Best Defense

Starship Troopers vs. Pork-Eating Crusaders: How military and civilian cultures prevent strategic corporals

By Jim Gourley Best Defense chief cultural correspondent It’s not often you see the ACLU stand up for someone’s right to express themselves in a politically incorrect and insensitive way, but that’s exactly what they did in September 2013 when they sued the Michigan state government on behalf of Iraq war veteran Michael Matwyuk. The ...

Flickr User Gerald Rich
Flickr User Gerald Rich

By Jim Gourley
Best Defense chief cultural correspondent

It’s not often you see the ACLU stand up for someone’s right to express themselves in a politically incorrect and insensitive way, but that’s exactly what they did in September 2013 when they sued the Michigan state government on behalf of Iraq war veteran Michael Matwyuk.

The item of dispute was the state’s repeated denials of Matwyuk’s request for a vanity license plate reading "INF1DL," a reference to infidel. The Michigan Secretary of State had already intervened in Matwyuk’s own suit against the state and issued the plate. In its official request that the ACLU suit be dropped, Michigan claimed that the denial had been "an administrative oversight." The ACLU argued that the state had acted on its written policies against word combinations that might be considered offensive. They wanted to continue the lawsuit because those policies did not clearly identify who had authority for adjudicating whether a particular word or phrase was inappropriate. There was no discussion whether the 57-year-old Matwyuk, who attained the rank of Sergeant, should have exercised better judgment when filing the request in the first place.

Matwyuk is just the most recent high profile example of a bothersome trend in military culture. According to a 2012 article on, web-based tactical couture retailer Mil-Spec Monkey has sold more than 10,000 "Pork Eating Crusader" patches for wear on combat uniforms. The patch, which features the bust of a man in medieval armor bearing the Knights Templar cross, is still listed on their site in the "troublemakers section," which offers a diverse array of patches to offend other people based on their gender, sexual orientation or religious beliefs. Another section offers a patch made to resemble an army Ranger tab with the word "Infidel" written on it. There is also the new "Infidel Strong" patch, a riff on the Army’s recruiting slogan. Those who are bigger fans of sports might prefer the Major League Infidel products offered by Crye Precision, developer and manufacturer of the U.S. military’s MultiCam uniforms. Apparently aware of the potential windfall, the company trademarked the name and logo.

The profitability translates to visibility. Photos of American and coalition service members displaying infidel-themed products in Iraq and Afghanistan are all over the internet. Most of them are in English, but more than a few have made the effort to have the word inked in Arabic, ostensibly so there will be no confusion among the intended audience.

It’s understandable that soldiers feel the need to vent built-up frustrations from combat through humor and to engage in forms of subtle retaliation against their enemy. Warriors have been conducting their own form of international relations since the days when they lined up on fields close enough to see each other. But this kind of up-close-and-personal communication unleashes unique consequences in a war where messages have as much impact as mortars. An image of a German soldier wearing the Pork Eating Crusader patch was posted to a forum on the website Islamic Awakening. One comment summarized the overall reaction: "soon to be eating ball bearings crusader."

When mistakenly burned Qurans and YouTube videos cause a storm of international outrage with kinetic effects, it’s arguable that this sort of iconography is detrimental. None of this is an encouraging commentary on the 21st century Corporal’s agility in the clouded atmosphere of "the three block war." That’s exactly what concerned USMC Reserve Major Ramsey Sulayman in an interview for the article. The Lebanese-American, who also does legislative work for Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America, opined that "When you are trying to hold the moral high ground and you’re trying to say, ‘This is who we are and this is what we do,’ those sorts of incidents [referring to the burned Korans and the Marine urination case] and the Major League Infidel just erode that ground under your feet that you are trying to stand on. Pretty soon you’re in the swamp with everybody else." Earlier that year he admonished American military and civilian society that, "Excusing abominable behavior as a result of that frustration" was "callous and inhuman." Such behaviors included the use of racial and ethnic slurs.

This is particularly relevant in light of remarks made by Michael Matwyuk’s attorney, who said the vanity plate was probably only issued because of the media attention and public outcry the case generated. In other words, even those who fought on Matwyuk’s behalf felt that the government had rightly determined the plate to be of sufficiently questionable content as to deny it. The parties involved did not discuss the strategic implications, but that doesn’t mean they don’t exist. Earlier in 2013 a Florida skydiving center received a storm of public criticism after it asked combat veteran Eddy Bryant to cover up an Arabic-language tattoo of the word "infidel" on his calf. Qatari soldiers who happened to be training at the facility had noticed the tattoo and expressed their displeasure with it to the managers. At some point, either the management asked Bryant to leave or he did so of his own accord. Online comments fully sided with Bryant and lobbed more insults at the Qataris. No one mentioned the strategic partnership the US has with Qatar.

Both General Petraeus, while commanding in Afghanistan, and General Dempsey, as Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, have at various times called upon Florida Pastor Terry Jones to back off his anti-Muslim rhetoric out of fear that it might have dire repercussions on troops in combat. Neither of them mentioned whether they felt it was antithetical to American values to make such statements. Mirroring Sulayman’s concerns, Peter Van Buren, a 24-year Foreign Service veteran and author of the book We Meant Well, told Thomas Frank of Harper’s Magazine that invoking the word "infidel" in front of local populations were "beyond stupid." Again, this was an assessment of strategic calculus rather than moral or ethical consideration. 

