There’s a little* firestorm brewing over the above photo. What does it mean? Why would these men pose with such an infamous martial symbol?
I have a theory that gives them the benefit of the doubt: these men are making a point about what they’ve been sent to do in a foreign land. More on this in a moment.
The men in the photograph are trained killers, their training paid for by our tax dollars, and our elected representatives sent them to the foreign land to do exactly what they do. They are U.S. Marines, the best killers in the world. I don’t say this to be laudatory, sarcastic, or ironic; I’m merely pointing out the obvious. So when we send these men to Afghanistan to kill, we can expect that’s what they’ll do and do very well. Whether or not they enjoy what they do, or find dark humor in what they do, or hate what they do, it’s their job. Whatever brought them to the doorstep of the U.S. Marine Corps, they all took an oath to defend this nation. Their oath doesn’t come with an a la carte menu; they don’t get to decide** which deployment fits the definition of their oath and which is a clear violation.
So I say it doesn’t matter why the men in the photograph decided to put a Schutzstaffel flag underneath the U.S. flag. Whether or not it was their intention, the men hanging the SS flag are sending a clear moral message about the nature of what they’ve been ordered to do in Afghanistan. If you are outraged by what you see in the photograph, then you need to ask yourself why; because SS flag or no SS flag, the killing is continuing.
Again, the men in the photograph, or thousands like them, are still over there doing what they were trained and deployed to do. If what they are doing is wrong, then we all ought to be more offended by the presence of the Stars and Stripes than we are of the other flag; which one, after all, is supposed to be drenched in innocent blood? On the other hand, if we’re happy or content with what the men are doing, then we shouldn’t complain about the SS flag, unless maintaining hypocritical fiction is more important to us than doing the right thing.
That last clause brings us to the core of this little controversy. What’s more important: emotional reaction to the imagery, or the moral weight of the reality? In November 2008, roughly 98% of U.S. citizens who voted chose a presidential candidate who had promised to continue the war in Afghanistan. So you all got what you wanted, and the men in the photograph are the ones sent to do it for you. Don’t condemn them for showing you the moral reality of what you asked for.
*I say ‘little’ to make clear my view that the firestorm would have been much larger had the photo been taken and released during the Bush administration. I’ll leave it to Glenn Greenwald to explain that bit.
**In the strictest, most literal sense they do get to decide, assuming they’re willing to accept the consequences for such a potentially contrary decision– and some have heeded their consciences and accepted the consequences– but just imagine the chaos if every individual military person suddenly began to individually decide which deployments and which missions he or she believed worthy of execution. In some ways we might think this a good thing, but it would still be moving the cart by pulling it sideways.