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Conscience and the Military


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 Sigal is a screenwriter and novelist. His latest book is Hemingway Lives

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