Media coverage and op-eds on last week's incident involving the desecration of Taliban corpses by U.S. Marines has been subdued in the United States, but it gathered the attention of many in that part of the world where we have had the most trouble. Still, it appears so far to have limited impact on the standing U.S. public image there. But it certainly isn't helping. It gives the Taliban a significant propaganda card in their hand as they more openly enter into negotiations on NATO withdrawal from Afghanistan.
What may, in fact, be ultimately more damaging is that "...the actions depicted in the video will tarnish the reputation of the entire military", as the Huffington Post reported. This is because the "near-deification" of the military is an all-important political advantage the military-industrial complex has had in pushing back on the inevitable massive downscaling of the defense budget over the next few years. Ironically, the string of examples of boys (and sometimes girls) behaving badly, stretching back to Abu Ghraib, may ultimately help the American public obtain a more sober and balanced view of our all-too-human troops. As Florida Congressman Allen West put it:
The Marines were wrong. Give them a maximum punishment under field grade level Article 15 (non-judicial punishment), place a General Officer level letter of reprimand in their personnel file, and have them in full dress uniform stand before their battalion, each personally apologize to God, Country, and Corps videotaped and conclude by singing the full U.S. Marine Corps Hymn without a teleprompter.
That should do it.
In that sense, probably. Yet, these kinds of events could invite additional insights.
One of the observations when the story broke was that such occurrences remind us of how war, especially of late, is "de-humanizing". Well, no and yes. First of all, war is human nature on steroids -- it brings out both the best and worst of our character.
What has become clear over the past decade is, as I observed in Iraq, that behavior on the ground in today's wars is paramount -- "the MO of the military is more important than operational or tactical presence." A just-released study on "winning hearts and minds" in Afghanistan by Tufts University likewise notes that, as in Iraq, among the drivers of conflict in Afghanistan, after poor local governance and poverty, is "the behavior of foreign forces (including civilian casualties, night raids, and disrespect for Afghan culture)."
The utter disregard for the conventions of war of the Taliban, Al Qaeda, or any other "bad guys" has made war as we know it far less humane. But if anybody has de-humanized it, we have -- and not because of the bad behavior issue. Our love affair with technology and the relentless capitalization of warfare has masked the human element of war altogether by making the American military a largely anonymous actor.
Drone attacks, a preferred method of military engagement under the Obama administration which resumed last week, have been devastatingly effective in surgically killing "high value targets." However, at the same time, like other stand-off, precision-guided weapons, they generate significant if not decisive "unintended consequences."
The population -- which is the center of gravity in modern war, peacekeeping, and peacebuilding -- presents an opportunity for insurgents and other "spoilers", who more constantly occupy the ground where the "collateral damage" occurs, to fill the perceptual gaps with their own narrative. If there are no Americans in the neighborhood, you can say anything you want about them and people are likely to believe it. Hence the importance of more (and not fewer) boots-on-the-ground, along with their behavior.
A classic example of this is how the scores of Germans of the immediate post-war generation I met while stationed in Germany -- including Chancellor Helmut Kohl -- would tell me their first impression of the GI's was when given a banana or a Hershey bar, no doubt contributing decisively to the overwhelmingly positive image of America and Americans in Germany until that time.
It seems the U.S. military has been re-learning Napoleon's observation that "in war, the moral is to the physical as three is to one", despite last week's exception -- even in the shooting department. A New York Times article this week, for example, explains "a shift in the application of American air power, de-emphasizing overpowering violence in favor of sorties that often end without munitions being dropped." The shifts in missions and tactics partly reflect adaptations by the Taliban. But guided by complex rules of engagement and by doctrine emphasizing proportionality and restraint, they also reflect "a different mentality," moving from a more familiar "fangs-out, kill-kill-kill culture to maximize number killed..."
Given the enormous manpower-intensive cuts the military will certainly undergo in the next few years, it is thus more than important that we conscientiously retain at least a good part of our ability to engage foreign cultures on the ground, perhaps not on the same scale as in Afghanistan, but unquestionably in the same ways, if not better. We can do a lot of this by making sure we have enough of these kind of people in uniform in our Reserves, which cost about a third of the active force.
What's more, we need to resist the temptation to lean too heavily on technology. We should also heed the advice of the Tufts study to "value development as a good in and of itself" and not as a means to win hearts and minds -- and thus make sure we don't dismiss civilian developers, too. And we have to be smarter than simply throwing a lot of money (which we no longer have anyway) at the problem when it arises, rather less of it more effectively to head it off at the pass.
That's because the majority of post-Afghanistan engagements abroad will be more about promoting peace and preventing conflict than fighting and ending wars. Even more then than now, we'll need to make sure we can do both with a human face.