US Defense Secretary Leon Panetta on Friday called on US troops to tighten up discipline and display “integrity” after a series of public relations disasters that he said could play into the hands of the US’ enemies.
Panetta, echoing a message from army and Marine Corps leaders, said the misconduct related only to a small percentage of the force but that digital technology magnified any incident, posing a threat to the military’s image.
“These days, it takes only seconds, seconds, for a picture, a photo to suddenly become an international headline,” he told troops at Fort Benning, Georgia.
“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,” he added.
The Pentagon chief’s appeal to the troops to uphold the highest standards of conduct followed a string of damaging incidents, including a video of marines urinating on Taliban corpses, photos of soldiers posing with body parts and the burning of Korans that sparked deadly riots in Afghanistan.
The high-profile public relations setbacks showed “a lack of judgment, a lack of professionalism, and a lack of leadership,” he said.
The Pentagon had previously portrayed the misconduct as isolated cases of bad behavior. However, comments from military chiefs and Panetta signal the top brass believes discipline has to be bolstered across the armed forces.
Senior military officers have long voiced worries about the effect of years of protracted ground wars on the all-volunteer force, amid a spike in suicides, divorce, mental health problems, and substance abuse among troops.
The incidents in Afghanistan have not only aggravated relations with Kabul but threatened to undermine already declining support for the war in Afghanistan among Americans, according to former officers and analysts.
In his speech, Panetta said the US military’s power ultimately depended not on weaponry but on the quality and behavior of people in uniform.
The commandant of the US Marine Corps, General James Amos, recently issued a bluntly-worded “white letter” to the entire chain of command on what he called a lack of discipline.
“We are allowing our standards to erode,” Amos wrote in the letter, published by the Marine Corps Times. “A number of recent widely publicized incidents have brought discredit on the Marine Corps and reverberated at the strategic level.”
Amos has since embarked on a tour of marine bases across the US to hammer home his point, and will head to installations on the west coast later this month, his spokesman Lieutenant Colonel Joe Plenzler said.
“You have to bear in mind the Marine Corps and army have borne the brunt of a lot of hard fighting on the ground in a fairly morally bruising environment for the last decade plus,” he added.