Tortured Or Obedient?

My father, a veteran of the Second World War, spoke very infrequently about his experiences in the war. The engine room of a ship in combat was simply a place I don’t believe he much wanted to revisit. Memories of one of his stories, however, still gives me chills.

His ship was assigned to pick up surviving Marines after the horrific battle for the South Pacific island of Peleliu. My dad described the Marines as, in his own words, living ghosts: withdrawn and disconnected, starving and thirsty, filthy, wandering aimlessly about the ship, unable to speak, shaking, staring blankly into the air.

It didn’t help that Peleliu was a complete disaster: a ‘victory’ that came with a very high cost in lives and, as it happens, no real military value.

I’m reminded of my dad’s story whenever I think about our nation’s recent military actions in Afghanistan, a mission that is literally bleeding away our nation’s resources, cannot hope to succeed (whatever that would even mean in this context) and is of dubious military value in any event.

It doesn’t help, of course, that Afghanistan has been repelling and outlasting invaders for millennia. Most recently before our arrival, Afghans bled the army of the Soviet Union to near-death during its 10-year occupation. Today, Afghans are already preparing for the day American forces depart by arming themselves and their militias to the teeth and setting up militia-led and, in some cases, Taliban-led de facto local and regional governments. In many cases, according to recent reports, these governments are more accepted and more efficient at providing services than the elected Afghan national government.

Over the long term then, what, exactly, have we accomplished through our sacrifice of blood?

Understand, I’m not in any way criticizing the men and women of America’s armed forces. The problem lies considerably higher in the chain of command. Our soldiers, sailors and Marines were put into an untenable and dangerous situation because our leaders lacked firm goals and adequate knowledge and understandings of the context. Further, they continue to be sacrificed because our leaders are more concerned with their own egos than the lives of our service men and women.

Those in our armed forces pay the price, sometimes the ultimate price, for the stupidity, fecklessness and ego of their masters.

As he contemplated the cost of war, author and scientist Jacob Bronowski mused:

‘There are two parts to the human dilemma. One is the belief that the end justifies the means. That push-button philosophy, that deliberate deafness to suffering, has become the monster in the war machine. The other is the betrayal of the human spirit: the assertion of dogma that closes the mind, and turns a nation, a civilization, into a regiment of ghosts – obedient ghosts, or tortured ghosts.’

Just like their predecessors on Peleliu, the men and women in our armed forces are being turned into ghosts, whether obedient or tortured, for nothing of real value.

Our leaders should be ashamed.

The Issues at Stake

The story of Gary Stein as portrayed in the mainstream media reads this way: an active-duty United States Marine was discharged for criticizing the president on facebook. NBC (via says:

“The U.S. Marine Corps has decided to discharge a sergeant for criticizing President Barack Obama on Facebook.”

If true, this would represent a gross violation of the rights to self-expression all Americans hold very dear.

Conservative media and activist groups have adopted the proudly conservative Stein as a poster boy, saying he was railroaded because his political views differed from the current president’s. From the website of Oath Keepers, a conservative group:

“This [situation] is all because Sgt. Stein dared to found the Armed Forces Tea Party Facebook page, and because, on a separate Facebook page run by someone else, in a discussion thread conversation with other Marines, Sgt. Stein strongly expressed his opposition to some of Obama’s unconstitutional policies and expressed his intent to refuse unlawful orders.”

Fortunately for our society, not to mention the fabric of our armed forces, (1) the mainstream media has oversimplified the issues involved and gotten this case’s interpretation completely wrong, and (2) the conservative media and its allies have also missed the major point of Stein’s discharge.

Here are three examples of Stein’s publicly available writing:

“Screw Obama…I will not follow all orders from him.” (source: CNN, April 14, 2012)

Sergeant Stein has called the president “the economic and religious enemy.” (source: Christian Science Monitor, April 6, 2012)

Stein called the president a “domestic enemy,” echoing words in the Marine Corps enlistment oath (source: The Hill, April 25, 2012). What Stein seems to miss, ironically, is the rest of the oath. Here it is, in its entirety [my emphasis added in bold]:

“I, [name], do solemnly swear (or affirm) that I will support and defend the Constitution of the United States against all enemies, foreign and domestic; that I will bear true faith and allegiance to the same; and that I will obey the orders of the President of the United States and the orders of the officers appointed over me, according to regulations and the Uniform Code of Military Justice. So help me God.”

So, this is not a matter of an American citizen expressing political opinions, whether on facebook or elsewhere. This is a matter of maintaining our trust in civilian authority over our military. By his writings, Stein has called into question his commitment to fulfilling his sacred oath as a Marine, specifically, his intention to follow the orders of the democratically elected President of the United States, no matter who that president happens to be. Marines don’t get to decide whether or not they’ll follow the president’s orders based on their particular party or political philosophy.

The American electorate gets to make that call.

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