Marines Nazi-Flag Whistleblower Historian Comes Forward

Historians in the News

When Marine investigators learned last November that a scout sniper platoon in Afghanistan was using a Nazi "SS" flag as its standard, it wasn't a member of the unit who told them. It was Iraq war veteran Waitman Beorn, a visiting history professor at Loyola University New Orleans, also a Fulbright and Guggenheim fellowship recipient who teaches at the National Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington. Dr. Beorn's research on Nazis and genocide is informed by his military background: He is a West Point graduate and former officer who served as a scout platoon leader in Iraq from 2003-2004. Through his work he seeks to teach "ethical decision-making in a military context using the Holocaust as a vehicle." 

Shortly after I first wrote about the flag controversy last week, Beorn got in touch to explain how and why he chose to report the incident to the Marine Corps' inspector general. (Though Beorn contacted military authorities, he didn't play a part in the incident's recent unearthing by the media.) For one, he had learned through military contacts that the use of the 'SS' flag was not an isolated incident. He hoped that exposing it could lead to an important "teachable moment" that might help alleviate what he considers to be a serious issue. In an email interview, he shared with Mother Jones details of how the Marine Corps responded to him, and how the Corps has since addressed this moral education issue with the troops. He said he was disappointed with the emerging media narrative that the military had responded poorly. "I was surprised by the speed with which they acted and the seriousness with which they appeared to take it," he wrote.

But he also emphasized: "I think our public needs to realize that this is not a case of the 'liberal media' going after our brave men and women in uniform. Symbols are important. They send messages. These messages are important." He explained his special interest in the SS incident with regard to military training, and what he thought would be the appropriate punishment for the service members in question—especially during wartime. In a follow-up email he wrote: "My focus is on the importance of positive unit cultures, and that the use of this image highlights a problem. For example, I was just informed that a Marine posted on a blog that he had had the tattoo for 17 years, which seems to highlight this point for me."...

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