Protecting a Brand: How One Mistake Can Have Global Ramifications

 

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Brad Tatum offers both his distaste and compassion for the recent Marine Corps scandal.

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The recent video release depicting Marines urinating on the corpses of dead Taliban fighters brings a plethora of emotions and reactions to me, as I am sure it does to all Americans. As a Marine veteran and now a reservist, I know that such actions are not in line with what the Marine Corps stands for and I personally find them infuriating – at the same time I can relate to the disdain these Marines have toward their enemy. In this post, I hope that I can provide some insight into the mind of a warfighter and hopefully some lessons that can be learned for all of us in business and life, regarding how easily a golden reputation can be tarnished. But first, I must give you some background of the Marine Corps and some of the horrors of war to build your understanding of the situation.

We hold ourselves to a higher standard of conduct than other services, and our civilians. We are moral and professional warfighters – a force for good.

 

The inspiring imagery of the five men depicted in "Raising the Flag on Iwo Jima" of WWII is back-burnered by the disturbing video footage of the four men who chose to desecrate the corpses of their fallen enemies.

There is an old Marine Corps adage “America does not need a Marine Corps, America wants a Marine Corps.” There is a reason why this holds true. It is because Marines have always held themselves in a higher regard than the population at large and the other fighting forces in the U.S. military. That is not to say Marines think they are better than the rest of Americans, but that we hold ourselves to a higher standard of conduct than other services, and our civilians. We are moral and professional warfighters a force for good. A force that the American people can feel confident will accomplish their assigned mission quickly and completely, but do so in a way that does no harm to local civilians and resonates a positive image of the people of the United States to citizens of whatever country we may be in at the time.

Marines guard our embassies, and the White House for that reason. Marines are the only service allowed to have all three colors of the flag (red, white & blue) represented in their dress uniforms – something that may be trivial to the population at large, but the imagery it sends subtly to all is that Marines represent America, and American values. Anyone who has ever seen a Marine in their dress uniform in person cannot deny the aura they feel radiating from the imagery of the Marine. It is so powerful it can stick with you for years, as it did with me. The first Marine I saw in dress uniform was when I was a young boy visiting Washington D.C. It is part of the reason why I chose to be a Marine; I knew that the discipline, the pride, and the dedication to a higher calling meant something to me, and I saw myself reflected in that Marine standing at attention.

If you are a decent American, these stories will fill you with rage … and your brain becomes much more at ease with taking their lives, and possibly committing atrocities because they are no longer humans: they are monsters.

 

The atrocities of war can take a toll on a soldier's logic and rationale, perhaps enough to justify behavior unbecoming of a military professional.

Marines are given special trust and confidence from the President of the United States to go into hostile lands and use extreme levels of violence to impose U.S. policy. The only thing that separates Marines from barbarians is our incredibly high standards of professionalism. Yet these two ideas are at extreme odds with each other: On one hand, we ask young men and women to go out and be extremely violent, and on the other we ask them to be more professional than their peers who are civilians (think about what stupid things you may have done in college when you were 20-24). Therefore it is not entirely surprising that we see something like this occur every so often.

Not to justify the actions of the Marines involved in this video, but the experiences they have had and the horrors of war always – ALWAYS – lead to the dehumanization of the enemy. At some level, our brains cannot comprehend the violence that surrounds us in war; the inhumanity of bringing death and destruction to others causes our brain to shut down. Thus we stop viewing our enemies as human beings, and more and more as monsters. This phenomenon has been documented and studied by military officials and psychologists alike and has occurred in every conflict the U.S. has been involved in. When we reach this point, atrocities happen, in other words: war = atrocities. The Holocaust, My Lai, and Abu Ghraib are all examples of this occurring (and while the specifics of each event are different, as were the motivations, the underlying idea is the same).

During his deployment, Brad witnessed countless injustices against children. His inability to serve and protect those children was infuriating.

