The Fog of War and Poor Battlefield Judgment

by LT. COLONEL JAMES G. ZUMWALT, USMC (RET) May 4, 2012

The May 25, 1965, world heavyweight boxing championship rematch between defending champion Muhammad Ali, 23, and challenger Sonny Liston, 33, generated a photograph Sports Illustrated magazine later called one of "The Century's Greatest Sports Photos."

It portrayed a menacing Ali, standing over Liston who lay on his back on the canvas, challenging him to get up. The memory of the photograph still lingers among sports fans today as a clear portrayal of a victorious combatant taunting a vanquished one.

The Dec. 29, 1978, Gator Bowl pitted Clemson University against Ohio State, the latter coached by the legendary Woody Hayes. It was a close game.

Clemson had the lead, 17-15 but Ohio State mounted a drive with less than 3 minutes left. Having driven to Clemson's 24-yard-line to within field goal range and possible victory, Ohio State faced a third down and 5 yards to go. Hayes called for a pass. It was intercepted by Clemson middle guard Charlie Bauman.

Tackled out of bounds near Hayes, Bauman jumped up, only to have the furious Ohio State coach run over and punch him. Consecutive unsportsmanlike conduct penalties enabled Clemson to run out the clock and preserve a 2-point win.

In February 2007, a youth wrestling match involved two 11-year-old competitors. As one boy prepared to pin his opponent, the angry father of the latter, not wishing to see his son lose, ran onto the mat and pulled the former off his son, throwing the winning boy several feet into the air.

The above events involved an athlete, a coach and a parent who got caught up in the emotional "fog" of a sporting competition -- causing each to act in a way, had they taken time to think first, they normally wouldn't have.

It is important to understand in each case the adrenalin rush giving rise to such out-of-the-norm conduct was generated on a field of battle where victory or defeat was merely reflected on a scoreboard -- the competitor's life never being in danger. Yet emotions among the player, coach and parent were so frenzied, they caused each to embark upon a less than stellar course of conduct.

One can only imagine then, the emotional high created when winning means survival on a combat battlefield. The warrior's adrenalin rush comes from the exhilaration of having cheated death. While the consequence of losing is much greater for the combatant who fights for survival than for he who fights for sport, both can get caught up in an emotional high. However, it is always more intense for the former as the stakes are always higher.

It is within this emotional context we must assess the conduct of military personnel who have committed battlefield taboos such as urinating on the dead bodies of enemy combatants or posing for pictures holding up body parts of a suicide bomber.

Not to condone their actions, it is important to recognize such disrespect for a dead enemy is as old as combat itself. Even the more recent wars of the 20th century witnessed such acts by both friend and foe alike. Most offended by such conduct are those who are quick to criticize but have never experienced the emotions triggered by combat and, therefore, are least likely to understand the role it can play.

War is a two-headed beast -- it can bring out the best in man but also the worst. The longer a conflict lasts, the more likely an eventual breakdown in discipline -- which battlefield misconduct is -- will occur. The only conflict in recent history not to sustain such a black mark was the relatively short first Persian Gulf War.

However, the repeated deployments of our warriors to Iraq and Afghanistan over the past decade have made for the longest protracted period of warfare in our nation's history. These are conflicts fought by less than 1 percent of our population. With a limited stable of volunteers involved, many soldiers have been forced to make multiple deployments. Unbelievably, one U.S. soldier killed last year was on his 14th combat tour.

It is unfair for our civilian and military leadership to issue a knee-jerk response of outrage when such photographs are published, immediately casting aspersions upon our warriors without regard to the revolving door tours they have endured. It is these same leaders who have ordered our warriors into that environment, requiring them to fight what is on track to become a generational war; it is these same leaders who should be examining their own actions in doing so.

Poor judgment exercised after an emotional combat "high" coupled with a lack of discipline give rise to battlefield misconduct. But, there also must be accountability by those demanding so much of our fighting forces.

Instead of quickly blaming our warriors for being solely responsible, our leaders need do some soul-searching. At a time we should be increasing our forces to take the load off our over-committed troops, they should be speaking out against defense cutbacks having an opposite impact.

Our leaders should direct their outrage at those cutbacks -- perhaps suggesting reductions target the budgets benefitting the 99 percent not fighting the war rather than the 1 percent who are.

The exercise of a warrior's poor judgment is a factor of the fog of war. What excuse do our leaders have for exercising theirs?

© 2012 United Press International, Inc. All Rights Reserved.

Lt. Colonel James G. Zumwalt, USMC (Ret.), is a retired Marine infantry officer who served in the Vietnam war, the U.S. invasion of Panama and the first Gulf war. He is the author of "Bare Feet, Iron Will--Stories from the Other Side of Vietnam's Battlefields," "Living the Juche Lie: North Korea's Kim Dynasty" and "Doomsday: Iran--The Clock is Ticking." He frequently writes on foreign policy and defense issues.


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