The Magazine

Men at War

Jan 23, 2012, Vol. 17, No. 18 • By WILLIAM KRISTOL
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We’ll stipulate that of course the Marines who urinated on the bodies of dead Taliban in Helmand Province, Afghanistan, last year should be appropriately disciplined, assuming things are as they appear in the video.

Photo of General George Patton urinating in the Rhine River

Gen. George S. Patton, March 24, 1945

But it’s also worth noting that pissing has a distinguished place in American military history. Most famously, General George S. Patton relieved himself in the Rhine on March 24, 1945—and made sure he was photographed doing so. Patton later recalled: “I drove to the Rhine River and went across on the pontoon bridge. I stopped in the middle to take a piss and then picked up some dirt on the far side in emulation of William the Conqueror.” (At the time, actually, Patton was less concerned with emulating William the Conqueror and more worried about finishing off the enemy. Later that day he sent a communiqué to General Dwight D. Eisenhower, in command of Supreme Headquarters Allied Expeditionary Force: “Dear SHAEF, I have just pissed into the Rhine River. For God’s sake, send some gasoline.”)

It wasn’t just American generals who seemed preoccupied with pissing back in 1945. Three weeks earlier, Winston Churchill had visited the front lines near Jülich. Churchill had long dreamed of urinating on Hitler’s much-vaunted Siegfried Line to show his contempt for Hitler and Nazism. Unlike Patton, Churchill forbade photographs of the occasion. But General Alan Brooke, chief of the Imperial General Staff, who was with Churchill that day, later wrote: “I shall never forget the childish grin of intense satisfaction that spread all over his face as he looked down at the critical moment.”

So perhaps, as Rep. Allen West, once a battalion commander in Iraq, put it last week, all the sanctimonious Obama administration bigwigs “need to chill.” Did Defense Secretary Leon E. Panetta really need to speak up at all? Couldn’t comment have been left to some junior public affairs officer at Camp Lejeune? And once he decided to weigh in, did Panetta need to condemn the Marines’ action as not just deplorable but “utterly deplorable”? Perhaps he felt a need to match Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, who expressed not just dismay but “total dismay.” 

Maybe, our current civilian leaders should spend a little less time posturing and a little more time supporting the troops who’ve been sent abroad to fight at the direction of their administration. They are, after all, carrying out a mission the civilian leadership has judged crucial to our national security. We know from the administration’s recent “strategic guidance” that President Obama now believes “the tide of war is receding” and that “we are turning a page.” That would be nice. But the “tide of war” resulted last year in fierce fighting, with seven dead and many more wounded from the 3rd Battalion, 2nd Marines, in Helmand. Soldiers and Marines continue today to fight and die at the direction of the commander in chief. Until the page is fully turned (if it ever is), he and his administration have a responsibility to err on the side of supporting our troops, rather than competing to chastise them sanctimoniously—even when a few of them have done something foolish.

Indeed, the foolishness of these few young Marines is as nothing compared with the foolishness of Obama administration officials.

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