I speak from personal experience about some of the horrors of war whilst living amongst the Iraqi army and border forces. My eleven-man team was sent there to advise and train them to provide their own security, and run their own show. Our mission was described to us to “be a shadow on a cloudy day.”  In other words, be invisible to the locals and let the Iraqis call the shots; just provide support and expertise as situations arise and behind the scenes. On a regular basis I stood by and watched as wealthy sheiks would enter the country with their concubines by their side, petting them in a sick and sexual manner as if nothing were abnormal about such behavior. What makes my stomach churn, and what made me contemplate gunning these men down, was that the concubines I speak of were 7- to 10-year-old boys. These men travel to places like Kuala Lumpur or the Sudan and purchase these boys and bring them back to their home countries. I witnessed the fear in the eyes of these boys, and I could see how they knew what was happening to them was unnatural. I still see their eyes begging me, begging anyone, to make it stop and get them back to their families. Their little brains not comprehending that their “families” sold them for a few bucks. It took everything in my power to suppress my natural desire to put a stop to such atrocities by killing these men in cold blood and rescuing these boys from the life of hell I knew they were embarked upon. But my mission was to advise and train the Iraqi forces, not to stop all worldly injustices, so I had to sit and watch in outrage (the Iraqi forces had no issue with these practices, thus they did not stop them either).

Marketing teaches us the importance of building a brand that people can trust. Let this incident serve as an example of how important it is to drive home your organization’s core values, and how one slip of those values can destroy years of hard work to develop it – literally overnight.

 

I mention this because these are the real-life horrors we are faced with in countries like Iraq and Afghanistan. Others include often the youngest boy in the family becoming the “pleasure toy” of the elder men in the village as it was explained to me that “women are for reproduction, boys are for fun.” Or fathers selling their daughters for anal sex to keep them “pure” in the tradition of Islamic values so that she can be married some day and still be a virgin. I can go on and on, as I saw this all first-hand, but hopefully you get the point. If you are a decent American, these stories will fill you with rage and will likely call the people who do such things “animals.”  The instant you do, you have dehumanized them, and your brain becomes much more at ease with taking their lives, and possibly committing atrocities because they are no longer humans: they are monsters.

Just as the Marines are charged with protecting the White House, business leaders are charged with protecting their brands, and are responsible to do so by driving home core values.

This is why I am always so amazed at just how rare such an event like this video is. It is a true testament to the nature of our warriors that 99.9% of them have the self-control to stop themselves from committing such barbaric acts more often. Yet, it only takes one instance of four Marines succumbing to their desires to tarnish the reputation of the millions of Marines, soldiers, sailors and airmen who have worked for years to bring peace and stability to Afghanistan and Iraq.

It only takes one instance of four Marines … to tarnish the reputation of the millions of Marines, soldiers, sailors and airmen who have worked for years to bring peace and stability to Afghanistan and Iraq.

 

Marketing teaches us the importance of building a brand that people can trust. Let this incident serve as an example of how important it is to drive home your organization’s core values, and how one slip of those values can destroy years of hard work to develop it – literally overnight.

As leaders in our organizations, it falls on us to ensure that everyone understands and believes in the organization’s core values. It has to be driven home repeatedly, and it has to be lived by the leadership to sink in. The cost of failing to do so may be too great to overcome.

Brad Tatum, MBA '12, MSML Candidate '13

Brad Tatum, MBA '12, MSML Candidate '13

Brad earned an MBA at the Graziadio School of Business and Management and is completing a Master of Science in Management and Leadership. Brad spent 2006-2010 as a Marine officer, having deployed to Iraq, Japan and the Philippines. He is now a captain in the Marine Reserves, helping marine vets find jobs or get into schools in Los Angeles and Orange counties.
Brad Tatum, MBA '12, MSML Candidate '13

Latest posts by Brad Tatum, MBA '12, MSML Candidate '13 (see all)

Brad Tatum, MBA '12, MSML Candidate '13

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