There’s some soul-searching going on in the military these days.
The latest scandal to hit U.S. troops fighting in Afghanistan surfaced last week when The Los Angeles Times published photographs showing smiling American soldiers holding up body parts of a Taliban suicide bomber.
U.S. Defense Secretary Leon Panetta addressed the latest incident during a trip to Brussels.
“That behavior that was depicted in those photos absolutely violates both our regulations and, more importantly, our core values,” he said last week after a NATO meeting.
Senior military leaders say these high-profile incidents — including images of Marines urinating on the corpses of dead insurgents and other Marines posing with a Nazi SS flag — are isolated and not representative of the vast majority of those serving in Afghanistan.
Still, senior officers are asking, after 10 years of grinding war, whether leaders of small units are maintaining the proper standards of conduct.
Talking About Scandals — And Preventing Them
This week, more than 100 Marine sergeants and officers are gathering in Quantico, Va., as part of a long-scheduled leadership workshop at Marine Corps University.
And instructors like Lt. Col. Brian Christmas expect the photos and videos of dead Taliban and smiling troops to be part of the discussion.
“What we try to instill in the Marines is, ‘Look, your voice matters. If you see something that’s wrong, you do something about it. You say something, you stop it,’ ” Christmas says.
What Marine instructors also want to get across to the Marines is how notorious episodes occurred, like the My Lai massacre in Vietnam, and the Abu Ghraib prisoner scandal in Iraq.
Paolo Tripodi, an ethics professor at Quantico, says the Marines will then break into small groups and ask themselves: “What do I develop as an individual to make sure this thing is not going to happen to me and my Marines?”
The instructors at Quantico are not the only ones raising the issue. The Pentagon’s most senior officers are now weighing in.
Messages From The Generals
The top Marine officer, Gen. James Amos, recently sent a message to all Marines, reminding them of the Corps’ ethical standards.
And Amos is visiting Marine commands around the country, driving home a theme of integrity in the wake of the video of Marines urinating on dead Taliban that surfaced in January. The video and recently published photos were all reportedly taken in 2010.
Soldiers are hearing a similar message. The Army’s chief of staff, Gen. Ray Odierno, told a gathering of generals a few weeks ago that the Army must foster a climate where unacceptable behavior will not be tolerated.
Odierno made special reference to what’s called General Order No. 1. It lists prohibited activities for soldiers, and includes photographing or filming detainees or human casualties.
Robert Scales, a retired Army major general, is a Vietnam combat veteran and historian. He says those messages are important, especially after a decade of war and repeated deployments.
“When soldiers get tired, and they’ve been in the field a very long time and the stress begins to build without very tight supervision from small unit leaders, soldiers — remember these are 18- and 19-year-old kids with a camera — go out and do stupid things,” Scales says.
And Scales says the difficulty of fighting a counterinsurgency like Afghanistan only adds to that stress. Soldiers are trying to win over the populace, while trying to distinguish between friend and foe.
“And after a while, when operating within an alien culture, the soldiers get jaded, and when they get tired, when they’re afraid, when they spend long times in the field away from the base camp, these things are likely to happen,” he says.
But senior officers say these things are not supposed to happen. That’s where leadership comes in. And that’s why some junior leaders may be disciplined, not just those caught misbehaving in photos and on video.