Marine video discredits all Western forces in Afghanistan

The video of U.S. marines urinating on three dead bodies in Afghanistan will reflect badly on the soldiers of all Western nations, says military law expert Michel Drapeau.

Military law expert Michel Drapeau weighs in on footage of soldiers urinating on bodies

A German soldier of the International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) gives a tennis ball to children during a patrol in the village of Isa Khel in Afghanistan on Dec. 16, 2011. A video showing four U.S. marines urinating on dead bodies in Afghanistan will reflect badly on the soldiers of all Western nations that are part of the ISAF mission, says Michel Drapeau, professor of military law at the University of Ottawa. (Thomas Peter /Reuters)

The U.S. Marine Corps is the subject of intense condemnation and scrutiny after a video surfaced on Jan. 12 that shows four marines urinating on three dead bodies in Afghanistan. The video description refers to the dead as "Taliban insurgents," but it is unclear from the images whether they are fighters or civilians.

A marine official confirmed that the men in the video were part of 3rd Battalion, 2nd Marines, which returned to its home base in North Carolina last fall after a tour in Afghanistan.

Afghan President Hamid Karzai called the footage "completely inhumane" while U.S. Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta decried it as "deplorable."

CBC News spoke to Michel Drapeau, professor of military law at the University of Ottawa and author of the book Military Justice in Action, about how this disclosure reflects on the U.S. military and how it might affect future operations.

CBC News: Were you surprised to see the video?

Michel Drapeau: "Surprised" would be an understatement. I'm shocked, scandalized, by it. In the last 10 years, the British and Americans have been embarrassed by what happened in Abu Ghraib, and it's not like there weren't steps taken by the leadership in these armed forces to reaffirm the responsibilities of soldiers and value systems and so on.

Pakistani demonstrators in Islamabad hold placards condemning the abuse of inmates at Abu Ghraib prison in Iraq on May 26, 2004. (Mian Khursheed/Reuters)

What I find more disturbing is that you're talking about a very professional force. I have a lot of admiration for the U.S. marines, and they have a long history of bravery and competence and professionalism and discipline, above and beyond what you see in most armed forces. Because they're deployed as individuals in embassies across the world, they're normally the first to hit the beach or whatever, and they seem to be held to a higher standard.

Given everything else that is happening, and what we're trying to do in Afghanistan, I know there's going to be a huge price to pay for the U.S. military. It's going to take decades to erase this, because the impact will be felt not only among the Taliban, who would use this for propaganda reasons, but throughout that part of the world. Europeans and Western nations will have a price to pay — perhaps from a security standpoint, the risk would be heightened, not only in Afghanistan but elsewhere.

This incident obviously has echoes of the prisoner abuse in Iraq that became public in 2003 and 2004. How would you rate the American and British militaries' response to those earlier revelations?

I don't think that was handled particularly well. There were a few court martials [in the U.S.], but it came across to me as being more 'contained' as opposed to [leaders] saying, 'This will not be tolerated, and action will be taken.' A small group of people was held to account, but the holding to account was not done as a public and forceful demonstration that this is totally against our societal value system, not only military discipline.

In Britain, similar action was taken, and civil society was upset. They didn't feel that the British military had done enough, or prosecuted enough. At the very least, there were changes made to the military justice system, where a civilian barrister was appointed as director of military prosecution.

I think the [U.S.] military probably looked at it as something very grave but saw it more as an exercise in damage control than 'We've got a problem, and we've got to do something, whether it's training or discipline or leadership.' None of us expected that there would be another incident in the wake of Abu Ghraib, but here we are.

Do you think that this video, by association, also discredits Canadian soldiers?

Not only Canada but Germany, France or any Western nation or NATO country. We look the same, we share the same values, we're all foreign soldiers, we're in there. Ninety-nine per cent of all these soldiers, it would be unfair to say they are capable of doing this same act — but I'm not looking at it from our eyes. I'm looking at it from the eyes of those who would want to paint us with the same brush.

Fair-thinking men and women, whether they're Muslim or any background, will assume that not all [Western soldiers] are bad and that these are probably individuals who acted outside the scope of their duties. But I can't assume that is the majority of people [who think that], at least not in the short term. It's a major insult, and I can only see the reaction if these individuals laying on the ground were American or Canadian, what our reaction would be. It would be one of just unspeakable outrage.

Why do you think this behaviour manifests itself, even after enemy soldiers have been killed?

It begs one question: Have we not been in Afghanistan too long, when we start to see 'the enemy' in such inhuman terms? Our best-before date is over when we can no longer ensure discipline, respect and our value system is being carried out by these young men. And to say that this is only four individuals, I think, would be blind to perhaps a below-surface bigger problem. And the bigger problem is: What the hell are we doing here? If we haven't accomplished what we wanted to in 10 years, it's time to bring the guys back home.

Is there anything in the way that soldiers are trained that might inadvertently encourage this kind of behaviour?

I don't think so, I really don't think so. Soldiers come from our villages, our homes. They're your cousins and nephews and nieces. We encourage, not unlike a hockey team, esprit de corps and camaraderie and loyalty and mission first, and all of these have served us well — in any army, whether it's the Chinese 5,000 years ago or the French foreign legion or the marines. You're asking a lot of these young men — mostly — to put their life on the line and to basically be self-reliant.

[This behaviour] can be explained, and you can rationalize it, if you're in the middle of an intense exchange of fire where you're losing people, you're losing weapons, you've just been shot down, you got half your platoon killed. It's perfectly human, with someone who has been captured, to really want to express your anger or your fury. But the mark between a goon and a professional soldier is, a professional soldier will only use violence for a legal means.

Fundamentally, it comes to a question of leadership. If you think of the little things, the big things take care of themselves. So, when you live with these soldiers, and you see them every day, whether they're morose or filled with anger and fury above and beyond what you expect, you have to be alert to it.

The problem in Abu Ghraib — I always go back to leaders. Did you permit this? Were you surprised by this? You are leading a bunch of men and women, not beasts, and you want them to stay on this side of humanity. We had Mai Lai in Vietnam, a lot of African countries, in Bosnia, we've seen extraordinary malfeasance by soldiers of every type, but you got to trace it back to leaders, and that's what the crime against humanity talks about.

They will charge commanders. Soldiers don't normally do what they want; they do what they are allowed to do, or expected to do. So, you've got to go back to the command.