Sulayman then is the lone voice declaring it is both strategically unsound and decidedly immoral to make such displays. His lack of equivocation is matched by his unique authority on the issue. His ethnic background, legal training and combat experience make him the COIN equivalent of Juan Rico in Heinlein’s Starship Troopers: a leader intent on finishing the fight, yet steeped in the philosophy of his profession and the ethics of his nation. The military would love nothing more than to fill its ranks with civic-minded intellectual warriors-the ultimate strategic Corporals. But as the Mil-Spec Monkey sales figures and Matwyuk’s determination show, it is heavily populated by those more aligned with the character Ted Hendrick, a brawler who shoots his mouth off before his neurons have a chance to fire. In the book, Hendrick winds up talking himself into a flogging and discharge despite his leaders’ best efforts to shield him from punishment.

Without realizing it, Heinlein probably defined the necessary depth and length of training to
breed reliably adept strategic Corporals through Rico and Hendrick’s contrasting decisions. In his projection of war in the future, a common infantryman is armed with a small arsenal of nuclear weapons. Strategically speaking, Corporals get to be all they can be. But they must be as nimble at balancing between the ethics of their society and exigencies of combat as they are working the controls of their exo-suits. Such ethical and strategic agility is fostered by a society that establishes tangibly harsh definitions of citizenship, then honed by vigorous instructor-led introspection on some of the most fundamental questions of what it means to be a soldier. It should be noted that, to achieve this level of tactical acuity and good judgment, basic training lasts two years in remote military camps. This is logistically and financially unfeasible for today’s military, but it may also be an institutional bridge too far. While military regulations on tattoos and uniform wear have always prohibited offensive or profane messages, leaders and the law seem permissive regarding the "infidel" and the "pork eating crusader" phrases. It gives the impression that it’s okay to insult your enemy if you use self-deprecating humor.

There are many who believe this philosophy is dangerous in its ignorance of the collateral hearts and minds damage. Yet the water is muddier than we’d like. Perhaps the most iconic use of "infidel" is an image captured by renowned combat photographer Tim Hetherington of Sergeant Tanner Stichter, a member Battle Company 173rd Airborne Brigade. In the photo, Stichter, stands shirtless, exposing a large tattoo across his chest that reads "Infidel" in a font that looks pulled off an AC/DC album. He does this as he takes the fingerprint of an Afghan man somewhere in the Korengal Valley of Afghanistan. Whether the Afghan man can read the words or not, the look on his face screams "awkward moment." If Stichter has any regard for the man or his dignity, it doesn’t show. There is a substantial context for this moment on film, however. Hetherington found Stichter’s tattoo so provocative that he titled his 2010 book of war photography Infidel, and even used Stichter’s tattoo design for the cover. Hetherington shot most of his images while working in the Korengal Valley with Sebastian Junger on their documentary "Restrepo."

In the forward he wrote for Hetherington’s book, Junger explained how the word came to hold exceptional meaning to the men of Battle Company. "Their name for us was ‘Infidel.’ We were in the Korengal Valley, in eastern Afghanistan, and the US military could listen in on enemy radio communications in the area. ‘The infidel are at their base.’ Sometimes they called us much worse things, but ‘infidel’ was their favorite, and after a while the men began to tattoo the word in huge letters across their chests." 

Heathrington’s book and the context of Junger’s introduction focus diffuse issues of national importance into a beam that penetrates the individual soldier’s heart. The circumstances of Battle Company in the Korengal are singularly unique in their extremity. The image of Stichter has therefore become disproportionately representative of the greater military population. Similarly, these men endured combat and isolation so brutal that they believed at times they were fighting a war totally separate from the rest of the world. As lonely and hellish as their existence was, should they have expected the way they coped with it would be made so public? Having sent them to a war so distant and incomprehensible to us, is it right for society to expect them to have cared about the message they sent to the outside world?

Right or not, that is exactly the stance some military professionals have proposed we take. But civilian society’s divided response on the issue at least opens the debate that service members should be given a pass due to the extraordinary burden placed upon them by combat. The first step in resolving the debate is to realize that the two sides are talking past each other. Civilian society argues in favor of a soldier’s rights, while military leaders are concerned only with the consequences to the mission. If Starship Troopers ever deserved the places it’s held on military reading lists since its publication, then the resolution it offers should be taken seriously. To produce successful strategic Corporals, the military and civilian society must incorporate each others’ views to construct a holistic philosophy: that it is both morally and strategically corrupt to engage in such behavior, and fighting in distant, alien lands is no more an excuse for it in the Korengal than it is on Klendathu. To say this is a harsh indictment of Stichtner, Matwyuk or Bryant is superficial, for of all the parties to their sins they are the least guilty. In Heinlein’s view, it is the country that makes the citizen and the army that makes the soldier. The aforementioned service members are certainly failed strategic Corporals, as are most of their cohort, but that only means they are failed products. The source of failure resides in the nation and institution whose commission it was to produce them. Perhaps then it is most important to note that Heinlein’s version of citizenship and soldiery only emerged after the flaws in our contemporary system caused its collapse.

Thomas E. Ricks covered the U.S. military from 1991 to 2008 for the Wall Street Journal and then the Washington Post. He can be reached at Twitter: @tomricks1

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