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Experts Fear Fallout From Afghanistan Video


The Marine Corps has identified at least two of the four Marines in a video that surfaced last night as Marines based at Camp Lejeune in North Carolina. The video shows four U.S. Marines in Afghanistan in full combat gear, standing over the corpses of three men, laughing and urinating on the bodies. The audio is difficult to understand.


UNIDENTIFIED MAN #1: Here's the tough guy (unintelligible).

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #2: I think so (unintelligible).

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #3: I think yeah (unintelligible).

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #4: (Unintelligible).

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #1: Look at mine. Yeah. (Unintelligible).

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #2: Have a great day, buddy.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #3: It's so (unintelligible).

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #4: (Unintelligible) may not (unintelligible).

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #2: Just like a shower.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #4: Standing the whole thing...

CONAN: At one point, a man says, have a great day, buddy. Another asks, are you getting it on video? The response: Yup. The posting identifies the Marines as part of a scout sniper team from 3rd Battalion, 2nd Marine regiment. That unit served in Afghanistan's Helmand province from March through September of last year. The Afghan Defense Ministry called the video shocking. Defense Secretary Leon Panetta said: utterly deplorable. Many worry the incident will further inflame anti-American feelings, just as the U.S. tries to bring the Taliban into peace talks.

This morning, the Pentagon promised a full investigation. We don't yet know who took the video or who released it. The Pentagon has, as we say, just identified two of the men involved, but says there's no reason to doubt the authenticity. And, of course, the YouTube video is brief. We don't know the full context. We'd like to hear from Marines today. How does this happen? 800-989-8255. Email us: talk@npr.org. You can also join the conversation at our website. That's at npr.org, click on TALK OF THE NATION.

Captain Timothy Kudo is a Marine who left active service in March. He's a senior membership associate with Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America and joins us now from New York. And, Captain Kudo, nice to have you on TALK OF THE NATION today.

TIMOTHY KUDO: Thank you. I appreciate it. Good to be here.

CONAN: And as I understand it, the unit you were with was in that exact part of Helmand province, was relieved by this unit of Marines.

KUDO: Yeah, that's correct. They relieved us in March this - of last year.

CONAN: So can you tell us what the situation there was like?

KUDO: We were basically spread out over several positions. Our battalion had many, many positions over many square kilometers, and we were doing counterinsurgency. We were building up local governance, building schools, working with the locals and fighting the Taliban in the middle of all that.

CONAN: And how frequent was combat?

KUDO: It was almost daily, I would say. IEDs were definitely daily, sometimes many, many times a day. And firefights with the enemy, depending on where we went and how bold they decided to be, were very, very common.

CONAN: So it is not unusual for Marines there to expect combat on a daily basis?

KUDO: I think every Marine expects combat every day.

CONAN: As you looked at this video, what was your reaction?

KUDO: I was disgusted. I was disgusted as a Marine and as an American. And, you know, I think it's important to note that this is four individuals. They're completely outside of the values in the Marine Corps and everything that we taught them and believe in as - in terms of Marine Corps leadership, and how we're supposed to behave in a combat zone. And I think, frankly, that it's disappointing to myself as a Marine that they're going to be identified forever as Marines having had done this.

CONAN: And how does this sort of thing happen? I know you can't speak to the specifics, we don't know, but in general.

KUDO: Well, I think it's a failure of leadership. I think, obviously, they went off the reservation and they acted rogue. And, you know, trying to get inside their heads is impossible because as a Marine, you're taught completely different things, and they didn't act as Marines. They acted as individuals. They acted doing something that's despicable, and it's clearly, you know, something root deep inside of them that caused them to do this thing.

CONAN: It is unclear. The NCIS, the Naval Criminal Investigative Service, has been asked to look into this, and obviously, we don't know what could happen to them. But from your experience, what might happen to them?

KUDO: Well, they'll do an investigation. They'll find out all the details. They'll get sworn statements and physical evidence, and then there will be probably a court martial, and presumably some of these of guys will be found guilty and they'll go to jail for a while.

CONAN: Go to jail.

KUDO: Mm-hmm. Go to the brig.

CONAN: And as somebody who's - everybody has a video camera of some sort today, these days. In - do you give your men any kind of instructions about their use and what appropriate is?

KUDO: Absolutely. I mean, I think as Marines, you break it down in simplest terms, and we tell them, you know, basically, don't be stupid. But they're given a lot more detailed instructions on what to photograph and what not to photograph. And dead bodies, mutilations, things like that, things that are very common in a war zone are obviously off-limits. You know, we'll take photos for investigative purposes at times, and those stay within the chain of command. They go through formal channels.

But you're right. A lot of Marines do have video cameras and, you know, photograph these days. And I think most of them spend it on taking pictures of their buddies, taking pictures of the Afghans that they're helping. They use it in a positive way. And, you know, aside from the just absolute devastating, immoral act of urinating on these bodies, you know, the fact that they're videotaping it is completely egregious, and then would post it on YouTube. I mean, it completely sets back the war effort and puts a lot of Marines and service members that are over there right now in absolute danger.

