Tuesday, May 30, 2006

Bitter Harvest

A lot of heat and light is being generated this week about an atrocity alleged to have been committed by US Marines in the Iraqi city of Haditha. Frankly, I'm not surprised, neither by the allegation, nor by the poorly concealed glee with which political opportunists have fired up their torches and taken to the streets.

I will not be among those who are proclaiming guilt without benefit of the slightest knowledge of the facts. Nor will I defend the innocence of anyone connected with the events in Haditha. I don't know the facts of the incident. And neither does anyone else on this side of the world.

There has been considerable buzz in my leatherneck network regarding the theatrics of a fellow Marine. Maybe Congressman Murtha is positioning himself for a committee chairmanship once the Democrats take back the House. Perhaps he is even positioning himself to challenge Pelosi for Speaker. I don't pretend to know the mind of a politician and I am already on record regarding my feelings about hypocrites, so I need not and will not pontificate further on Murtha's motives.

I will, however, speak to the germane topic of leadership. When it comes to standards, I follow the guidance given me by one of the most respected and circumspect officers with whom I served as a Marine. When it came to setting and enforcing standards of conduct for our Marines, Major General Gene Deegan had no peer. As a young captain, I served under then-Colonel Deegan when he commanded The Basic School. To paraphrase an impromptu lesson he once gave a group of us captains as we prepared leadership classes for brand new lieutenants, "Combat soldiers must be held to the highest moral standards possible in peacetime, because, once exposed to the stress of combat every man's standards slip. If you have high standards before you go into combat, your standards can slip a little and you're okay. If you have low moral standards before you go into combat and they slip, the next thing you know you are committing atrocities."

I served with other leaders who not only condoned the rowdy and raunchy conduct of their men, but openly encouraged and often participated in the debauchery to which most young men will default if allowed. This often manifests itself in a "boys will be boys" attitude, and the leader who gives that sign will get that pitch.

I am neither a saint nor a prude. Rather, I recognized early on that the death-defying, killer attitude we leaders fostered in our Marines HAD to be tempered and disciplined by a high moral standard. If not constrained thusly, it was an open powder keg in a room full of candles.

SOMETHING bad happened in Haditha. Of that there is little doubt. My gut tells me that, if there were innocent victims of a Marine combat patrol's actions, it was not premeditated. I hesitate to say it, but my gut also tells me, and their relief from command reinforces the feeling, that the battalion and company commanders of those Marines may not have established the highest possible moral environment for their subordinates. At the end of the game, the leader is responsible for the actions of his men. But, if you wait until the endgame to uphold a high standard, you are probably too late.

In his letter to the Hebrews, Paul wrote, and I have clung to the hope of, the following: "No discipline seems pleasant at the time, but painful. Later on however, it produces a harvest of righteousness and peace for those who have been trained by it." Heb. 12:11 NIV
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