Defense Secretary Leon E. Panetta meets soldiers at Ft. Benning, Ga., aftar… (Mike Haskey, Ledger-Enquirer )
WASHINGTON — In a pointed response to images of Marines urinating on corpses and soldiers posing with body parts, Defense Secretary Leon E. Panetta appealed to American troops to refrain from misconduct that has complicated the war effort in Afghanistan.
Panetta, speaking Friday to an Army brigade at Ft. Benning, Ga., was blunt in his assessment of the breakdown of discipline within the ranks, saying these incidents "show a lack of judgment, a lack of professionalism and a lack of leadership."
He reminded the troops that they represent the American people and must live up to strict military standards.
"These days it takes only seconds — seconds for a picture, a photo, to suddenly become an international headline," Panetta said, standing in front of one of the most battle-hardened units in the Army, the "Hammer Brigade" of the 3rd Infantry Division. The unit served four tours in Iraq and is preparing to deploy to Afghanistan.
"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 said.
Panetta's admonition is part of a broader effort by military commanders to tighten discipline in the Army and Marine Corps. It follows revelations over the past four months of disturbing conduct by U.S. troops that played into Taliban propaganda and strained relations with Afghanistan's president, Hamid Karzai.
Last month, The Times reported that soldiers serving with the 82nd Airborne Division in Afghanistan in 2010 posed with the body parts of suicide bombers. The Times published a photograph showing soldiers standing with Afghan police who were holding up dismembered legs and another showing a soldier with a dead insurgent's hand on his shoulder.
The photographs were among 18 provided to The Times by a soldier who said he hoped that publication would call attention to what he described as a lack of discipline and leadership in the unit that he felt had compromised soldiers' safety.
In February, U.S. troops burned copies of the Koran at a base in Afghanistan. The incident, apparently the result of a miscommunication, inflamed emotions in the country and sparked more than a week of deadly riots. In January, a video became public that showed Marines urinating on the bodies of Afghan insurgents.
U.S. officials have denounced the conduct, and Panetta has promised that the individuals involved would be held accountable.
Army commanders around the country have met with junior officers to emphasize their responsibility to enforce standards of discipline. The Marine Corps may require every unit not in combat to take courses on ethics and conduct one day later this month.
In March, Marine Corps Commandant Gen. James Amos sent a letter to his commanders saying that recent incidents have "brought discredit on the Marine Corps."
"This conduct is particularly troubling in that it portends a lack of discipline and accountability by Marines; we are allowing our standards to erode," he wrote.
Panetta, who had trained in the slippery red mud at Ft. Benning as an Army lieutenant in 1964, told the auditorium full of men and women in uniform that the troubling incidents "represent a very, very small percentage of the great work that our men and women do every day across the world."
"They concern us because our enemies will seek to turn these incidents in their favor," he said.