Viral Atrocities and the Dark Complexity of War

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A Viet Cong base camp is burned by U.S. troops in Vietnam

A funny thing happens when you speak with a room full of school children–they have a tendency to say exactly what’s on their minds. When I returned from my first tour in Iraq, just before Christmas 2006, the principals in my hometown’s two elementary schools asked my mother if I would come talk to the students.

After my presentation when I opened it up for questions, an 8-year-old asked if I had killed anyone. Amid the horrified looks on the teachers’ faces–a silent assurance that they had told the children not to ask this question–I gave the answer I always do: I don’t know.

It’s true. The times my platoon and I were in firefights, many people were shooting in the same direction. I knew soldiers who kept tallies of the enemy they killed; the men in my platoon were not among them. We went about our business believing that killing is part of the professional duty of a soldier, not a sport or a game.

In my nearly 25 months as a soldier in Baghdad, I never personally witnessed anything like we saw this week. Choose your adjective to describe the video that went viral online showing Marines in Afghanistan urinating on the corpses of Taliban fighters. Defense Secretary Leon Panetta called it “utterly deplorable;” Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said it was “absolutely inconsistent with American values.” My friends and fellow veterans have remarked that it is not only morally reprehensible, but also tactically stupid–Afghan men who may have been indifferent to the presence of Americans will surely see this video and take up arms.

This is hardly the first time we’ve seen desecration of both the living and dead in these wars–from the Abu Gharaib detainee abuse to reports of soldiers cutting fingers off of dead fighters as souvenirs. Last year brought the devastating story in Rolling Stone about a “kill team” from the 5th Stryker Brigade who murdered civilians and posed laughingly with the corpses of dead fighters.

Every time I hear about atrocities, large and small, I think back to March 12, 2006, when four soldiers from the 101st Airborne Division’s 1st Battalion, 502nd Infantry Regiment raped and killed an Iraqi girl named Abeer Qassim Hamzah Rashid al-Janabi, then killed her family near the town of Mahmudiyah, just south of Baghdad. The day that horrific crime occurred, I was on a patrol about six miles away. We shared a base with 1st Battalion’s sister unit, so we heard about the crime a couple of days later.

That was a rough year in Iraq, and nowhere did American troops suffer more than in the “Triangle of Death” where 1st Battalion operated. We were stationed just to their east and saw some spillover from the fights they endured, but 1st Battalion suffered mightily. Finally, this small group of soldiers snapped, and I remembered thinking, how could this have happened, and what in the world can we do to keep it from happening again?

In every war, the act of killing and seeing one’s friends brutally slaughtered causes soldiers to break down and commit heinous acts. It happened even in the “Good War,” where one scholar estimates that American GIs committed 18,000 rapes in the European theater. The prevention of acts like the 2006 murders in Iraq and the video we saw this week come down to leadership, which doesn’t work on autopilot.

“Human organizations are flawed because humans are flawed,” TIME International editor Jim Frederick wrote in Black Hearts, his gut-wrenching book about 1st Battalion’s tour in the Triangle of Death. “Even with the best intentions, men make errors in judgment and initiate courses of action that are counterproductive to their self-interest or the completion of their mission.” When asked to do something as brutally inhumane as killing someone, some soldiers will inevitably suffer lapses in their humanity. That’s why leadership is crucial to prevent atrocities of all kinds before they occur.

I hope that we’ve seen the last viral atrocity from the war in Afghanistan. Marines who have fought and bled and died in the Helmand Province will likely suffer further because of the heinous acts making their way digitally around the globe. There’s a certain irony in the fact that the Marines who committed those acts are now safely home while their brothers and sisters still over there doing the hard business are the ones who will suffer for their momentary amusement.

You can’t teach someone how to be human; I doubt you can fully prevent the breakdown in humanity once it’s begun. But you can lead and inspire and teach and cajole and most importantly supervise young troops. That’s the way to prevent these things from happening again.