MARINE CORPS LOGISTICS BASE ALBANY, Ga. --
“Engage your brain before you engage your weapon.”
This proverb, originally coined by Marine Lt. Gen. James Mattis, loomed above Marines at Marine Corps Logistics Base Albany’s Base Theater as they conducted ethics training, Friday.
Gen. James F. Amos, Commandant of the Marine Corps, mandated the operational pause to promote a culture of moral forethought across an organization already governed by the core values of honor, courage and commitment.
These values notwithstanding, senior leadership designed the period of instruction to focus on specific aspects of human behavior as well as challenge preconceived notions of ethical conduct.
Col. Don Davis, commanding officer, and Sgt. Maj. Conrad Potts, sergeant major, both with MCLB Albany, flanked a theater screen emblazoned with Mattis’ epithet and other slides depicting psychological experiments and documentary footage.
“What do you do when your weapon is jammed? Tap, rack, bang, right? That is something you are trained to do,” Davis said. “Making ethical decisions is something you can train for. So it is important for us to look at ‘Leading Marines,’ one of the top five publications we should be reading, and use it on a regular basis. With understanding, sound judgment and familiarity with a given situation, Marines and Sailors are likely to make the right choices.”
Both leaders stood behind their respective podiums while they guided an interactive discussion on right and wrong with more than 300 Marines before them. Representing all commands aboard MCLB Albany, the service members responded to questions posed by the sergeant major and base commander and also debated among themselves. The discussion shed light on how seemingly black and white issues can become gray given certain circumstances.
The class also illuminated how seemingly “black” issues, such as the killing of innocent people, can creep into actuality if given the chance.
The solution is all about breaking the chain of events and becoming familiar with recurring combat scenarios. Breaking the chain of events means promoting a proactive study of the human mind among Marines, Davis noted.
This study of the human mind began with the case of Kitty Genovese, who was sexually assaulted and killed among a crowd of 38 people who chose to do nothing. The phenomenon, known by experts as Diffusion of Responsibility, is the kind of mentality the Corps is trying to prevent among its personnel. One purpose of the operational pause was to illustrate it is every Marine’s responsibility to step in and prevent an instance of wrongdoing or intervene after it is underway.
“Looking for answers as to why you shouldn’t do something or why you shouldn’t prevent something from happening is human nature,” Davis said. “We start to rationalize why we fail (to do the right thing).
“That’s why it is important for us to recognize when there is a situation that will increase the percentage of an ethical violation,” he added. “We have to remind Marines and Sailors of their duties because we have to do the right thing under the worst conditions.”
It’s all about moral courage in the face of overwhelming adversity - even if the adversity comes in the form of a senior staff noncommissioned officer or officer, according to the presentation.
“We were following orders,” was a common reason given by some of the individuals in the presentation, whether they were saying it in the context of actual wrongdoing or their actions during a controlled experiment.
The phrase is reminiscent of the Nuremberg Trials, the court proceedings that found many Nazi officials responsible for the war-time massacre of one third of Europe’s Jews during World War II. However, the example used in the stand down wasn’t committed by the now infamous fascist regime, but rather executed by American service members in the latter years of the Vietnam War.
Already dim theater lights darkened to reveal quivering hands and wavering voices as those responsible for the massacre in Vietnam recounted their versions of the story by way of the presentation. Their mannerisms gave away the mental and emotional scars left on those who chose not to break the chain of events that led to what would be known worldwide as the My Lai Massacre.
The Marine Corps aims at preventing tragic circumstances such as this from taking place, especially during overseas operations.
“They were the average cross section of American youth and look at what they did, look at what they were capable of,” Davis said. “We don’t want to get there (My Lai). The whole purpose of this training was to get us to talk about and to think about what leads to that.
“We need to understand that every person in this room is capable of that, but to also guard against it, to look out for one another and to encourage one another (to do the right thing),” he added.