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[Editorial] Abuse in the barracks

Acts of physical abuse committed out of personal malice and those of harsh discipline administered without being sanctioned are prevalent in the barracks. One report comes after another about enlisted men being humiliated, beaten up, sexually abused or ill treated in other ways. But the military authorities have taken few effective measures to prevent them.

A report from the Ministry of National Defense gives a glimpse into how frequently such incidents take place in the barracks. The ministry, which had inspected the Marine Corps, told the National Assembly last week that 943 soldiers from two marine divisions were treated in the hospital for suspected physical abuse from January 2009 to March this year. But the cases may be the tip of the iceberg, given that minor injuries are rarely treated in the hospital.

What abusive acts can be committed in the barracks is shown in the testimony of a marine private second class, who was accused of assisting a corporal in killing four marines with a K-2 rifle in the barracks on an island off the west coast last week.

The private reportedly told a marine officer investigating the case that a sergeant had sprayed insecticide on the fly of his trousers and put a flame to it, threatening to burn his genitals. The sergeant also allegedly burned a Bible in the presence of the private, who had studied at a Christian seminary before being enlisted in April, and told him to pray to him rather than to God. What he did was nothing short of torture.

Another unbearable act of punishment for a marine is to be treated as if he were a nonperson by those in the same rank and higher. He is never addressed by them. Once selected as a target of such punishment, he is exposed to the risk of being tormented by those lower in rank. The marine corporal, who went on a shooting spree on July 4, reportedly told investigating officers that he was afraid of being ignored and humiliated in this manner.

A nongovernmental organization monitoring human rights violations in the military, claims that it is a common practice in the marines to treat those seen to be misfits or weaklings as if they were nonexistent. It says it suspects the practice is condoned, if not sanctioned, by officers.

This practice was one of the main subjects of discussion when the parliamentary Defense Committee was called into session last Thursday. One committee member shared the NGO’s suspicions about the practice being condoned when he referred to the case involving the corporal and the private. Another member referred to an analogy between the practice and “Code Red” ― an unofficial, unsanctioned form of Marine Corps disciplinary action depicted in the 1992 American movie “A Few Good Men.”

But the committee session proved to be disappointing. Neither committee members nor testifying defense officials tried to grapple with the key issue: how to prevent this type of human rights violation. No institutionalized solution, such as outside oversight, was either demanded or offered.

When asked what actions would be taken as a precaution, the Marine Corps commander offered no institutional solution to the problem. Instead, he merely promised a thorough investigation into the case, frequent interviews with marines and punishment against those found to have engaged in abusive acts.

Few dispute that the Marine Corps is the bravest, the most disciplined and the most combat-ready among the Armed Forces. As such, its members are proud to say, “Once you are a marine, you are a marine permanently.” But the reputation will be undermined if its esprit de corps is based on the misconception that the rights of those seen to be unfit for its image can be ignored for the cause of the Marine Corps as an elite force.

When the investigation under way is completed, the Marine Corps will have to come up with remedial measures. But the matter cannot be left in its hands alone. All types of abusive acts committed in the Marine Corps and other branches of the Armed Forces must be taken up by the National Assembly as issues concerning serious violations of human rights.
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