Photo scandal shows why it's time to stop treating servicemembers like saints

The top enlisted members of the U.S. Armed Forces take their seats at the start of a House hearing on Capitol Hill in Washington, D.C., on March 8, 2017. Committee members opened the hearing with questions about a scandal involving military members sharing nude photos of female servicemembers on various social media platforms. Answering questions are from left: Chief Master Sgt. of the Air Force Kaleth Wright, Sgt. Maj. of the Marine Corps Ronald Green, Master Chief of the Navy Steven Giordano and Sgt. Maj. of the Army Daniel Dailey.


By STEPHEN CARLSON | Special To The Washington Post | Published: March 21, 2017

The American people largely venerate their servicemembers. There is nothing wrong with this. These men and women sign their lives away in exchange for low pay and generous benefits mired in bureaucracy. In times of war, they face uncertainty and sacrifices that would make most Americans quail. Disappearing for a year or more while leaving family behind to pick up the pieces is hard enough without the threat of injury or death. It is what comes with the job, and if any soldier, Marine, airman or sailor complains about that, they never should have signed the dotted line.

For all the hagiography, though, these people are not saints. They are young middle-class and poor people who often joined up because they had no idea what else to do with their lives. I was the same way. They cover every demographic, every social class and every degree of morality. For the most part, these people are not patriots looking to lead a charge while holding a flag over their heads. They are looking for a steady job, social advancement and, if they can stomach it long enough, a pension. These are classic working stiffs.

And sometimes they act like criminals and sociopaths. Witness the horrific scandal involving countless Marines posting thousands of nude photos of female colleagues. It is hard to decide which is worse, the disgusting commentary on these closed Facebook sites referencing rape and molestation, or the fact that these Marines made a contest out of getting sneak peeks of nude women.

Sadly, none of this is new. In my old Army unit in Afghanistan, sexually explicit pictures of a female soldier at headquarters floated around. Instead of someone in charge putting a stop to it, the photos were treated as a joke, with a bunch of men laughing over the young woman. The photos were taken with her permission, but the sharing of them was not, and she didn't deserve any of the abuse she received from her fellow soldiers.

The military is built on machismo, and I will never truly understand what female servicemembers have to deal with every day. Idiocy abounds with Joe, the standard term for the standard soldier.

A soldier in my company once entered a bar inebriated, threw several shot glasses and bottles through a mirror, then got in a brawl with the police that ended with him covered in mace. In the process, he knocked a female officer unconscious and received a public beating so severe that it got him off most of his charges.

Three decorated soldiers in my company got so high on drugs that they thought it was a good idea to rob a gas station near the base using assault rifles while wearing their uniforms. It never occurred to them to take off their name tags. One of these men was a genuine hero who showed great courage in combat. They all did prison time.

Blaming the command structure for this sort of misogyny and misconduct is appropriate, but misguided in its own way. This problem can't be solved by colonels and sergeants major monitoring the social media activities of thousands of personnel. They do have to take responsibility for the actions of these men, but, in the end, Joe is going to be Joe.

These are not mighty warriors, as the American public often makes them out to be. Young men are well known to act stupidly, including running into machine-gun fire to prove their worth for some dubious cause. That is courage. That same lack of judgment can apply to being a pig in a contest to see who can get the most nude photos of women they serve with -- the same people they've pledged to protect with their lives if necessary. That is something much darker. We can celebrate the former, but the latter is something that needs to be quashed with all the fury of the military justice system.

These people are professionals. "Boys will be boys" does not apply to a bunch of smirking wannabe soldiers seeing who can be the most disgusting one of the lot. This dishonors everyone, from the military to the society that supports it. It's time for these boys to grow up.


Stephen Carlson served two tours in Afghanistan as an infantryman with the 10th Mountain Division. He lives in Washington.

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