Can the Military Maintain Core Values in a Smartphone World?

Logo of the United States Marine Corps

Logo of the United States Marine Corps

For Some Servicemen In the US Military, Misogyny Outranks Discipline and Honor


This is the bedrock of our character. It is the quality that empowers Marines to exemplify the ultimate in ethical and moral behavior: to never lie, cheat, or steal; to abide by an uncompromising code of integrity; to respect human dignity; and to have respect and concern for each other. It represents the maturity, dedication, trust, and dependability that commit Marines to act responsibly, be accountable for their actions, fulfill their obligations, and hold others accountable for their actions. — “What Are Marine Corps Values?“, Official Website of the United States Marine Corps

The United States Marine Corps, with its fiercely proud tradition of excellence in combat, its hallowed rituals, and its unbending code of honor, is part of the fabric of American myth. — Thomas E. Ricks, Making the Corps (1997)

Few institutions in American life are as justly celebrated as the United States Marine Corps. Apart from one fifteen-year gap following the end of the American Revolution, the Marine Corps has been in active service to our nation for nearly two hundred and forty-two years. Colloquially referred to as the “sharp end of the stick” of American foreign policy, US Marines have played an integral role in virtually all of this nation’s military conflicts and peacekeeping efforts.

As the world has grown both more complicated and more digital over the last two decades, however, the Corps has found itself facing many of the same challenges that afflict other institutions. As is so often the case, gender issues are at the forefront of those challenges. Although women have served in the Marine Corps since 1918, it was just four years ago that Defense Secretary Leon Panetta removed the ban on women serving in combat roles in all branches of military service.

The heated debate over Panetta’s decision helped to focus attention on the treatment of female Marines. In the spring of 2013, Representative Jackie Speier (D.-Calif.) learned that hundreds of derogatory comments about female Marines had been posted to a Facebook page called “F’N Wook.” (The word “wook” is a derogatory term derived from Star Wars that is used to describe female Marines.)

Speier sent a letter to Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel and Marine Commander James Amos detailing the contents of the Facebook page and demanding an explanation. In a reply dated three weeks later, General Amos told Speier that among other things, the Corps was hampered in its ability to deal with the problem by the budgetary constraints of sequestration. (Copies of the exchange can be viewed below.)

Subsequent stories (for instance, here and here) made it clear that the Corps struggled in its efforts to combat online attacks against female Marines. There are a number of reasons why progress was slow: online anonymity often frustrates investigators; the Corps has no jurisdiction over civilians and veterans who participate in online harassment; much of the content is protected by the First Amendment; and the sheer volume of posts and comments makes enforcement difficult, if not impossible.

Over the last several weeks, however, the issue of misogyny in the ranks has flared up again, thanks to a very detailed and thorough report published by Thomas James Brennan on the Web site Reveal, a publication for The Center for Investigative Reporting. Brennan himself is a Marine veteran and Purple Heart recipient who runs a non-profit, non-partisan Web site called The War Horse, which is “dedicated to investigating the Departments of Defense and Veterans Affairs.”

Brennan’s article is lengthy but it deserves a careful read and widespread distribution. His article focuses on inappropriate and harassing images and comments posted to a private Facebook group for active duty and retired Marines; the ironically-named “Marines United” group had nearly 30,000 members. The opening for Brennan’s article is chilling:

The U.S. Department of Defense is investigating hundreds of Marines who used social media to solicit and share hundreds — possibly thousands — of naked photographs of female service members and veterans.

Since Jan. 30, more than two dozen women – many on active duty, including officers and enlisted service members – have been identified by their full name, rank and military duty station in photographs posted and linked to from a private Facebook page.

In one instance, a female corporal in uniform was followed at Camp Lejeune, North Carolina, by a fellow Marine, who surreptitiously photographed her as she picked up her gear.

The photos, Brennan said, drew dozens or even hundreds of comments, with members describing in graphic detail what they would like to do to the women depicted in the photos. In the wake of Brennan’s story, several female Marines have shared their own experiences, with some saying that they would never re-enlist in the Corps.