CONAN: Here's an email that we have from Scott: As a former Marine, I could more so understand the mentality of these men, for what they have to see and do on a daily basis. It's impossible for those who are not in their situation to judge their actions. We expect these men to be killers and are aghast when they're affected by what our government has them do. As is evident with the high cases of PTSD, violence changes you.

I don't think it's arguable. Violence does change you. Do to circumstances, like that - I mean, can you imagine any circumstances that would justify this?

KUDO: No, I don't think I can. I think that when you're in combat, especially, the lines of right and wrong become even more rigid because you do have the ability to kill people. And it's more important then, than any other time, to know what is acceptable and what is not. And there are plenty of service members who go over there, and they do struggle. It's a very challenging environment, and, you know, about 20 percent of returning service members have PTSD. But that doesn't excuse something like this.

And despite the fact what people are going to say, that, you know, it was PTSD and all these kinds of things, it's important to note that this was - there are plenty of service members who go over there and serve honorably and do the right thing, and yet this small group of Marines decided to do something unconscionable. And so I think it's not right to say that, you know, it's something that just happens in war because it doesn't. Almost all the time, it does not happen. It's an isolated extreme case - this is.

CONAN: Let's see if we'd get a caller in on the conversation. We'd like to hear from Marines, 800-989-8255. Email: talk@npr.org. And we'll start with Matthew, Matthew with us from Ann Arbor.

MATTHEW: Hello. I am, actually, a former U.S. Marine infantryman stationed at Camp Lejeune. And I was really shocked when I saw the video yesterday when it first broke on LiveLeak, especially since the Marine Corps is only 180,000 people strong. So you tend to recognize a few faces. It's a very difficult thing to watch, especially being a Marine, considering that the integrity is doing the right thing when nobody's looking. And the fact that the Marines, in the very beginning, looked to make sure the coast is clear is what offends me the most as a former Marine.

CONAN: Looked to see if the coast was clear. You're talking about, in the video, they're looking around...

MATTHEW: In the very beginning, yes. They start to look and see - I believe that one of them kind of hesitates a minute and says, wait, and then tells them to go on because he notices that the coast is clear. No one was coming, so they would not be caught urinating on these bodies.

CONAN: Yet, then, making sure the video is recorded.

MATTHEW: Oh, yes. They must have known the video was rolling. They all seem to look at the camera, and that's when I - like I said, I recognize a face or two. And it tends to really hit you, because you know these people personally because the Marine Corps is not that big, and you tend to run into people that you may have known for a while.

And to see people that you really did not think would do this, do it, especially considering some of them - I, you know, would know from personal experience - are on their first combat deployment, for them to do something like that and to blame post-traumatic stress disorder or something like that would be wrong when it falls entirely on the individual Marines that were there, and their lack of integrity.

CONAN: Thanks very much for the call, Matthew. Appreciate it.

MATTHEW: No problem. Thank you.

CONAN: And, Captain Kudo, did you recognize anybody there?

KUDO: I didn't. But I will say just to kind of add on to what he's saying, you know, we spent in that same area, you know, seven months doing counterinsurgency. I lost five Marines, and yet in 39 seconds, they almost undid every single thing that we'd accomplished there. So it's like the scale of this thing is just staggering when you consider the impact that it's going to have not only on the area, but on the country as a whole.

CONAN: There's a statement issued by the Taliban, that said the incident was against all international human rights and not the only example of the horrific actions the Americans have done in Afghanistan. Quote: American soldiers are trained to spread horror, and this is one of the examples.

I know, Captain Kudo, you will take exception to what that characterization says. But, as you also say, this is going to bolster their cause.

KUDO: Yeah, absolutely. I mean, I know that the U.S. government was in talks with the Taliban, trying to resolve this. But even beyond the strategic level, you know, the guys on the ground are going to have a much harder time. There's going to be more bombs under their feet. There's going to be more bullets flying by.

And I think it's just an incredible detriment to every single thing that we are trying to accomplish there, and it's devastating. I mean, my unit right now, is actually deploying to go back to Afghanistan and - right as this is happening. You know, I know that they're going back to a much more dangerous place, and I'm worried about, you know, what they're going to encounter over there.

CONAN: And should we assume everybody in, well, not only where your unit is going, but everybody in Helmand Province is going to see this video?

KUDO: I think everyone everywhere is, to be honest, the entire Middle East and all of Afghanistan. I mean, right when I left, we had just finished installing cell phone towers. And it's nothing for them to go to a local bazaar, pick up a cheap cell phone, put this video on it and go to shuras throughout the countryside and show villagers what we're doing. And obviously it's not all of us, but they're going to tell them that it's civilians that were dead, and they're going to tell them that this is common, and they're going to have the video to convince these people. So it's devastating.

CONAN: We're talking with Captain Timothy Kudo, who's a retired Marine. His unit was in Helmand Province just before the unit that apparently, four members of, took this video of them desecrating the bodies of three men, apparently Taliban, but we don't know that. You're listening to TALK OF THE NATION, coming to you from NPR News. Let's go next to Bob, and Bob's with us from Minneapolis.

BOB: Hello, Neal.

CONAN: Hi. You're on the air. Go ahead, please.

