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Marine video fallout: Smartphones an asset or liability?

The usual introspection has begun at DoD concerning the fallout from the Marine micturition video.  Charles Hoskinson at POLITICO provides the backstory and the current thinking about the matter:

In the post-Sept. 11 era, an overseas deployment no longer means being out of touch for days or weeks at a time. Nearly any service member can use a smartphone to communicate instantly with family and friends. And even forward-operating bases in Afghanistan and other hot spots have Internet cafes where troops can send emails, update their blogs or upload to YouTube videos that can quickly go viral worldwide.

Those communications can be as positive as a photo of Marines shielding Afghan civilians from enemy fire. Or as negative as a video that inspires Afghans and others to believe that the United States is urinating on their values.

At the Pentagon, Wilson readily acknowledged the challenges. “We have a hell of a lot to do and a long way to go for policy to catch up to technology,” he said.

The problem, crudely put, is one “Aw, shit” kills hundreds of “Atta boys”.  There is indeed a positive role for the use of smartphones by troops.  But the downside is also huge.

Simply put: With camera-ready smartphones within reach of nearly every service member, is technology outpacing efforts by military commanders to harness it?

Marine Corps spokesman Lt. Col. Stewart Upton lays out some of the upside:

Mobile phones also are useful tools for communicating on the battlefield and for recording enemy tactics or evidence of possible war crimes, he said.

The downside, as witnessed by the urination video, can be pretty bad as well. 

Here’s a key point:

Local commanders have the option of barring the use of mobile phones and Internet access, but that’s likely to have a devastating impact on morale, Marine spokesman Lt. Col. Stewart Upton said.


“I think such a decision would be throwing the baby out with the bath water,” Upton said. “Everyone needs to be trained in smart social media use. You can’t have a warrior out there that isn’t trained to think about the first, second and third implications of uploading a video like this to YouTube.”

I agree. Probably the most puzzling aspect of the urination video is how or why it ended up on YouTube.  I don’t think there are many out there who watched the video that condone the action of the subject Marines.  The disagreement is on how to describe what they did, with one side using descriptors such as “desecration” and “disrespectful” and the other trotting out words such as “atrocity”.

This was not an atrocity by any stretch, but it was stupid.  Even worse, however, was displaying the stupidity for the whole world to see.  And that goes back to the point made in the article by Upton – “You can’t have a warrior out there that isn’t trained to think about the first, second and third implications of uploading a video like this to YouTube.”  The unanswered question is, “what were they thinking?!”

Each Soldier, Sailor, Marine and Airman who knows the overarching goals of the wars we are fighting should inherently understand the damage something like that does to its accomplishment.  Common sense policy and training are how you avoid (or lessen) situations like that. Banning smartphones would be the worst thing the military could do.  But, frankly, this is a lesson that should have been learned earlier, in all honesty:

The Abu Ghraib scandal was devastating because it brought the image of the United States down to the level of its enemies in the eyes of Iraqis, said the retired officer, who witnessed some of the fallout among the local population. But it could have been worse.

“Imagine if we had video of that stuff. … Imagine how bad that would have been,” he said. “The question is how do we get ahead of this so we avoid the next one?”

I’m not saying there’s another Abu Ghraib out there but I am saying that this sort of thing should have been anticipated.  That doesn’t excuse the Marines, obviously.  However, as the article points out, and the DoD spokesman articulates above, “We have a hell of a lot to do and a long way to go for policy to catch up to technology.”

It’s time.  In fact, it is past time.  Just don’t, as LTC Upton says, throw the baby out with the bathwater.