Brennan’s article draws a detailed diagram of contemporary online harassment. Here are the highlights:

  • Illicit photo sharing began in the “Marines United” group not long after the first women were posted to Corps infantry units on January 5, 2017
  • Some photos were posted directly to the FB group. Others were shared via Google Drive; links to dozens of Google Drive folders containing illicit images, organized by victim, were posted to the FB group.
  • In addition, the Google Drive folders contained numerous subfolders with images of unidentified women.
  • Many of the images appeared consensual and many were taken by the women themselves. In responese to inquiries by Brennan, some women suggested their photos had been shared by former partners. Others thought their phones, computers, or online accounts might have been hacked.

At the request of the Marine Corps, both Facebook and Google deleted user accounts associated with the image sharing. The Corps also contacted the employer of the man who first posted a Google Drive link with photos to the “Marines United” group. That individual, a Marine veteran and government subcontractor, was fired.

According to a follow-up story in Time magazine, a Marine who posted an explicit photo of someone else could face charges under the Uniform Code of Military Justice. Posting comments that appear to condone or encourage such behavior may also result in disciplinary action.

As is so often the case, the initial investigation has uncovered additional online activity that raises concerns. Last week, for instance, USA Today reported that images were discovered on various Tumblr blogs of men in uniform — soldiers, sailors, and airmen — engaged in sexual activity. According to a spokesperson for the Pentagon, the Pentagon has created a “joint military task force” to continue the online investigation.

To its credit (and in contrast to its response in 2013), the Corps quickly acknowledged in the strongest terms the harm that this type of social media activity does to female Marines and to the organization as a whole. Sergeant Major Ronald L. Green, 18th Sergeant Major of the Marine Corps, issued a powerful statement about the controversy:

Marines are expected to live our Core Values of Honor, Courage, and Commitment. They are serving throughout the world, leading by example and honoring our legacy in both their professional and personal lives.
There is no place for this type of demeaning or degrading behavior in our Corps, this includes our actions online.
We need to be brutally honest with ourselves and each other. This behavior hurts fellow Marines, family members, and civilians. It is a direct attack on our ethos and legacy.
Let me be perfectly clear; no person should be treated this way. It is inconsistent with our Core Values, and it impedes our ability to perform our mission.
Standup, speak out, and be a voice of change for the better. Hold those who misstep accountable. We need to realize that silence is consent–do not be silent. It is your duty to protect one another, not just for the Marine Corps, but for humanity.
As Marines, as human beings, you should be angry for the actions of a few. These negative behaviors are absolutely contrary to what we represent. It breaks the bond[s] that hold us together; without trust, our family falters.
We must do a better job of teaching Marines what we expect of them in the social media realm. I expect all Marines to treat one another with dignity and respect, whether it be in public, behind closed doors or online.
I need you with me on this. I need you to protect one another, to care for one another. If you witness something that isn’t right, ACT! Do not allow anyone to harm our fellow Marines, our families, or our institution. We all must live a life that not only reflects our Core Values, but our cultural values of dignity, respect, and self-discipline.
Ultimately we must take a look in the mirror and decide whether we are part of the problem or the solution.

On March 17, General Ronald B. Neller, the Commandant of the Marine Corps, sent out an updated “Social Media Guidance” regarding “Unofficial Internet Posts.” The core recommendations are ones that every organization should consider implementing:

4. In addition to ensuring Marine Corps content is accurate and appropriate, Marines must also be careful when posting Marine Corps-related content on social networking sites, blogs, or on other websites since the lines between Marines personal and professional lives often blur in the online space. Marines represent the Marine Corps at all times, and their speech and conduct must consistently embody our core values and commitment to each other, our Corps, and our Nation. Marines should therefore always use their best judgment and avoid inappropriate behavior.
5. Marines must never engage in commentary or publish content on social networking platforms or through other forms of communication that harm good order and discipline or that bring discredit upon themselves, their unit, or the Marine Corps. In other words, Marines should think twice before engaging in questionable online activities, and must avoid actions online that threaten the morale, operational readiness and security, or public standing of their units, or that compromise our core values. Such commentary and content includes that which is defamatory, threatening, harassing, or which discriminates based on a persons race, color, sex, gender, age, religion, national origin, sexual orientation or other protected criteria. This type of conduct may be punishable under Article 92 of the Uniform Code of Military Justice (UCMJ). Existing orders and the UCMJ have long prohibited sexual or other harassment, fraternization, retaliation, reprisal, and hazing. Marines are reminded that their conduct, even off-duty or online, may violate Navy and Marine Corps orders and regulations. Finally, Article 134 prohibits a variety of offensive conduct, including indecent language, indecent conduct, and communicating a threat, and may also prohibit other neglects or disorders that are prejudicial to good order and discipline or Service-discrediting.

[My thanks to Major Clark Carpenter, USMC, for providing the link to the new guidelines and his thoughtful comments regarding the photo-sharing scandal.]

Reflections and Discussion Points

It’s Not “Revenge” and It’s Not “Pornography”

As I have written before, we need to replace the phrase “revenge porn” with a more accurate description: “electronic sexual assault.” There are at least three reasons why we should change how we label this type of behavior.

  1. In the vast majority of cases, the unauthorized sharing of intimate images or videos has little or nothing to do with “revenge” (not, of course, that revenge would be a justification in any case). Images may be shared as a form of boasting, a casual indifference to the impact of the sharing, an attempt to bond with other males, etc. To lump all such invasions of privacy and emotional abuse into the category of “revenge” is an implicit effort to justify the behavior.
  2. Intimate images created by men and women for their own pleasure or for the pleasure of their partners have NOTHING to do with pornography. The non-consensual sharing of those images, however, is a simultaneous attempt to convert the images to “pornography” and by so doing, effectively label the women and men in the images as morally bankrupt participants in the pornography industry. There are all types of social and moral assumptions that accompany that labeling: a freedom to view and share intimate images of those individuals without feeling shame; an inability on the part of the violated to seek legal redress; and an implicit lack of morality on the part of the participants, whether they took the images or agreed to be photographed/recorded. The use of the term “revenge porn” cuts the moral culpability of the offender in half by suggesting that the motive for sharing may have been bad but on the other hand, it’s just porn. If we frame this type of behavior as “electronic sexual assault,” however, we focus our attention on the fact that the privacy rights of an individual were violated and that there is a clear victim.
  3. Efforts to legislate against “revenge porn” have struggled with legitimate conflicts with the First Amendment to the United States Constitution. After all, pornography is speech, unless it rises to the level of obscenity. The vast majority of the images that are lumped under the category of “revenge porn” are clearly not obscene and so are arguably protected speech. If we reframe the discussion under the concept of “electronic sexual assault,” then we can shift the discussion from “speech” to the personal injury caused by non-consensual sharing. Determining consent in matters of sex is not easy. However, there is a well-established body of case law, a solid framework of physical assault statutes, and a greater likelihood that victims will be able to successfully press charges in the absence of a free speech defense.

Empathy, Misogyny, Discipline, and Honor

We can’t properly analyze the behavior of male Marines towards female Marines without discussing some of the powerful trends affecting our society as a whole.

To a large degree, our fighting men and women are millennials, most of whom have grown up with mobile devices and social media. For nearly a decade now, academics have been warning those technologies are having a negative effect on the development of empathy, particularly in young children who spend hours staring at a screen. There is also growing concern that exposure to images online steadily decreases are empathy for the people depicted in those images, whether they are faceplanting off a ski jump, falling off a trampoline, suffering some type of injury or seizure, posing nude, or engaging in sexual activity.

Similarly, there is widespread acknowledgment that the Internet in general and social media in particular are hostile environments for women under the best of circumstances. The reasons for this are myriad and the interplay among them is complicated. There is the role that online anonymity plays in freeing us from social norms, culpability, and a sense of shame. There is the innate masculinity of the tech industry. There is the corrosive echo chamber that feeds a growing toxic masculinity. There are the powerful economic and demographic forces that threaten traditional gender roles (not least of which is that a computer keyboard is one of the most gender-neutral work tools ever created).

