Ethical leadership: Let’s talk about victims in the Marine urination case

Ethical leadership: Let’s talk about victims in the Marine urination case

By Jim Gourley
Best Defense all-star team

Last week’s posts on this blog regarding the moral dimension of military leadership fostered lively debate among readers. The opinions written represented the entire spectrum of academic and personal viewpoints. However, as it always goes with such discussions, it always comes back to action. Whatever improvement the discussion provides to our ethical calculus and however flawed it remains, we never have the luxury of establishing the times and places in which we make the difficult choices. As Donald Rumsfeld said, you go to war with the military you have, not the one you wish you had.

And so this week presents the American military with another demonstration of at-best-flawed ethics in leadership, this time from none other than the commandant of the Marine Corps. In an exclusive report, the Marines Corps Times reveals the plight of Corporal Rob Richards, one of four Marines who were shown urinating on the bodies of Taliban fighters his scout-sniper group had recently killed in early 2012. Corporal (then Sergeant) Richards was severely injured during the Battle of Marjah in 2010. His physical recovery required a half-dozen surgeries. He experienced extreme flashbacks and was prescribed what the Times described as a “cocktail of medications that included painkillers and Valium.” He quit his meds abruptly after joining 3/2 to prepare to deploy with them less than a year after the attack that had injured him so badly.

Cpl. Richards told the Times that his unit recorded 320 kills during that deployment. He was also part of several details sent to retrieve the bodies of Marines killed in action. The Taliban deliberately hacked some of the dead into pieces and booby-trapped them with bombs. In one case, a Marine’s leg was hung from a tree to mock them. The man responsible for these horrors was among the dead that Richards and his compatriots desecrated.

What has happened since the video was released offers endless points of contention. Some will focus on the miraculous escape of Lt. Col. James B. Conway (son of retired Commandant General James T. Conway) to a command assignment, while the company commander faces charges of dereliction of duty and then-battalion commander Lt. Col. Christopher Dixon has been put on ice until the investigation closes. Others will point fingers at Amos for exerting undue influence by first telling the convening authority, Lt. Gen. Thomas Waldhauser, that he wanted Richards and his fellow Marines “crushed,” then removing Waldhauser from the case entirely. Waldhauser had proposed measures to work around courts-martial.

Though he’ll find plenty of wiggle room to argue he committed no crime, the appearance of impropriety alone is sufficient to say that Amos has failed to meet the ethical standard of the office to which he has been trusted. But this is only one snowflake on the iceberg. There are bigger questions that should be asked.

Where was the care and attention that should have been paid to Corporal Richards’s drug regimen? Why did no one follow up when he did not come back for prescription refills? Where was the awareness and consideration of 3/2 Marines during their initial efforts to bring Corporal Richards into their unit? What decision-making process led them to conclude that someone so recently and severely injured was a good choice to bring into the unit? Were they simply out of options? Was there a pervasive fear that asking for someone more fit for duty would get them labeled a “problem unit?” How did their scales balance truth and power? What measures were being taken to counsel Marines on the battlefield taking part in such disproportionately numerous killing? Did leaders foster a unit environment in which it was okay to talk about such things? Were there no outlets for such egregious pent-up fear and rage other than urinating on corpses? We sent Corporal Richards to Afghanistan and broke him physically and mentally. Then we patched his body, doped his mind, and sent him right back into a horror movie where he watched death and atrocity on a daily basis. The available data on what happens in cases like these took this incident beyond the realm of foreseeable outcomes and into foregone conclusions.

And ultimately, what great strategic end was served by the deaths of the 320 men

Corporal Richards’s unit killed and the six Marines and one Corpsman whose lives were sacrificed? This last question is hardly esoteric, and no less relevant to the discussion than any other. The fundamental reason and common refrain in the USMC’s prosecution of this case has been the “damage done to the mission” by the discovery of the act. If this is the case and the punishment for such damage is the end of a Marine’s career, what should the punishment be for devising an unwinnable mission and then pursuing it in ways that are wasteful and counterproductive?

General Amos has been either the second- or highest-ranking officer in the Marines for nearly half of America’s 12-year slog through Afghanistan. Certainly he owns more culpability in any damage to the mission than Corporal Richards. Furthermore, for every step along Richards’s path to that fateful day in 2012, Amos owns at least a degree of the blame for the failures in Marine Corps leadership. “Commanding officers never delegate responsibility,” Amos told the Senate Armed Services Committee this June. “Commanding officers are charged with building and leading their team to withstand the rigors of combat by establishing the highest level of trust throughout their unit. Unit commanding officers set the command climate.”

In the prior academic discussion, Lt. Cols. Fromm, Pryer, and Cutright argued that the greatest threat to military ethics is the “sloganeering” of values. They might argue now that “the leader is ultimately responsible for everything the unit does or fails to do” is the victim in this case. For what more ultimate leader does the U.S. Marine Corps have than Amos, and what blame has he accepted in the case?

But the philosophical view is wrong. This is not an academic discussion, and the real victim in this case is Corporal Rob Richards. He’s a United States Marine.

Jim Gourley, a former Army infantry and intelligence officer, is a journalist and author. He is a regular contributor to Best Defense.