Facebook Exchange Crossed Ethical, But Not Legal, Lines
Wednesday, 11 August 2010 04:28
Written by Eric Zimmer
A few weeks ago, a Rapid City soldier - a front-lines veteran of the War in Afghanistan - returned home to the Black Hills for some R and R. While he was here, a confrontation took place on the social networking site Facebook, when a sarcastic comment from one of the soldier's contemporaries led to a strident haranguing by the soldier and a few members of his families, biological and military. After viewing the exchange, Dakota Day printed a sanitized version of the dialog, and challenged readers to consider the soldier's comments, form their own opinions, and discuss the larger ramifications of the event. What (if anything) does the exchange say about the U.S. military, professional conduct therein, and the possibility of the U.S. completing a successful campaign of counterinsurgency in Afghanistan?, we asked.
Reader's opinions on the matter developed themselves at the foot of the original DD article, in personal conversations with DD staff, and (ironically) on a spontaneous Facebook thread begun by a DD reader. The comments charted an interesting course across the spectrum of possible viewpoints as to the significance of this isolated, though volatile, exchange. Most commentators were appalled by the soldier's lack of decorum; some dismissed his language as an unavoidable byproduct of life in a war zone; and others, considering the behavior an unfortunate outlier in a generally more disciplined military, found the whole incident rather insignificant.
A reoccurring theme in many of the personal conversations that DD staff have had with readers are recent events like the forced resignation of General Stanley McChrystal for his now-infamous defaming of Vice President Joe Biden and other civilian military officials to a Rolling Stone magazine reporter, and on an even larger scale, the 2004 Abu Ghraib prison scandal. As technology and internet communications have advanced in recent decades, the military (not to mention everyone else) has faced a conundrum of epically damaging proportions: that once disparaging information has "gone viral," there's simply no getting it back. That, according to two local veterans of the War in Iraq - one an Army veteran, and the other, an active-duty member of the Air Force currently stationed at Ellsworth Air Force Base - is precisely why the Facebook soldier's tirade wove an intricate path between the complicated worlds of ethicality and illegality set forth by the Unified Code of Military Justice, and especially, recent policies intended to regulate conduct on public - and perpetual - mediums like social networking sites.
Written principles for military conduct in the U.S. have existed since the Second Continental Congress met in 1775. Authorized by Article I, Section 8 of the U.S. Constitution, the modern UCMJ has been in practice since 1951, following its passage by Congress and signing by President Harry S Truman. The document spans the breadth of the military justice system. All definitions, procedures, offenses, and sentences are directly enumerated, and apply to every branch of the U.S. Military, even including state militias (the National Guard) during times of presidentially-federalized activity. In fifty-seven articles, the UCMJ expressly states all crimes that subject an offender to court martial and, given their conviction, appropriate punishment. While fifty-six of the articles spell out the major crimes (murder, espionage, mutiny, and more), the final punitive article, Article 134, remains the catch-all for "all disorders and neglects to the prejudice of good order and discipline in the armed forces, [and] all conduct of a nature to bring discredit upon the armed forces."
The two Iraq veterans interviewed regarding the Facebook incident said that the Rapid City soldier narrowly avoided committing a blatant offense under Article 134, although his lack of restraint definitely crossed commonly held ethical lines and standards of professional conduct.
The conduct, said an Air Force Technical Sergeant who wished to remain anonymous, "flies in the face of everything [the soldier] is supposed to be doing." The profanity, he said, represents a part of military culture, akin to "talking shop with the guys," but definitely should have been restrained due to the public nature of the comments and the fact that they were directed toward a civilian. "Even in [the military] . . . there's always room for civilian input, even internal dissent," but it should never be constructed as derogatorily as it was in the Facebook conversation, he said.
