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Leonard Pitts Jr. examines the latest U.S. Marine Corps controversy in his column, “Marines’ Ignorance Should Alarm Us All:”

There are only two possible explanations for that photo.

One is intentional malice. That is the explanation favored by Rabbi Marvin Hier of the Simon Wiesenthal Center in Los Angeles. That picture, he told The Associated Press, is “beyond the pale.”

The second explanation is ignorance, i.e., that when a troupe of U.S. Marines posed in Afghanistan with a flag bearing the logo — a double “s” in the shape of lightning bolts — of the Schutzstaffel, or SS, the military and police arm of the Nazi Party, they had no idea what it was. Indeed, a spokeswoman at Camp Pendleton in California where the Marines are based says the men in the photo, which surfaced on the website of a Florida weapons company, thought the double “s” stood for “sniper scouts.” The spokeswoman says the Marines were unaware the flag symbolized the thugs and bully boys who, under Adolf Hitler’s command, burned down much of Jewish Europe during the Holocaust.

While Rabbi Hier may be right that this photo represents a knowing act of anti-Semitism, it seems more likely the second explanation is true and that what it actually represents is the fact most Americans don’t know their past from a hole in the ground. This is a perception quantified by research, including a 2000 study that found that most seniors at America’s top colleges — our best and brightest — could not answer basic questions about American history. The reason? In many schools, history is no longer a required course

So for the second time in as many months, the Marines find themselves embroiled in controversy over embarrassing imagery. The first, of course, was that video of Marines urinating on the corpses of dead Taliban. It spoke to the dehumanizing nature of war.

This new image, however, speaks to the degradation of American memory.

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