In Marching into Darkness: The Wehrmacht and the Holocaust in Belarus, Waitman Wade Beorn presents a clear account of the extent to which regular German army units participated in the Final Solution, laying bare in the process the organizational culture that permitted such atrocity. In the piece below, Beorn considers how his work on the German military should inform American attitudes toward rare but repugnant acts of atrocity by American military personnel.
Several isolated incidents of American military atrocities in Iraq and Afghanistan have recently shocked America (and the world). In 2010, a Marine Scout Sniper unit posed with their adopted unit flag, depicting the “SS” runes of that infamous Nazi organization. There is much evidence to suggest that this was not an isolated incident and that Scout Snipers have been using the runes for years. In that same year, a group of Army soldiers murdered unarmed Afghan civilians and proudly documented their actions. Dubbed the “Kill team,” this platoon had a “reputation” and “a lot of practice staging killings and getting away with it,” according to one Army witness. In 2011, a different group of Marine Scout Snipers filmed themselves urinating on the corpses of dead enemy combatants. A recent interview with the leader of that group, SGT Joseph Chamblin, generated anger among many. It should. He was unrepentant: “I don’t see anything wrong with it, they're a bunch of f---ing animals.” Another member of the group condemned the Marine who released the video as a “traitor” and a “coward.”
Public responses to these crimes vary from strident condemnation (and polemical stereotyping) to apologetic platitudes. Regardless, it is clear these incidents stemmed from permissive and/or dysfunctional organizational cultures. I do not argue that the American military is culturally immoral or dysfunctional; to the contrary, the extraordinary nature of these incidents indicates that our prevailing military culture generally prevents such events. On the other hand, culture is created at all levels and dismissing the atrocities above as merely the actions of disturbed individuals or “rogue units” misses the very importance of cultivating ethical organizational climates.
A disturbing example of the tendency to admire the German military’s tactical abilities without regard for the larger context of Nazi genocide appears in the professional military publication, Small Wars Journal. Last year, the editor-in-chief Dave Dilegge was “appalled” by outrage to the SS-flag incident and said the use of the runes indicated “a professional respect for the German military’s martial capabilities on the battlefield and not the politics or actions of the Nazi fascist regime.” Such misplaced professional respect for the Wehrmacht remains a troubling aspect of American professional military culture.