Can 30,000 Marines Keep A Secret About Illicit Images?

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The recent reports about a “restricted” Facebook page which featured pictures of female marines, clothed and unclothed, frequently with salacious or worse comments attached, is disgusting or depressing. If I were a female Marine, I would be infuriated. As a male military veteran of another service (airborne infantry and special forces) I am merely horrified.

The details really matter, but have not come out yet. How long did this site exist? A month? Six months? A year? Several years? How precisely did you get access to it? It was “restricted” to male marines. How did you prove you were a Marine, and how did you prove you were male? If you were retired could you get access? What if you were merely a former Marine with an honorable discharge? What if you had a dishonorable discharge? What if you were a transgender Marine? Oay, never mind that. The longer the site has been in existence, the more troublesome this scandal is.

The head Marine says that “only” 500 Marines made comments on the pictures. At least that’s the way one interprets what was said. But wait, this is Facebook, which he obviously hasn’t ever used. How many “likes” were there without comments? How many “shares?” Did anyone report the borderline content to Facebook and complain?

Many Marine officers come through the Naval Academy. It has an honor code which, unlike that of the other service academies, does not call out “tolerance” of honor violations by other cadets as a specific violation. The USAFA code when I was there is simple: “We will not lie, cheat or steal, nor tolerate among us those that do.” All four acts are violations of the code and generally result in dismissal from the institution. But this missing element in the Naval Academy code is hardly an excuse for the existence of this special web site. Thirty thousand Marines? They all thought this was OK?

The commandant of the Marine Corps, General Robert Neeler, seems befuddled by all this. At a press briefing on 10 March he said: “For those Marines that are watching this or listening or may have been involved in this, if you’re participating in this type of behavior in any way, shape or form, you’re not helping me or your Marine Corps and I’d ask you to reconsider your participation in any sort of behavior like this.”

Wow, “you’re not helping” and “reconsider your participation.” Well, that’s strong and bold leadership indeed.

The General then went before the Senate Armed Services Committee three days later. In his explanation he tried not to make light of the matter and “took responsibility.” But he looked clueless, and is unconvincing in the extreme as many senators expressed. He openly admitted that he had no idea how many or who the Marines were who had frequented this web site. But he’s investigating—actually the Naval Criminal Investigative Service is investigating, which is probably better than having the Marines investigate themselves. And he’s formed a committee to review the culture of the Corps or something like that. Never mind the “culture,” how about investigating why he didn’t know about this, why not one of this group of 30,000 highly trained and honorable Marines thought to raise a hand and suggest that this web site might be a problem. There are 203,000 active duty Marines, so that means that one out of every six Marines knew about this. Don’t they have a “hot line” to report fraud and so forth? Every major corporation does.

The case of Lt. William Calley is perhaps instructive. Calley was an infantry first lieutenant commanding a platoon in the 23rd (Americal) division in northern central Vietnam. In March of 1968 he was sent on a combat mission to a suspected VC village called Son My in Quang Tri Province. One of the hamlets of the village was My Lai, a name probably more familiar. He and his troops assaulted the village, didn’t really meet any resistance, and then proceeded to round up more than 100 villagers, and shoot them. He then reported all these as dead VC. Mostly unarmed women and children VC, the most dangerous kind. He never called for artillery or air support during the operation, he didn’t request a re-supply of ammunition, his platoon took no casualties, and he captured no weapons.

Anyone who served on the ground in Vietnam, or probably any recent war, knows these facts:

―If you were on an operation and you were able to find one or two enemy soldiers that stood and fought, you were having a great day.

―If you found more, you immediately called for artillery or air support. You didn’t go charging around if there were real bad guys out there shooting at you. You dropped back and let the artillery do its job.

―Killing that many combatants would have required an enormous expenditure of M-16 ammo in a real fight, far more than the platoon would have carried. But not in an execution.

―No friendly casualties? No captured weapons? What were the VC doing, throwing rocks at him?

The battalion commander took his command and control helicopter, his “Charlie, Charlie” bird, and flew over the battlefield. He didn’t hear any shooting. You can hear a real firefight from pretty high up in the air, they’re very noisy, and you only have to fly at 1500 feet to be above small arms range. The Colonel would have noticed the silence. He made contact with Calley on the ground, asked him if he needed anything, got a negative answer, then flew back to the fire base. Maybe he didn’t want to miss lunch.

The minute Calley said that he had killed a lot of VC, and there was no firing in the area, the commander should have immediately landed his helicopter to see what was going on. The company commander who was in the vicinity, one Capt. Ernest Medina, should have closed down his “blocking position” since there was nothing left to block, and moved to the village, with the same questions.

The slaughter was documented by a photographer who was with the platoon and that is how it all became public, about a year later. Yet with all the facts listed above, no one but Calley—not the Company Commander, not the Battalion Commander, not anyone up the chain—was ever disciplined. This was completely, sadly wrong and immoral.

If the “Marines United” web site had 30,000 Marines with access to it, at least one of them had to be either an officer or a senior sergeant. It is entirely possible that the results of the investigation will result only in the punishment of junior marines, E-5 and below. It that’s the result, then this will be as big a crime as that of the persons who put together the site in the first place. The men who encouraged the defamation of their fellow female marines. The men who continued the grand US military tradition of sexual harassment of female service members. Semper Fi, you assholes.

Mr. Hemphill is the Chairman and CEO of Sunshine Soldiers, a non-profit focused on education activities happening in energy, especially with regard to the adoption of renewable energy technology by utilities, commercial customers and homeowners, and strategies to benefit from it. Hemphill is also the author for two business travel books, Stories From the Middle Seat: The Four-Million-Mile Journey to Building a Billion Dollar International Business and Dust Tea, Dingoes & Dragons: Adventure in Culture Cuisine & Commerce from a Globe-Trekking Executive.