After the video went viral last week, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton declared that the wisecracking troops may have committed war crimes. Defense Secretary Leon Panetta called Afghan President Hamid Karzai to assure him that the incident would be thoroughly investigated. Panetta told The Washington Post he wanted "an investigation into what happened here, what laws were violated by what took place, who these individuals were." Karzai in turn called for Washington to "apply the most severe punishment to anyone found guilty in this crime."
In short order, the Marine Corps and the Naval Criminal Investigative Service identified and questioned Marines serving with the 3rd Battalion, 2nd Marines infantry unit, based at Camp Lejeune, N.C., as part of a criminal investigation into the incident.
Because the federal government never does anything just once, there will be a second investigation. Obama says he wants to streamline government to make it smaller and smarter. Cutting the number of investigations per incident would be a great start.
Better yet, let the president pardon the Marines to spare them and their families the ordeal of an extended investigation, mounting legal bills and possibly prison time.
I do not defend what they did. As Army Lt. Gen. Curtis Scaparrotti informed NATO troops last week, "defiling, desecrating, mocking, photographing or filming for personal use" the bodies of dead insurgents is a "grave breach" of combat law that breaks "faith with the Afghan people, who trust us to uphold standards of law and decency, and to treat the living and the dead with dignity and respect."
Civilized societies don't have a taboo against defiling corpses simply out of an over-refined sense of delicacy. If you want to bury your dead in peace, you have to treat enemy casualties with the respect you want for your own people.
Obama could use this episode as a teaching moment about the need for respect -- not to mention discretion -- in the era of the camera phone.
It also is a moment for Washington to consider that these Marines have made sacrifices in service to this country that noncombatants cannot begin to understand. These men have had to carry out the commander in chief's orders on the ground; that's a far more daunting duty than ordering a drone attack that kills the enemy and civilians remotely.
As Sebastian Junger wrote in The Washington Post, American troops "are very clear about the fact that society trains them to kill, orders them to kill and then balks at anything that suggests they have dehumanized the enemy they have killed."
Political science professor P.S. Ruckman, whose "Pardon Power" blog is the source for information on the presidential pardon, confirms that Obama has the authority to pardon the Marines today.
Washington politicians and bureaucrats are great at making other people pay for their mistakes. Want change? How about answering an act of thoughtless inhumanity with an act of unusual mercy?
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