Pentagon issues yet another hollow apology

U.S. Marines posing with Nazi SS flag in Afghanistan, the subject of a recent Pentagon apology.

Over the past several weeks, the Defense and State Departments have been compelled to issue three high-profile apologies and explanations, regarding the desecration of corpses in Afghanistan, a photograph depicting U.S. Marines posing with a Nazi SS flag, and now, an incident in which copies of the Koran were burned by U.S. personnel at a military base north of Kabul.

The latest apology, on the Koran burning, was issued by U.S. Defense Secretary Leon Panetta who called the incineration of the Muslim holy book by U.S. occupation forces “inappropriate.” He pledged to “carefully review the final results of the investigation to ensure that we take all steps necessary and appropriate so that this never happens again.”

Gen. John Allen, the U.S. Marine who commands Western forces in Afghanistan, reiterated the apology, saying, “I offer my sincere apologies for any offense this may have caused, to the president of Afghanistan, the government of the Islamic Republic of Afghanistan and, most importantly, to the noble people of Afghanistan.”

The apologies don’t appear to be having the intended effect of pacifying the country, however, with at least five dead and others wounded Wednesday in violent protests across Afghanistan. As the New York Times reported,

Protests against the burning by NATO personnel of an undisclosed number of Korans spilled into a second day on Wednesday and seemed poised to widen as the American Embassy here suspended all travel by its staff, and NATO soldiers in the capital appeared to be restricting their movements, keeping military vehicles off the streets. …

Protesters trying to break into the NATO base at the Jalalabad airfield set fire to six fuel tankers in a nearby parking lot.

In Kabul, protesters threw rocks at Afghan Army vehicles and shouted anti-American slogans as they blocked the main road to eastern Afghanistan.

The Los Angeles Times reported that “even some Afghans who said they believed the action had been the result of error, not malice, found it difficult to accept” the U.S. apology.

“They are careless with our holy things, and they are careless with our country,” said Wali Aziz, an Afghan shopowner.

The expressions of regret must have a familiar ring to Afghans, who have been occupied by U.S. forces for more than ten years and have heard more than their share of Pentagon apologies. Just last month, the Afghans were assured that a video depicting the desecration of Afghan corpses does not reflect America’s “core values.”

After a video of Marines urinating on the corpses of suspected Taliban fighters went viral, Defense Secretary Leon Panetta said, “I have seen the footage, and I find the behavior depicted in it utterly deplorable. Those found to have engaged in such conduct will be held accountable to the fullest extent.”

A Pentagon spokesman emphasized that “the actions portrayed are not consistent with our core values and are not indicative of the character of the Marines in our Corps.”

White House spokesman Jay Carney later echoed these remarks, telling reporters, “We apologize to the Afghan people and disapprove of such conduct in the strongest possible terms.”

Secretary of State Hillary Clinton reiterated the theme, saying that she condemns the “deplorable behavior” of the Marines and that “it is absolutely inconsistent with American values.”

Then, less than a month later, Pentagon officials were scrambling to explain the release of a photo of Marine snipers posing with a Nazi SS flag.

“I want to be clear that the Marine Corps unequivocally does not condone the use of any such symbols to represent our units or Marines,” Marine Corps Commandant James Amos said. “On behalf of the Marine Corps and all Marines, I apologize to all offended by this regrettable incident.”

Pentagon press secretary George Little said that racist and anti-Semitic symbols have no place alongside U.S. service members. It was claimed that the Marines in the photo mistakenly believed the “SS” in the shape of white lightning bolts were a nod to “sniper scouts,” not members of Adolf Hitler’s Schutz-Staffel unit that murdered millions of Jews, Catholics, and others.

The veterans’ antiwar organization March Forward took issue with this explanation. In an article posted on March Forward’s website, Kevin Baker, a former Staff Sergeant in the U.S. Army infantry who served 28 months in Iraq, drew a connection between the Nazi SS photograph and the video of the Marines urinating on dead Afghans:

These two situations emerged in different times and locations in the country, but are completely bound together. They are bound with the racism, sense of superiority and sense of nationalism that the military itself embraces and promotes.

Racism is embraced, coddled and on full display by the top leaders of the U.S. military. We see it everywhere, in plain sight.  …  Anyone who has served in the U.S. military knows that, despite the official line of its “Equal Opportunity Program” and official rules and regulations against racism, use of racist terms to dehumanize Muslims and the peoples of the Middle East and South Asia are so common they are part of the everyday vernacular.

Baker noted that “Nazi paraphernalia is not uncommon” in the military.

“In my time as an infantryman,” he says,

I saw Nazi paraphernalia regularly. Soldiers complained to me that in the barracks of Ranger Regiment on Fort Lewis, Nazi flags being hung in soldiers’ rooms without repercussion. My first tour in Iraq was the first time I remember seeing the “Deaths Head” pin, a symbol of the Nazi SS, placed on the front of soldiers’ vests. It was not the last.

Especially in Special Operations units—such as the Marine snipers in the photo—Nazi symbolism is revered. Why? Quite simply because the Nazis are famous for mercilessly killing and terrorizing millions of people. It fits right in to the mentality expected of Spec Ops.

Baker pointed out that when the U.S. military was experiencing a recruiting shortfall in 2005, the Department of Defense changed its policy against allowing self-avowed Nazis to join, and adopted an official “don’t ask, don’t tell” policy regarding members of neo-Nazi and white-supremacist organizations.

It is little wonder that in a military so infused with racism that scandals such as the corpse desecration video or the incineration of Korans emerge from time to time. But while there seems to be a flurry of scandals in the past several weeks, it is worth remembering that apologies from the military brass are nothing new, particularly in the “war on terror.”

Over the past year, there have been numerous apologies issued from the Pentagon on matters such as the emergence of gruesome “kill team” photos and the apparently accidental killing of nine young Afghan boys last March.

The apology over the massacre of the young boys was rejected by Afghan President Hamid Karzai who said that excuses by the U.S. cannot relieve the pain caused by these incidents.

There have also been apologies for scandals that hit closer to home. Last March, the Pentagon was criticized for likening the Seminole Indian tribe to al-Qaeda in court documents. The government “in no way questions or impugns the valor, bravery and honorable military service of Native Americans, past and present,” military lawyers wrote, adding that the Pentagon “does not, in fact, equate the conduct of the Seminoles in 1817-1818 with that of al-Qaida and its affiliated terrorist group.”

In December, the Air Force was compelled to apologize to the families of fallen American soldiers after it was revealed that the remains of hundreds of troops had been dumped in a Virginia landfill, far more than the military had earlier acknowledged.

“We regret any additional grief to families that past practices may have caused,” said Lt. Gen. Darrell D. Jones, an Air Force deputy chief of staff.

It remains to be seen whether apologies directed to the American people will continue having the desired effect, or whether, like the Afghans, Americans will begin to reject these expressions of regret as shallow half-measures from a Defense Department that appears to act beyond any bounds of accountability.

With the apologies becoming so routine and predictable, the question must be asked whether they carry any weight at all or if deeper, more systemic changes are needed within the military establishment.

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