In My Words: ‘Public apologies won’t end soon’

Why have a handful of soldiers created embarrassment for the United States in recent months? Professor Tom Arcaro offers an explanation.

The following column appeared in recent days in the (Durham, N.C.) Herald-Sun, the Fayetteville Observer, the (Burlington, N.C.) Times-News, the Gaston Gazette and the Shelby Star via the Elon University Writers Syndicate.


Public apologies won’t end soon
By Tom Arcaro –

It must be hard these days to be Leon Panetta.

In the past few weeks, our Secretary of Defense has twice apologized for the behavior of American soldiers, first for published photographs of men posing with the maimed bodies of dead Afghan insurgents and then for military personnel who were involved in the prostitution scandal in Colombia.

These apologies may not be easy, but they are an increasingly routine part of his job. It was only four months ago that Panetta stood in front of the cameras to express remorse for graphic and disturbing video of Marines urinating on dead Taliban.

We all know, sadly, that there are sure to be more embarrassing instances for which he will again have to seek forgiveness. But why are these things happening in the first place, and can we do anything to stop them?

The answer to the first question is complex. The answer to the second question is “not likely.” These are significant issues to discuss, too, given the importance to North Carolina of the thousands of men and women in uniform who make their homes here.

“The challenge facing us is that we have Stone Age emotions, medieval institutions and godlike technology,” the sociobiology researcher E.O. Wilson once said. He’s got that right. Wilson’s statement captures why we seem doomed to an unending series of seemingly bizarre and inhumane acts by our men and women in uniform.

Our Stone Age emotions are ingrained in our wiring. If history tells us anything, it is that we are a species with primal emotions ready to be unleashed at a moment’s notice. We know too well what “evil lurks in the hearts and minds of men.”

I do mean men, by the way – both blessed and cursed with testosterone washing over our brains and affecting our behavior. Women can act in abominable ways, as Lynndie England of Abu Ghraib infamy illustrates, but because it’s almost always been men who face the front lines, it is men who have been put into situational contexts that bring out the worst in their souls.

For my generation is was the Vietnam era My Lai massacre that remains a low water mark of a controversial chapter in our military history.

As for our “medieval institutions,” we need only look at the practice of war made possible by the lurching political systems under which we live, hurling us from one failed attempt to bring peace through violence to another, over and over again like a recurring nightmare.

Here’s the thing. Though we’ll fail if we try to change human nature, changing institutions does not have to be a stillborn project. We build these institutions of government and business, and we can – and must – exercise our freedoms to change our way of thinking such that, finally, we can eliminate war as an option for resolving differences.

Will change be easy or rapid? No chance. Is it possible? Only with visionary leadership and a sense of common purpose.

But that’s only part of the problem. There’s a cell phone today in almost in every pocket, including those sewn onto battle fatigues. In this world of cyber tracking, ubiquitous surveillance cameras and social networking, we are under constant observation. We are nowhere unseen, and we all leave cookie crumbs wherever we go both literally and digitally.

The “godlike technology” that we have at our fingertips makes us all able to pass on ideas, images, and videos at nearly the speed of light. One only needs to look at the enormous popularity of Facebook and Twitter to see that people have a strong natural tendency to want to share what they experience.

That soldiers in time of war will commit atrocities is a given. And now, thanks to technology, these transgressions will make their way into the headlines ever more easily.

Leon Panetta will never be free from situations that will call for his apology, not while there are still wars.

Tom Arcaro is a professor of sociology at Elon University.


Elon University faculty with an interest in sharing their expertise with wider audiences are encouraged to contact Eric Townsend ( in the Office of University Communications should they like assistance with prospective newspaper op/ed submissions.