By Larry Shaughnessy
A platoon of Marines engages the enemy in a deadly firefight that lasts days. When it's over, many Americans are dead, as are many enemy troops. Some surviving Marines cut the ears off the enemy and attach them to their helmets.
Had this been in Afghanistan, someone might have taken out a cell phone, snapped a picture of the helmets and maybe even posted it on the Internet. A major controversy would ensue, rising all the way to the very top of the U.S. military.
But this wasn't Afghanistan, it was Vietnam. And other than those young Marines, the only person who found out was their platoon commander, Lt. Karl Marlantes. "I went 'you can't do this.' "
Marlantes instructed his Marines to remove the ears from their helmets and bury the enemy soldiers whose bodies they desecrated. "They started to cry, because what it did it brought them back to their humanity." Marlantes said.
Marlantes, who was awarded the Navy Cross for heroism in Vietnam, said what he saw in there happens in all wars. "I had the sense that is was like a high school kid who wants to show the letter on his letter jacket, proof he'd killed the soldiers who killed his buddies," Marlantes said.
"The difference was they didn't have the ability to take pictures of it and send them home before I got there," Marlantes said in a phone interview with CNN.
The unfiltered nature of new media in the 21st century war has created a string of controversies for the U.S. military all the way up to Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta.
The latest is the publication by The Los Angeles Times of several pictures showing U.S. soldiers posing with bodies of suspected Afghan insurgents. Panetta condemned the photos but explained, "This is war. And I know that war is ugly, and it's violent."
It's eerily similar to what Panetta said when he visited Afghanistan immediately after the murders of 17 Afghan civilians allegedly by an American soldier. "This is a war."
Marlantes says photos like what the Times published and the video of Marines urinating on dead Taliban fighters that was made public recently are just another form of "trophy taking" that has been part of war for thousands of years.
Fighters in the American West took scalps. "In World War II, guys gloated over dead Germans and Japanese," he said. Even "primitive tribes took heads and shrunk them."
Such photos and trophy-taking have long been a violation of American military regulations. So why does it continue to happen? Marlantes believes it's the nature of war and the warriors.
"The ideal marine or paratrooper or army infantry guy is 19 or 20 years old. They are not the kind of person who is going to second guess - 'Gee, lieutenant, should we think about doing it another way?' " Marlantes said.
"We are taught thou shalt not kill, so how do you get a 19- or 20-year-old to actually pull the trigger? Well, he has to think of the enemy as not human, that's the psychological trick to do. The problem is how do you get back out of that mode fast enough so that you begin to behave like a human being again? Oh, that body there is a human being, it's not some animal, and I'm gonna take the antlers off and stick it on my barn door. You have to switch back, and it's very difficult to do especially if you are 19."
Why is it harder for a 19-year-old private than say a 30-year-old segreant? Part of it is physiology.
Scientists believe that the part of the brain called the frontal cortex isn't fully developed in young adults. And that part of the brain is partly responsible for decision making and moderating social behavior. That's why young people often make good soldiers who will follow dangerous orders to risk their lives in combat without questioning their leaders, but on the flip side, they don't see the wrong in cutting off the ears of the enemy or urinating on corpses.
The Pentagon is fighting a difficult battle to prevent future such atrocities being made public, but Manlantes said that doesn't mean the military leaders don't have a role in stopping such activities.
"On the sense that 'this is war.' Panetta is correct. If you are going to go to war, really horrible ugly things are unleashed, but I would go the extra step, which is at some point there has to be a responsibility for those people in charge."