BOB: My thought is that - my rank or service was in Vietnam, and I could tell you that I can - it's not that it's acceptable that this happened with these Marines, but it's somewhat understandable, only because of their - if you think about what they go through in terms of their training and their conditioning to go to Iraq, go to Afghanistan, and then being in a combat situation under the threat of death on a daily basis. And then when you have a victory, you know, there are just a certain segment of people that are going to try and celebrate it one way or the other. Not acceptable, not appropriate, but they're living in an entirely different world than the rest of us that are armchair quarterbacking, including the captain, as he sits there today. I think I can understand why some of these things happen. And I think we put these Marines in the place that they are, and we put them in the mindset to do what they did.

CONAN: Armchair quarterbacking, Captain Kudo?

KUDO: I mean, I think that, yes, we train these men to kill. We, in no way, ever train them to urinate on dead bodies. And, you know, we make mistakes. Like when I was over there, you know, we killed civilians by accident. Things happen in war that are terrible to both sides, but you always try to do the right thing. And you know when you're standing there, and you've taken your helmet off and the firefight's over, and you're looking around because you know you're about to do something wrong, that that's not OK. And nobody trains you to do that. So I don't know how that comes into play there.

CONAN: Bob, thanks very much for the call.

BOB: OK. Thanks.

CONAN: And, Captain Kudo, can you just give us some idea. In a unit that size - four men we see, obviously another one using the video camera, so five - what rank of Marine would have been in charge of that unit?

KUDO: It probably would have been a sergeant, probably a 22- to 25-year-old sergeant.

CONAN: And they are part of a, obviously, larger unit?

KUDO: There would be a scout sniper team out of a group, a scout sniper platoon, and they would probably be attached to some of the other companies, roughly three to four companies in a battalion working. They would have been attached there to do a specific sniper mission within a different - within that area.

CONAN: And scout snipers, do they get extra training?

KUDO: They do. They're considered somewhat elite, I guess you would say. They get extra training, obviously, marksmanship and also, you know, the ability to, you know, hide themselves, the ability to call for fire, so they're a much more advanced unit. And we also select them out of the general population of Marines, looking for issues such as leadership and maturity to make sure that they can handle operating independently like that.

CONAN: Let's go next to Paul. Paul is with us from Ettrick in Wisconsin.

PAUL: Hello?

CONAN: Hi. You're on the air, Paul.

PAUL: Yes. I just - I'm a Marine. I'm repulsed. I remember our training. We were trained not to do these things. And if they're going to claim post-traumatic stress, they've already tarnished the Marine Corps. If they're going to claim PTS, they're doing a disservice to the countless numbers of legitimate cases. These are not Marines. They are cowards. That's my comment.

CONAN: I could hear the emotion in your voice. This is, obviously, very important to you. Thanks very much for the call.

Email from Kathleen(ph): I have a nephew who served in the Marines in Helmand Province. I pray that he would not do something like this. But I've never been in a war nor seen my buddies blown up in front of me or maybe lost an arm or leg from a bomb. So many of these guys are over there on their second or third trip, I don't think we can know what goes through their minds. We know a lot of them come home with mental problems, and maybe these guys are suffering from PTSD while they are there. Of course, it's a terrible thing to desecrate the dead. But I'm not there, and I don't know what preceded this incident. They should be reprimanded, but nothing more. They are suffering enough.

And let's see if we can go next to - this is Lewis(ph), Lewis with us from Sacramento.

LEWIS: Yeah. Hi. I'm horrified, as a vet. I just find it just reprehensible. And my comment to everybody who's trying to understand these idiots is that if the Taliban had peed on our guys, we would not be trying to understand. We would be calling them every name in the book. We would demand that they'd be dishonorably discharged. We would demand that they'd be incarcerated. And for us to do not do that to our own people is just reprehensible. I think those guys should be dishonorably discharged. They do not deserve to be Marines, and there's no excuse, whatsoever, for what they did.

CONAN: Lewis, thanks very much for the call. And, Captain Kudo, I think that's - they won't be Marines for too much longer, I don't think.

KUDO: I mean, one hopes. And I'd like to go back to what the gentleman who called before was saying. You know, there is a pretty significant portion of service members these days that are struggling with PTSD, and we're seeing that, you know, in the veteran population back here in the United States. And that's caused some legal issues at times, but nothing on the scale of this. Which is why it's important to make a distinction between, you know, coming back and struggling with, you know, transitioning back into society and the issues of war and combat and the things that you might have seen. And doing something that's completely immoral and heinous - like what occurred here - they are two very different things. And it's important for, you know, Americans to realize that they're not connected.

CONAN: Captain Kudo, thanks for your time today.

KUDO: Thank you.

CONAN: Timothy Kudo, a Marine who left active service in March. He's senior membership associate with Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America, and he joined us from New York. Our guest used a phrase earlier that many people consider offensive to Native Americans, and that was not our intent.

Tomorrow it's TALK OF THE NATION: SCIENCE FRIDAY with "Confessions of a Surgeon." We'll be back here on Monday. Have a great weekend everybody. It's the TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News. I'm Neal Conan in Washington. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.