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What Is Happening to U.S. Military Discipline?

Something has really gone wrong here. That’s not meant as some blanket statement for the entire Afghan War; on the contrary, just a few weeks ago I advocated staying the so-called course in Afghanistan, despite a series of disturbing and indelicate incidents involving U.S. troops. I am beginning to reexamine my reasoning, but of more immediate concern to me is the ostensible appearance of a fundamental breakdown in military discipline.

It has been horrific to read about Marines urinating on Taliban bodies, or the insensitive burning of Korans, or the gruesome details surrounding the massacre of 17 Afghan civilians attributed to Army Sergeant Robert Bales. I was begrudgingly willing to ascribe what felt like an onslaught of repellent behavior by a few bad apples to simply bad timing.

But the latest images of soldiers of the 82nd Airborne defiling the remains of Taliban insurgents reflect a distinct leadership failure on the part of our noncommissioned officers. It is this class that “forms the backbone” of the U.S. military and who are responsible not just for the training, but also the mentoring of impressionable young soldiers who would be guided by the actions of their senior leadership on the battlefield.

There are two aspects to this latest shame that are worth discussing. The first is the role, or seemingly the problem, of personal technology within the ranks. Andrew Exum, a former Army Ranger and one of the most well-informed and measured voices on American defense, wrote in a must-read this week about the dangers in the proliferation of camera phones and the easy access to social-media networks.

Exum says the non-coms in this most recent incident exact a share of the blame, but he says the broader concern is the clear generational rift within the U.S. military between those who grew up in the era of e-mail, Facebook and ready-access to the internet, and those, largely the senior leadership, who have been slower to acknowledge emerging technologies that enable actions that “can be captured in real time, and spread rapidly without commanders’ control, via social networks.”

There’s no simple solution to this problem. The immediate remedy is to ensure that when “an 18-year-old paratrooper wants to snap a photo of himself with a dead Talib, his 21-year-old team leader has to intervene.” Or perhaps more importantly, that the “21-year-old team leader’s 24-year-old platoon leaders and 32-year-old platoon sergeant have to set clear expectations for what is appropriate and what is not.”

Which brings us to the second aspect: sheer stress on the force. As Thom Shanker at The New York Times pointed out, “the rugged terrain, logistical challenges and the in-your-face violence of the insurgency […] present great challenges to the noncommissioned officers in charge of […] small units, operating far beyond the more consistent senior supervision in past wars.” We never planned on this war being so long, or so brutal.

These images will rightfully spark a fresh round of “should we leave before 2014?” questions among policy makers and pundits alike; Afghan President Hamid Karzai has already made it clear he wants us gone. I don’t want to weigh in on that, but I worry about the longer-term damage in military leadership and our ability to rehabilitate our noncommissioned officer class, which is so vital to how we fight wars. As terrible as the situation on the ground will get if we leave before 2014, how many more of these incidents can we take?

One last point. The non-coms in this incident need to be held accountable, but it is also crucial to remember that few of us can or ever will understand the level of stress that has come with what we have asked of these soldiers in this war. Eleven years in Afghanistan will exhaust even the most disciplined of militaries.

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