"I can't speak for the Army, but in the Air Force, we're constantly having instruction on how to present ourselves publicly," because all Airmen are considered on-duty at all times, the Tech. Sergeant said. That's precisely why the Air Force recently came out with its "Top 10 Tips for Social Media," a pamphlet intended to guide Airmen on how to communicate appropriately online. While most of the pamphlet deals with the disclosure of strategic information and other sensitive operational material, the document does give Airmen the ability to "give your opinion . . . just make sure you state this as your opinion and not that of the organization." However, one glaring caveat remains, and it is the policy area where the Tech. Sergeant said the soldier probably crossed the line: "Do not post any defamatory, libelous, vulgar, obscene, abusive, profane, threatening, hateful . . . or otherwise offensive or illegal information or material."
As for his passing comment about "the worst president ever . . . Obama," the soldier crossed an even more distinct line, one enumerated by the UCMJ. "If he was an officer he could lose his commission [for the comments about the president] - no question," the Tech. Sergeant said. Under the UCMJ, enlisted members of the armed forces (like the Facebook soldier) have slightly more leeway than the officer corps enjoys. Regulations on speech are strict and distinct for the officers, the Tech. Sergeant continued, and he stressed that no officer would have commented in the way that the soldier did. The fact that he is enlisted, the Tech. Sergeant maintained, is the only reason the Facebook soldier didn't break military law egregiously enough to face criminal charges under the UCMJ.
Another veteran of the Iraq War, (former) U.S. Army Sergeant John Waits of the Third Armored Cavalry also spoke with DD on this issue, and allowed the use of his name only because his enlistment ran out last month. Otherwise, he said, because of the very issues at hand, he would have maintained anonymity.
Waits agreed that the soldier's conduct was obscene and unethical, but did not think it broke any military laws. Waits was even able to empathize with the soldier, and conveyed the comments from a soldier's perspective. The comments "were pretty extreme, but at the same time, I can understand where he's coming from," Waits said. "I know that when I got back from Iraq, I definitely felt that people owed me something - I felt a sense of entitlement that, you know, I had just gone off and done this super hard-core and sucky thing, and that nobody really seemed to appreciate it. But at the same time, it's completely unprofessional how he commented on those other people's posts . . . it was very unbecoming as a professional soldier in the United States Army."
The other thing about military, and especially Army culture, Waits said, is that "a lot of people sort of have the same views that he does, they feel that a lot of people take [military sacrifices] for granted, [even though] what [the high school friend on Facebook] said wasn't that bad - she basically told him to stop being an idiot - but when people make comments similar to that, it's really aggravating, because they don't understand what you and all of your buddies just went through."
Regarding the comments about the president, Waits agreed with the Air Force Tech. Sergeant, stating that "with enlisted soldiers, it's more of a ‘don't do it in public' sort of thing. You can [express your opinions], but don't do it at work. You can do it, but do it at home or with your friends or something. Because a lot of enlisted people are much more attached to their civilian lives, whereas in the officer corps, you spent four years in ROTC, or you spent a year at Officer Candidate School, and so you're pretty much a professional soldier," with a much more direct connection to the president, he said, while "enlisted men are just sort of expected to carry the orders out."
"Facebook is definitely a public forum, [and] it's sort of an unspoken rule that you don't [say negative things] about the civilian side of the military. Legally, he didn't do anything wrong . . . but it's severely frowned upon, and [that sort of conduct] will definitely put you in a negative light with your superiors," Waits said.
With all respect, the sergeants you cited are responsible in their organizations for enforcing good order and discipline, but they are not responsible for implementing the UCMJ. That is officers' business. Any commander worth two cents would prosecute the words written by this soldier for the good of the command. His attitude is well beyond venting. It is a clear indication of a troubled mind - the kind of mind that snaps, frags NCOs, indiscriminately shoots civilians, etc. Combat is harsh. Peace operations, counter-insurgency are harsher in their greater demand for discipline and judgment. A soldier with this attitude likely has no place in the ranks. The attitude and behavior merit immediate correction before infecting the rest of the command. If the commander allowed this attitude to permeate his command there should be some rapid reliefs.