Feb. 10 (Bloomberg) -- Ten U.S. Marines were photographed in Afghanistan with a flag bearing a symbol associated with the Nazi SS in World War II, in a case the Marine Corps called a naive mistake.
Reports of the photograph followed the Internet release last month of a video showing Marines urinating on dead Taliban fighters, an incident that brought condemnation from U.S. officials and a military investigation.
The photo with the SS flag was taken in September 2010 in Helmand Province, when members of a sniper unit based at Camp Pendleton, California, posed for a photo with a flag showing the letters “SS” in the shape of jagged lightning bolts. While the photo has been circulating on the Internet for months, a protest yesterday from an advocacy group brought attention to it.
Defense Secretary Leon Panetta today called on the Marine Corps to investigate the incident and “take appropriate action,” Pentagon spokesman George Little said in a written statement.
“Racist and anti-Semitic symbols have absolutely no place alongside the men and women of America’s armed forces,” Little said.
The Marines weren’t charged with any crime or disciplined because they didn’t understand the Nazi connotation and thought that “SS” was short for “scout sniper” -- the elite Marine unit in which they serve, said Master Gunnery Sergeant Mark Oliva, a spokesman for the 1st Marine Expeditionary Force.
“They didn’t know what the ‘SS’ stood for,” Oliva said. “They had no idea it actually connected them to a Nazi-related organization.”
The Nazi SS, or Schutzstaffel, was responsible for murdering millions of Jews and others in the Holocaust.
The Military Religious Freedom Foundation, which is based in Albuquerque, New Mexico, and describes itself as a civil rights group, sent a letter to the Marine Corps commandant, General James Amos, seeking an investigation.
“The fact that United States service personnel were caught proudly posing with the emblem of the Nazi SS, which symbolizes the vile ideology of Hilterian fascism, sends a menacing signal to religious minorities within the United States Armed Forces,” Michael Weinstein, the group’s president, said in a statement. He called for military leaders to “severely punish all of those responsible.”
The inspector general for the 1st Marine Expeditionary Force investigated the flag incident last year and determined that there was no malicious intent, Oliva said.
“Those involved acknowledged that the symbol could be misinterpreted and is not in keeping with our Marine Corps ethos and values,” the Marine force said in a statement.
The Marine Corps is investigating members of a sniper unit from Camp Lejeune, North Carolina, who were filmed urinating on the corpses of three Taliban fighters in Afghanistan. That video was made between March and September of last year.
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