THE MILITARY may well be within its rights to make an example of a Marine Corps veteran who was photographed at an anti-war protest while wearing parts of his uniform. But why? Or, more to the point, why now? After a tour of duty in Iraq, Marine Cpl. Adam Kokesh had left active duty with an honorable discharge and commendations for his service under fire in Fallujah.
Like many soldiers and Marines who still have time remaining on their military obligations, the 25-year-old Kokesh went on inactive reserve, which is how he got into trouble. To mark the fourth anniversary of the Iraq invasion, he joined a group of his contemporaries in March who staged a mock military patrol of Capitol Hill and downtown Washington. The protest by the Iraq Veterans Against the War featured camouflage-clad demonstrators carrying imaginary weapons.
Adam Kokesh was photographed in his fatigues with his name tag and military emblems missing. He figured that getting rid of the military insignia was a way around a Marine rule not to partake in political protests while in military garb. The regimental reasoning maintains everyone is entitled to his or her own political opinion but expressing those views in uniform reflects on the military - and is not permitted.
As long as a reservist is still obligated to the Marine Corps and can be reactivated at any time, he must play by the rules. Corporal Kokesh didn't. He let his understandable anger and frustration with the war cloud his judgment about acceptable military behavior.
ED ZURGA / AP Enlarge
The dichotomy between freedom of speech and militaristic mandates is difficult for a civilian to comprehend. We see a Marine who's been to hell and back protesting a nation-building fantasy that has been blown up. Who better than warriors like Adam Kokesh, with firsthand knowledge of the fighting in Iraq, to speak out against the erupting catastrophe?
Good God, we think, the man should be hailed for his courage, not castigated as a rule-breaker over uniform protocol. But we make those conclusions because most of us have no idea what it means to be government issue.
GIs are government property. When they voluntarily enter the military service of their country, they give up many rights they enjoyed as private citizens. From standard-issue haircuts to standard codes of behavior in uniform, their rules and rights are different.
When a recruit signs a contract to serve, he or she agrees to live by its terms. Marines promise to keep the faith. Semper Fi.
The military's pact with its members was broken to pieces in Vietnam. The futility of the war then and now is the same, but the difference 30 years ago was the draft.
After the Tet Offensive it was every man for himself. Rank and regulations sometimes lost meaning in the jungle and troop discipline often fell apart. Many Vietnam veterans joined the anti-war masses and eventually a demoralized military limped home.
Maybe that's why the anti-war Marine from Iraq was hauled before a panel of Marine Corp officers for role-playing unbecoming a reservist. Maybe with the war going so badly, the military wanted to send a message to all in uniform - active and inactive - that regardless of one's passion about the war there will be subordination to the rules of conduct.
Corporal Kokesh says the military just wanted him to shut up. Yeah, there's that. But he also invited the backlash by firing off an angry e-mail to the Marine major who informed him he was being investigated for appearing at a political event in uniform. He told the superior officer exactly what he thought in expletive clarity.
Corporal Kokesh could have been discharged immediately under other-than-honorable conditions, losing all his benefits. As it is, the reservist-protester will likely leave the service with what Marines call a "no punitive discharge." The military panel recommended he receive a "general discharge under honorable conditions," which probably means he won't lose his health benefits.
But there is still a stain on his honor, and the ex-Marine may fight to clear his name. He believes he was right to take a stand in the Marine Corp spirit.
"In the words of Dante, the hottest layers of hell are reserved for those who in times of moral crisis maintain their neutrality," said the disappointed vet. But maintaining the neutrality of troops fighting a war is vital to keeping military control without dissent getting in the way.
Adam Kokesh was wrong to protest in uniform and the Marine Corps picked him for notoriety with the unusual step of punishing him days before his service ends. But the young Marine can at least take some solace in knowing he was right about the Bush War being a losing battle.