Scout snipers in the Marine Corps shown with a flag bearing an "SS" similar in design to one used in Germany by the SS, a paramlitary force that operated under the Nazi party. ()
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A Marine scout sniper, right, has an "SS" marked on his rifle in this 2004 photo. ()
Defense Secretary Leon Panetta has called for the Marine Corps to investigate the use of the logo for the notorious Nazi SS organization by scout snipers, his spokesman said Friday.
"Racist and anti-Semitic symbols have absolutely no place alongside the men and women of America's armed forces," Pentagon spokesman George Little said.
The decision comes after the Corps acknowledged Thursday that a scout sniper platoon displayed a flag with the logo in Afghanistan's Helmand province in 2010. It appeared in a photograph taken in September 2010 in volatile Sangin district. The Marines are with Charlie Company, 1st Reconnaissance Battalion, out of Camp Pendleton, Calif., and shown sitting in combat gear with the U.S. flag and a blue flag with the stylized letters in the SS logo hanging behind them.
The incident has brought scrutiny to a longtime practice in the scout sniper community. Its members have used the "lightning bolt" SS logo for years on patches, posters and tattoos, a nod toward their title. The position is exclusive to the Corps; the Army has scouts and snipers, but separates the duties into two occupations.
The Military Religious Freedom Foundation on Thursday distributed the photograph and another from 2004 showing a Marine posing with a 7.62mm M40 sniper rifle inscribed with an "SS," leading to widespread media coverage. The Corps acknowledged that the inspector general at Pendleton's I Marine Expeditionary Force was made aware of the "SS" flag photograph in November.
The incident was found not to be racially motivated, and the Marines depicted later acknowledged the symbol could be misinterpreted and "is not in keeping with our Marine Corps ethos and values," said Lt. Col. Stewart Upton, a Marine spokesman. The Marines' chain of command determined that disciplinary action was not warranted. They were ordered not to use the symbol anymore, and told that further use of it could result in punishment.
Still, Upton acknowledged Friday that the Corps will take another look at the incident at Panetta's request. The service planned to release another statement acknowledging that decision.
Launching a full investigation is necessary, said Mikey Weinstein, president of the MRFF, an organization that says it's devoted to religious freedom in the military. He noted that the SS, or Schutzstaffel, was a paramilitary organization that committed a variety of war crimes. It was outlawed by Germany after World War II.
"We don't have all the information, but we know enough to know the Marine Corps needs to open a full investigation," he said. "If these guys just get a non-judicial punishment, it's absolutely absurd."
In a statement he went even further, calling for the military to condemn the use of the SS logo and "severely punish ALL those responsible.
"This shameful display of SS ‘lightning bolts' by U.S. service personnel enrages our regional allies, emboldens the extremist Islamist forces with who we are contending, and eviscerates good order, morale, and discipline within the U.S. Marine Corps," the statement said.
The Corps has addressed the use of the SS logo before. A http://www.yuma.usmc.mil/services/eo/documents/tattoos.ppt">PowerPoint presentation posted on a Marine Corps website said it should not be used in any tattoos. The logo was used by German special police during World War II and is still used by neo-Nazis and graffiti to characterize anti-Semitism, white supremacy and fascism, according to the presentation.
A Marine official, speaking on background due to the sensitivity of the issue, said Marine leadership does not believe the Marines depicted with the SS flag understood the significance of the logo.
"We don't believe these Marine Corps snipers had a historical appreciation for what this symbol meant," the official said. "As soon as leadership was made aware of it, they took action at the unit level and then passed that information throughout the sniper community and to those snipers serving in Afghanistan."
That seems possible, said Allen Falk, national commander of the Jewish War Veterans of the United States of America.
"We believe that these young men likely did not understand the significance of this symbol, and we call on the Marine Corps to increase education on American history," said Falk, who served in Vietnam as a Marine captain. "This issue goes beyond one of racism or anti-Semitism. Our fellow Americans fought and died to stop the Nazis, and it is shameful for any member of the military to display the symbols of Nazi Germany."
MRFF distributed the photograph after 45 active-duty Marines expressed concern about the logo's use, the organization said in a letter to Panetta, Commandant Gen. Jim Amos and other top Pentagon officials.
The use of the SS logo has proven controversial in popular culture, too. The band Kiss has used similar letters in its logo for years, but denies the practice is related. The point is significant because band member Gene Simmons is an Israeli-born Jew whose mother survived the Holocaust.