While many people were shocked last week at the revelation of a widely-popular nude photo sharing Facebook group run by Marines, I can't say that this news surprised me even a little bit. General Neller, Commandant of the Marine Corps, is rightly upset. I have no doubt there will be investigations performed and punishment doled out, but ultimately I believe there will always be a next time. Got that? Always.
As expected, the DoD and other Services responded quickly with their own politically-correct and even well-intentioned comments, like these quoted on Business Insider:
The Army is a values-based organization where everyone is expected to be treated with dignity and respect. — Lt Col Jennifer Johnson, USA
Or about the Air Force:
We expect our Airmen to adhere to [Air Force core] values at all times and to treat their fellow service members with the highest degree of dignity and respect. Any conduct or participation in activities, whether online or offline, that does not adhere to these principles will not be tolerated. — Zachary Anderson, USAF
I completely agree that members of the military are rightly held to higher standards of conduct than average citizens. Such behavior is essential for the good order and discipline required for the military to be effective. To quote Col. Nathan Jessup's fictional character in A Few Good Men, "We use words like 'honor,' 'code, 'loyalty.' We use these words as the backbone of a life spent defending something." Even though it comes from a work of fiction, the line is memorable, and the sentiment is absolutely right. You just don’t get people to volunteer to go and die for an idea unless they believe that idea is honorable, transcendent, and worth defending with their own lives.
There is a problem here, however, that extends well below the surface. The headlines that make the news—objectification of the opposite sex (I've heard conversations from women that are just as bad as those by men), out of control sexual assault, hazing, suicide rates that climb with no end in sight, despicable racism (primarily directed toward the enemy), disparaging of other religions, etc.—are merely symptoms. The scandals are not themselves the problem. The problem is much, much bigger...and one that will ultimately prove impossible for the military to solve because of the its very nature.
Put simply, the business end of the military is death. The raison d'etre of the armed forces is to kill enough people on the opposing side as to break the enemy's will to fight. While we may create euphemisms like 'force employment' to sugar coat things and sound more sophisticated, the ultimate purpose of every individual in the military regardless of the day-to-day 'job' they do in the Service is to put a bayonet, bullet, bomb, missile, (insert weapon here) into the body of someone else before the opponent can do the same to them.
Here is where the problem surfaces. People seem to be innately wired not to kill other people. For most of us, killing is a 'skill' we learned in the military—initially taught on the rifle range and assault courses of basic training and honed through years of specialized training after that. One of the first things the military has to do is desensitize people to the reality of taking others' lives. While not easy, we are pretty good at training away our objections to killing. Dave Grossman's ground-breaking study, On Killing, shows just how much better we've gotten at training people to kill over the past hundred and fifty years. It's not too much to say that our uniformed men and women today are truly killing machines.
Honestly, for most of those on the proverbial tip of the spear, despite our advanced training methods and equipment, we come to grips with killing the same way humans have done it for millennia, we dehumanize the enemy—making them subhuman due to their politics, their religion, their skin color, their history, their beliefs, or whatever. It's much, much easier to kill an animal than it is to kill a fellow human being. So we make them into animals. And when we make others into animals, we end up becoming animals ourselves. There is no way around it. Training someone to kill and then using them to kill damages them. As a chaplain, I see it at some level every single day. This doesn't excuse anyone's behavior. It is simply a job hazard we don't like to talk about. It doesn't make for good recruiting posters.
So back to nude Marines. I have no doubt General Neller and others will do a good job finding out who the perpetrators are in this particular case and giving them the judgment they deserve. Justice will be dealt swiftly and in accordance with regulation. But there will always be a next time. Instead of simply disciplining the troops involved this time and the next, I would love to see our military leadership admit the truth about why this happened and spend some of our astronomical military budget repairing the souls we've spend years damaging.