Add last week’s revelation of U.S. soldiers posing with bodies of dead insurgents to the growing list of troubling reports of indiscipline among U.S. troops in Afghanistan. That list already included the Quran burning, the desecration of Taliban bodies, the truly horrifying allegations of “sport” shootings of Afghans and an Army sergeant’s alleged murder spree.
In yet another apology, U.S. leaders rightly point out that the misdeeds do not reflect the behavior of the vast majority of American troops. Still, as the experience with the detainee abuse scandal at Abu Ghraib amply demonstrates, these incidents have a disastrous effect in conflicts where winning hearts and minds of locals is said to be so essential.
Perhaps even graver is the difficulty these cases create for the governments of coalition partners already confronted by electorates deeply disenchanted with the Afghanistan effort.
What to do about it? The strategy that military leaders embrace simply does not work in the 21st century. The Counterinsurgency Manual now in use was largely shaped by Cold War-era case studies and is inadequate in an age where strategically damaging images can be instantly recorded and transmitted across the globe.
Moreover, the manual espouses a doctrine that calls for deploying tens of thousands of troops, each prepared to become a “social worker, a civil engineer, a school teacher, a nurse, a boy scout.” This is simply too much to ask of the young soldiers that America so often sends to the unforgiving environs of Afghanistan.
Furthermore, the sheer numbers of soldiers the strategy demands make it wholly predictable that a few – and it only takes a few – will misbehave with dire consequences.
Historian Stephen Ambrose observed that when “you put young people, eighteen, nineteen, or twenty years old, in a foreign country with weapons in their hands, sometimes terrible things happen that you wish had never happened.” According to Ambrose, this is a “universal aspect of war” that “that stretches across time and continents.”
In short, as former Army Chief of Staff Gen. John Wickham said in late 2008, “large military forces alienate local populations, succeed less and cost more.”
What is needed is that which was so successful before the 2006 manual: small numbers of seasoned ground forces matched with airpower and other high-technology resources, along with training teams for the Afghan military and for civilian administrators. While rogues can appear in any group, a smaller, more experienced cadre of Americans would lessen the likelihood of an incident.
Next, Congress needs to reform the military’s disciplinary system into one more attuned to today’s conflicts. The military’s increasingly cumbersome justice system suffers from decades of “civilianization,” and is better suited to the staid Washington suburbs than on the chaotic battlefields of Afghanistan where it is needed. An Army lawyer recently warned that “reports from deployed judge advocates show a nearly unanimous recognition that the full-bore application of military justice was impossible in the combat zone.”
An updated Uniform Code of Military Justice should scrupulously preserve the constitutional rights of the accused, but also eliminate unnecessary duplication and bureaucracy, better leverage technology and streamline sentencing processes. That will go a long way toward dispelling the idea the system is too slow and too unwieldy to use in the field.
Finally, the armed forces need to go back to the basics of professionalism. This would include the rigorous enforcement of seemingly minor infractions in order to build a disciplined mindset that withstands the stress of combat. A start has been made: the Army recently issued tough dress and appearance standards, and the commandant of the Marine Corps just published a no-nonsense letter on leadership and conduct.
Members of the military must not take for granted the affection and respect that the American people have lavished on them since 9/11. That demands not just reinvigorated personal self-discipline, but also insistence on right behavior from their comrades in arms.
Charles Dunlap is a retired Air Force major general who is currently the executive director of the Center on Law, Ethics and National Security at Duke University Law School.