Certainly no one would claim that Marines or other military personnel invented online harassment of women; the same behavior can be seen in high schools, frat houses, tech conferences, and workplaces across the country. And we should recognize that discussing empathy and misogyny in the context of Marines or other military personnel is a tricky business. Among the goals of military training, of course, is the development of “esprit de corps” in what has traditionally been an intensely all-male environment and the aggressive inculcation of the mental state necessary to inflict harm upon and if necessary kill other human beings (which is, of course, hardly the most empathetic of behaviors). We should never lose sight of the fact that we ask Marines and other military personnel to do extraordinary acts on our behalf and that by and large, they do so with remarkable skill. The prevalence of post-traumatic stress disorder and suicide among veterans must be attributable at least in part to the profound moral and psychological conflict between normal human interaction and the requirements of military service.

All that being said, the U.S. military in general and Marines in particular aspire to loftier standards. For much of my life, the tag line for the Marines has been “The Few. The Proud. The Marines.” In advertisements and on billboards, the message is clear: many may be called but very few are chosen. This type of scandal strikes at the heart of the Corps’s reputation, its legacy, and its ability to function as a cohesive force.

We Have Met the Marines and They Are Us

To a large extent, the dilemma facing the Corps is one that we all face. The development and deployment of mobile technology has been so rapid and so pervasive that our social norms, our moral and ethical precepts, have not kept pace. The sharing of nude photos is incredibly commonplace among young adults and kids who are just messing around; it should come as no surprise that military couples separated by a long deployment might use technology in an effort to maintain a basic level of intimacy and personal connection.

That brings us squarely back to the issue of consent. Assuming a lack of coercion or force, adults have the right to share nude or sexually explicit images with each other in the context of an intimate relationship. But the fact that someone shares an intimate photo is not implied consent to the re-sharing or redistribution of that image. That is why the phrase “revenge porn” is so toxic; it denegrates the significance of an intimate image and implies that sharing it with someone is not a big deal. What right, after all, would Lindsay Lohan have to object if her Playboy photos are passed around the barracks (as I’m sure they were)?

Lohan, of course, was paid a significant sum of money ($1 million) for her photo shoot and signed various documents with Playboy that gave the magazine the right to publish her image in a magazine that everyone knew would be shared repeatedly. Very few people (if any) sign anything similar when they sext with someone. A small number might tell their partner that they don’t mind if others see it, and an even smaller number voluntarily upload their intimate photos to sites on the Internet.

The vast majority, however, simply trust that their partner will respect their privacy by not sharing the image. That belief might be foolish or even naive, but nonetheless, it should be honored. If it is not, then we should characterize the unauthorized sharing of an intimate image as “electronic sexual assault,” regardless of whether it is shared with just one person or 30,000. (As an added benefit, an “electronic sexual assault” statute would also logically and more thoroughly cover various forms of digital voyeurism).

Using more accurate terminology is only part of the battle. We have an obligation as a society to instruct the growing number of digital natives on proper digital behavior, cyberethics and simple human decency. It may well be that sexting will lose its prurient effect as a greater and greater percentage of the population indulges. But even if every person in America decided to start sending intimate photos, that would still not constitute license for others to misuse those images or betray another’s trust in doing so.

It would not be fair to expect the Corps or the rest of the military to win this battle for us. But what the Corps can do is continue to educate its Marines about the organization’s ethical and moral standards. It can help its Marines understand that their conduct online is governed by principles of cyberethics, and that while cyberethics draws heavily on traditional ethical standards, there are new and unique moral issues to be considered.

Above all, the Corps can continue to drum into its Marines the understanding that the failure to treat every fellow Marine with basic dignity and respect is to fail not merely as a Marine but as a human being. It is a lesson I hope we all can learn.

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