Following several recent high-profile incidents in Afghanistan, Defense Secretary Leon Panetta told troops Friday that misconduct “can cost lives” and damage the U.S. standing in the world.
Panetta said it “takes only seconds” for a photo to make headlines, during a speech at Fort Benning in Georgia on Friday, adding that the episodes are a concern to the military’s leaders because they provide fodder to use against U.S. troops.
“And those headlines can impact the mission that we’re engaged in. They can put your fellow service members at risk. They can hurt morale. They can damage our standing in the world. And they can cost lives.”
Panetta’s speech was his first public attempt at a direct appeal to troops to avoid the sorts of incidents that have generated a host of bad press for the U.S. mission in Afghanistan.
The military has been left to handle the fallout from numerous scandals this year, including a video of Marines urinating on Taliban corpses, the burning of Qurans at a U.S. airbase, photos of troops posing with dead body parts and a rogue U.S. soldier murdering 17 Afghan civilians.
There have been protests from political leaders and the public in Afghanistan after some of the incidents, in particular the Quran burning. In the week following that incident, protests left more than two dozen Afghan civilians dead, and six U.S. troops were killed, including two who were shot in the Afghan Interior Ministry.
Panetta’s speech took a different tack than his immediate reactions to several of the incidents.
“This is war,” Panetta said last month in response to the body parts photos, after offering an apology to the Afghan people. “And I know that war is ugly and it’s violent.”
He did not allude to the ugly nature of war on Friday, concentrating on soldiers’ conduct.
In addition to Panetta’s speech, the military service chiefs are also getting in on the push to emphasize better discipline and conduct.
Marine Corps Commandant Gen. James Amos is currently in the midst of a tour to Marine bases to talk directly with his Marines. Amos wrote a letter to his commanders on discipline and the need for Marines to uphold the highest standards.
He reminded his officers “that the undisciplined conduct of a few can threaten to undo the good conduct of many,” said Amos spokesman Lt. Col. Joseph Plenzler.
Gen. Ray Odierno, the Army chief of Staff, said that "maybe we've gotten overconfident and maybe we've gotten a little bit comfortable in our young leaders," in an interview with the Associated Press Thursday.
“Realizing that they are young, they don't have a lot of experiences. We have to continue to assist them so they understand what is expected of them,” Odierno said.
Panetta said that it’s a tiny percentage of people who “make these terrible mistakes,” but it still must be a concern for everyone in the military.
“These incidents concern me — and they have to concern you, and they do our service chiefs — because a few who lack judgment, lack professionalism, or lack leadership can hurt all of us,” Panetta said. “They concern us because our enemies will seek to turn these incidents in their favor, at the very moment when they are losing the war.”
Panetta told the troops: “I need every one of you, and all of your fellow service members, to always display the strongest character, the greatest discipline, and the utmost integrity in everything you do.”
Panetta’s speech comes days after President Obama traveled to Afghanistan to sign a long-term strategic partnership agreement with Afghan President Hamid Karzai, which would allow for a U.S. presence to remain in Afghanistan through 2014.
There have been increased calls in the public and Congress for a more rapid withdrawal from Afghanistan in recent months, reaching a crescendo after the U.S. soldier murdered Afghan civilians in March. Army Staff Sgt. Robert Bales is accused of committing the murders.
Karzai has also used the negative PR from the scandals to his advantage, calling last month for U.S. troops to leave, after the photos of troops with the dead bodies were published.
Obama acknowledged the public discontent with the war in his address from Afghanistan Tuesday, saying that the U.S. cannot leave immediately like some would want because that could erase the gains made against al Qaeda.
Michael Rubin, a resident scholar at the conservative-leaning American Enterprise Institute, said the incidents Panetta talked about Friday are frustrating because they are “self-inflicted wounds” that can erode support for the war.
But Rubin, a former Pentagon official, said that despite some terrible incidents, the military’s conduct overall is much better today than 10 years ago or 40 years ago.
“We tend to focus on the warts,” he said.
Part of the reason these incidents continue to come out, Rubin said, is that technology makes it easy for cell-phone videos to shoot around the world. He compared it to the saying about a tree falling and no one hearing it.
“With cell phones, they say there’s someone there to hear it every square mile,” Rubin said. “That just means we have to be all the better and Panetta’s absolutely right to highlight it.”