to this.  Historically, warrior cultures returned and through some kind of ritual were expected to make atonement for or to acknowledge the violence they had participated in, and the society then shared in this responsibility and allowed them to re-enter normal society.  In our contemporary society, there is no ritual  atonement for violence, which breeds a sense of guilt on one hand (contributing to phenomena like moral injury) and on the other hand, arrogant entitlement and a sense that civilians are not fit to judge military warriors. Jack Nicholson’s USMC character in the film A Few Good Men is only one such representation of this. (The Entitled Warrior Complex let’s call it.)

I would argue that some of what is going on in this case is the idea of sexual permissions combined with the Entitled Warrior complex.  In this case the manifestation is through shared nude pictures, humiliating, degrading and even persecuting of women who are supposed to have their respect and be part of their team. When challenged, the response reflects this sense of entitlement and justification in terms of this dynamic and a refusal to admit that there is any unethical or unprofessional behavior here, deflecting the blame to the women and to others who are clearly not real ‘Warriors’ and therefore, do not ‘get it’ and therefore are not real ‘Men’ and not entitled to membership in the brotherhood.

There have been calls for firm and clear leadership on this issue, which is right and understandable, but this is not just a leadership issue nor an issue of failed personal morality.  This is an issue of military culture (as it clearly cuts across the service branches) and ethics problem and must be dealt with as such. This requires strong words (which we have seen some of in the aftermath of the scandal), but it also requires strong actions to deal with the perpetrators as well. Beyond that, we must deal with the severe breaches of and challenges to the Core Value and military professionalism (the ethical framework of the moral community that is the military) that this scandal represents only one fracture point.

Respect and trust are basic foundations to the military and failures with respect to those in one area are risking those behaviors in another.  While many will not like the comparison (and there are some differences), I cannot get the photos of Abu Gharib out of my mind. Humiliation, degradation, mocking and persecution of those that one deems as a subgroup or lesser in relation to oneself, which reflected larger cultural and ethical problems. Not a case of a few bad apples. If we are honest with ourselves, its is rarely a case of a few bad apples.

I was reminded of a few lines from my favorite Shakespeare Henry V  amidst all these reflections.  In his St Crispin’s Day speech the King responds to the concern that they are outnumbered and facing a difficult battle – a situation that may resonate with those in the military community and elsewhere disgusted and appalled by the revelations this week.

We few, we happy few, we band of brothers;
For he today that sheds his blood with me
Shall be my brother; be he ne’er so vile,
This day shall gentle his condition;
And gentlemen in England now abed
Shall think themselves accursed they were not here,
And hold their manhoods cheap whiles any speaks
That fought with us upon Saint Crispin’s Day

And further, and most importantly for this reflection:

For the best hope I have. Oh, do not wish one more!
Rather proclaim it, Westmoreland, through my host,
That he which hath no stomach to this fight,
Let him depart. His passport shall be made,
And crowns for convoy put into his purse.
We would not die in that man’s company
That fears his fellowship to die with us.
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