Conscience and the Military

by CLANCY SIGAL

Even though the Occupy Wall Street movement, especially in the United States, is winter-hibernating – Oakland, California’s dorky vandals notwithstanding – I can’t forget an image from last October’s Zuccotti Park events.  If you recall,  down in Times Square, when frightened, out-of-control New York cops, on their rampaging motorbikes and panicky horses, batoned and pepper-sprayed Occupy Wall Streeters, a former Marine Corps sergeant, Shamar Thomas, in his camo gear with three rows of ribbons, suddenly appeared on the sidewalk to furiously confront the police.

“Where’s your honor?” he bellowed face to face with cops.  “These are unarmed people….this is not war…THERE’S NO HONOR IN THIS!”

The video is wonderfully revealing not so much about righteous Sgt Thomas, who served two Iraq tours including Fallujah, but the police.  They stood there dumbfounded, staring, paralyzed – in shame? Embarrassment? – at the big African American war veteran lecturing them about the connection between duty and honor.  I don’t know much about New York-born Sgt Thomas except that both his father and Bronze Star-awarded mother are military veterans, as was his grandfather and great grandfather.  Somewhere along the line somebody must have taught him an unusual lesson concerning ethics in uniform.

In its training manuals and academies all four military branches make a big deal of honor and integrity, trust and professional honesty.   “A great moral code – a code of conduct and chivalry,” is how General Douglas MacArthur, a former West Point superintendent, phrased it to cadets.  The Marine Corps’s “Semper fidelis” – always be faithful – is an almost religious part of its official code drilled into all new recruits.

The question is, faithful to what?

The Corps wants you to be faithful to “the mission” and to your brother Marines.  Once a Marine, always a Marine.   Yet Sgt Thomas went above and beyond the call of duty by dragging into this equation a reminder to the NYPD that one’s duty to fellow citizens may also be part of the Marine code and its “military mission”.

His eloquence inspired many Occupiers and sympathizers like me; and also infuriated many of his fellow Marines who condemned him for wearing his combat ribbons while making what was to them an obnoxious political statement.

The ultimate mission of any military is to protect a country by killing.  No argument there.  The argument begins in the conflict between the in-the-field reality of military life and its so-called spiritual ideals which people like Shamar Thomas clearly take to heart.  Of course, spirituality can cover many sins such as “killing for Christ” and finding Biblical reasons to slaughter the infidel enemy, under a “Christian Embassy”, which some of our nuttier senior officers and proselytizing Pentagon officials are crazy about.

Meanwhile down on the ground Marines who massacre Muslim civilians go unpunished, and PYA – protect your ass – is the unwritten real code among field-grade-and-above officers who get promoted by outright lying about battlefield conditions.   Please see Lt Col Daniel Davis’s “J’Accuse” report in the February 2012 Armed Forces Journal blasting top uniformed and civilian leaders for their total dishonesty about “progress” in Afghanistan.  Col. Davis is a serving officer, with 27 years in, on his fourth combat deployment.

So there really are at least two militaries: one corrupt and mendacious, the other honorable or at least trying to uphold minimum standards of decency, if such a thing is possible, in the killing business.   Organizational pressures to conform are intense.  And the psychic reality is, once you enlist your mind signs a binding contract to obey the chain of command no matter what, a relinquishing of autonomy for the greater good of the unit.  It often takes almost superhuman courage, while wearing the uniform with pride, to listen to your conscience.   For every atrocity-committing bunch of cowboys, like Haditha’s Kilo Company Third Marines, there are plenty of units, like Sgt Thomas’s Light Armored Recon Battalion, that have the cool discipline to stand fast even when provoked.

Our current military establishment is the product of three lost wars – Vietnam, Iraq and Afghanistan – and is plunging into what the Pentagon calls the “era of persistent conflict”.   That is, an Obama-blessed permanent war.  Our army is increasingly drawn from the warrior-culture southern states; the officer corps has gradually swung from conservative-neutral to hawkish rightwing Republican; the percentage of Congress and cabinet who served, and therefore may know a little about the cost in death and mutilation, is way down.   It adds up to a recipe for detached, irresponsible, consequence-less war making by people who don’t have a clue.

