MIDN 1/C Ian Cameron
After spending the last five months in the Middle East, I began to ask myself a lot of questions. Living away from the Naval Academy for the first significant amount of time since Induction Day allowed distance, perspective and time to reflect on my decision to become a Marine Corps officer. My experiences also challenged my ideas about Islam and Arab culture in a way which demonstrated to me how misguided and unnecessarily adversarial the attitudes of many Americans are toward this region of the world. These attitudes undoubtedly affect thinking about our current wars and the way in which we wage them. In short, I have never been enthusiastic about our military engagements in the Middle East, but now I began to question their moral justification.
One event in particular disturbed me – the death of Osama bin Laden. Sipping my morning coffee in my favorite café tucked in the Middle Atlas Mountains of Morocco, I first read about the death of Osama bin Laden. Slowly, I started watching videos showing public reaction to the news. George Washington frat boys partying in front of the White House, cars speeding past with revelers and American flags hanging out the windows. I checked into Facebook to find the pictures and videos of the celebratory riots that swept the Naval Academy as well. I was confused. From Morocco, celebrating the death of man struck me as barbaric and morbid. At the same time, watching my classmates and friends getting rowdy and storming the Superintendant's house excited me. It looked fun. It was a scary realization that if I had been at the Naval Academy I would have been right there with them. Am I really such a reactionary animal, a product of my environment, responding only to what is happening right in front of me? Listening to a tragically hardheaded West Point cadet and a hash-hazed civilian student debate some tired lines about the subject didn't help either. At the end of the day, lost within my own thoughts, I was again flipping through some pictures on the New York Times website when I came to an image that jolted me awake. It was a widow surround by bag-pipes grieving for her lost husband at Ground Zero – his gravesite and the final resting place of thousands of others. I cried. Why the celebrations, why the debates? Osama bin Laden was dead but this woman was still a widow, and thousands of children are still orphans. Yet, the Marine Corps makes more widows and orphans every day. These were tough questions and I wanted them to stop. I looked forward to ASAP to set me straight. WWII was a good war, a just war, where the U.S. took action to stop the evil Nazis from slaughtering millions of innocent people. Surely, such a black and white example would clear everything up and make the uncomfortable questions go away.
If I was expecting ASAP to dispel the clouds of moral uncertainty which I struggle with, than it certainly disappointed. Rather, what I experienced at the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington, D.C., the Museum of Jewish Heritage in New York and in Auschwitz shook many of my moral foundations which I had comfortably relied upon.
Just one of these convictions is my belief that of is that nobody is evil. I firmly believed that evil certainly exists in the world, but there is no such thing as an evil person. This belief was challenged after visiting Auschwitz and finding myself unable to explain a purpose for such a creation… Listening to the horrific stories of starvation and disease in the camps, I was able to chalk it up to Nazi incompetency, apathy, or stupidity for not properly caring for their "workers." But when I stepped into the gas chamber-crematorium complex, all of those illusions vanished. The cold concrete of the gas chambers, the rusting rails on which the Sonderkommando shuttled thousands of bodies for incineration and the red brick of the ovens reinforced with iron to prevent them from exploding as they operated around the clock confronted me with an undeniable reality: the Nazis sent millions of people here to expedite the process of killing them.
...In retrospect, my hope that ASAP would "straighten me out" and put to rest all of the moral questions that I have about my chosen profession was foolish. I left Poland not with more moral clarity, but with less. Those uncomfortable questions still nag me, but I value the opportunity to wrestle with those questions. Although there may be no right or wrong answer or clear blueprint for moral decision making, at least when a moral dilemma arises, it won't catch me off guard; I've at least waded into those muddy waters before.
Although my hopes to come away with some grand revelation were disappointed, I was able to walk away with some concrete lessons. We had several opportunities to delve into the murky waters of Nazi ideology. The Nazis channeled wide frustration felt by Germans after a humiliating defeat and economic depression in the wake of WWI to a single scapegoat: the Jews. An essential element of the Final Solution was a gradual but continuous campaign to dehumanize Jews in the minds of German soldiers and citizens. Using a combination of caricature, conspiracy and lies, the Nazis were able to paint Jews as dirty, diseased, parasitic and animal-like. Stripping Jews of their dignity as human beings facilitated and justified the terrible actions of the perpetrators.
Unfortunately, popular vocabulary used by many Americans and their military service members have a similar effect. Using slurs such as "Towel-head" and "Hadji" to refer to enemy is a dehumanizing step which can foster dangerous attitudes. What was Abu Ghraib other than just a little fun with some Towel-heads? Part of the problem is that the nature of the wars we wage today make it hard to clearly identify the enemy. Five years ago the Taliban were the clear enemy, but today they are a potential negotiating partner. Despite these difficulties, the stakes are too high to ignore this issue. It will be my responsibility to ensure that my Marines can clearly identify their enemy and then never tolerate any kind of language that denies people their humanity. Too many midshipmen come out of their required Ethics101 class feeling like they have checked the box of the moral part of their development at the Naval Academy. This kind of moral complacency is dangerous, and ASAP challenges this. Rather than a process of searching for and "discovering" the answers to difficult moral questions associated with the profession of arms, responsible moral development means engaging in a continual struggle with those questions. This is the imperative for those who have chosen a profession of arms and are entrusted with the authority to make life and death decisions.