This is not your daddy’s Marine Corps. Or maybe it’s just not your daddy’s general. More likely, it’s just not your daddy’s commander in chief.
Nothing but a direct order from the White House could have persuaded Maj. Gen. Mark Gurganus, the senior Marine in Afghanistan, to disarm his men on the battlefield, even for an audience with Defense Secretary Leon E. Panetta.
The general tried to make the best of his sticky wicket, as our British cousins (some of whom were in the audience, disarmed as well) might say. “You’ve got one of the most important people in the world in the room,” the general said of the visiting defense chief. He said he wanted the Marines to look just like their Afghan partners. “This is not a big deal.”
Saying that only emphasizes how very big a deal it really is. Marines are never parted from their weapons, whether they’re on their way to the latrine, the mess tent, or to look up the chaplain. The luckless sergeant assigned to execute the general’s order told the incredulous troops that “something had come to light” and it was everybody outside to stack their automatic rifles and 9mm pistols.
Was caution driven by fear that someone might take a shot at Mr. Panetta? Did someone think that “armed Marines” — the mere term is a redundancy — would embarrass the dozen or so Afghan troops who arrived at the session unarmed? (It’s impolite to guess why they were unarmed.) Unregistered guns frighten folks like Mr. Panetta, and he had suffered through a semi-scary arrival earlier when an Afghan in a pickup truck broke through a security line and screeched to a halt up close and personal.
The sergeant who instructed the Marines to lay down their arms couldn’t say exactly who the cowardly lion in the senior ranks might be. “Somebody got itchy, that’s all I’ve got to say. Somebody got itchy. We just adjust.”
Mr. Panetta, who was briefly a shavetail Army lieutenant himself many wars ago, gave the usual VIP remarks to the troops, all about who’s challenging whom in “the hell of war itself.” Everybody applauded politely and nobody took a shot at him, even with a spitball.
Mr. Panetta was on a fool’s errand to Afghanistan, to apologize on behalf of President Obama for the ninth, 12th and 17th time for the massacre of Afghan women and children by an American soldier. The soldier was invariably referred to by everyone, including the correspondents and their editors who ought to know better, as the “alleged” shooter even though he turned himself in with a confession. Nobody is brave enough to speak in simple and unadorned declarative sentences.
Neither was there anything any president could say to erase the sadness and madness of the soldier, removed to Kuwait to await a proper military court-martial. It was right and proper for the president to try, even though excessive apology suggests insincerity. Brief is always better.
The aftermath of the massacre was entirely predictable. The usual riots erupted as the rite of Muslim mourning. What passes for a government in Kabul stoked the outrage and the Afghans began killing each other with roadside bombs at once to demonstrate the profundity of their grief. Keeping score of madness in the Middle East is a full-time job.
President Obama got an early reply to his apologies and good-faith efforts to explain how the massacre happened. There is universal Afghan scoffing at the story that one soldier acted alone. Hamid Karzai, the Afghan president, told Mr. Panetta that “the Afghan people” had lost their “trust” in the “international forces” and suggested that bug-out time is at close at hand. This would enable “the Afghan people” to get back to their mutually assured destruction without fear of further interruption. The Taliban, which has been talking to the Americans about a “negotiated settlement,” dispatched an email message to President Obama to get lost, and take the dead horse he rode in on with him. The Taliban office in Qatar, opened to enable the talks, would be closed because of the president’s “ever-changing position” on “peace” talks.
The Taliban position on peace is clear and unchanging; it would behead Americans wherever it found them. So much for diplomacy. Mr. Panetta is back in Washington, the brave experiment with gun control is over and their weapons were returned to the Marines. It’s not yet clear if the bullets were returned, too.
• Wesley Pruden is editor emeritus of The Washington Times.