In this kind of military two things are sure.  I wouldn’t give a nickel for the future military career of whistleblowing Col. Davis.  And more than ever we will need brave souls like him and Sgt Shamar Thomas.

CLANCY SIGAL is a novelist and screenwriter in Los Angeles. He can be reached at clancy@jsasoc.com

 

Like What You’ve Read? Support CounterPunch
September 02, 2015
Paul Street
Strange Words From St. Bernard and the Sandernistas
Jose Martinez
Houston, We Have a Problem: False Equivalences on Police Violence
Henry Giroux
Global Capitalism and the Culture of Mad Violence
Ajamu Baraka
Making Black Lives Matter in Riohacha, Colombia
William Edstrom
Wall Street and the Military are Draining Americans High and Dry
David Altheide
The Media Syndrome Between a Glock and a GoPro
Yves Engler
Canada vs. Africa
Ron Jacobs
The League of Empire
Kim Nicolini
Remembering Wes Craven’s The Hills Have Eyes
Andrew Smolski
Democracy and Privatization in Neoliberal Mexico
Norman Pollack
Obama, Flim-Flam Artist: Alaska Off-Shore Drilling
Lawrence Wittner
Russians and Americans Get Their Kids Ready for War
September 01, 2015
Mike Whitney
Return to Crisis: Things Keep Getting Worse
Michael Schwalbe
The Moral Hazards of Capitalism
Eric Mann
Inside the Civil Rights Movement: a Conversation With Julian Bond
Pam Martens
How Wall Street Parasites Have Devoured Their Hosts, Your Retirement Plan and the U.S. Economy
Jonathan Latham
Growing Doubt: a Scientist’s Experience of GMOs
Fran Shor
Occupy Wall Street and the Sanders Campaign: a Case of Historical Amnesia?
Joe Paff
The Big Trees: Cockburn, Marx and Shostakovich
Randy Blazak
University Administrators Allow Fraternities to Turn Colleges Into Rape Factories
Robert Hunziker
The IPCC Caught in a Pressure Cooker
George Wuerthner
Myths of the Anthropocene Boosters: Truthout’s Misguided Attack on Wilderness and National Park Ideals
Robert Koehler
Sending Your Children Off to Safe Spaces in College
Jesse Jackson
Season of the Insurgents: From Trump to Sanders
August 31, 2015
Michael Hudson
Whitewashing the IMF’s Destructive Role in Greece
Conn Hallinan
Europe’s New Barbarians
Lawrence Ware
George Bush (Still) Doesn’t Care About Black People
Joseph Natoli
Plutocracy, Gentrification and Racial Violence
Franklin Spinney
One Presidential Debate You Won’t Hear: Why It is Time to Adopt a Sensible Grand Strategy
Dave Lindorff
What’s Wrong with Police in America
Louis Proyect
Jacobin and “The War on Syria”
Lawrence Wittner
Militarism Run Amok: How Russians and Americans are Preparing Their Children for War
Binoy Kampmark
Tales of Darkness: Europe’s Refugee Woes
Ralph Nader
Lo, the Poor Enlightened Billionaire!
Peter Koenig
Greece: a New Beginning? A New Hope?
Dean Baker
America Needs an “Idiot-Proof” Retirement System
Vijay Prashad
Why the Iran Deal is Essential
Tom Clifford
The Marco Polo Bridge Incident: a History That Continues to Resonate
Peter Belmont
The Salaita Affair: a Scandal That Never Should Have Happened
Weekend Edition
August 28-30, 2015
Randy Blazak
Donald Trump is the New Face of White Supremacy
Jeffrey St. Clair
Long Time Coming, Long Time Gone
Mike Whitney
Looting Made Easy: the $2 Trillion Buyback Binge
Alan Nasser
The Myth of the Middle Class: Have Most Americans Always Been Poor?
Rob Urie
Wall Street and the Cycle of Crises
Andrew Levine
Viva Trump?