Editor's note: U.S. Army Capt. Dan Sukman is serving a one-year deployment to Iraq. For previous entries and his bio, see the Soldier's Diary archives.

9 July 2006

We still have the moral high ground.

In light of all the recent activities [editor's note: investigations in Iraq], the question inevitably gets asked, how do highly publicized activities affect the soldiers who are deployed? Do instances such as Abu Ghraib affect the 99 percent of soldiers who are out there day in and day out doing the right thing?

The answer from my experience is these incidents do affect morale, they affect the way we operate, and these incidents penetrate deep into our decision cycle. Talking to soldiers and NCO's [non-commissioned officers], these incidents create an enormous amount of pressure on their shoulders. Our junior leaders have so much resting on them; this includes the welfare of their soldiers, their assigned equipment, as well as mission accomplishments. When a failure makes international headlines, it adds to the pressure and tension of a job that is arguably the most difficult and demanding in the world.

I always say that the overwhelming majority of soldiers (99.99 percent) wake up in the morning with the intent of performing their job and performing well. When the .001 percent do not perform or uphold the standards, it does affect our day-to-day operations. Leaders are forced to focus on and solve the problems created, time is used up investigating incidents, and soldiers who are doing right are put under a microscope. Every decision is looked at two or three times over.

I am sure the impacts are felt on the strategic level, but on the tactical level it is tough to estimate. Our mission has remained the same, and we still have the same goal of training the Iraqi forces to assume their own security. At the soldier level, when a big story hits the paper, we still go to work the next day no differently than the day before. Checkpoints are still run in sector, vehicles are repaired in the motor-pool, and medics still run the aid station; same as we did the day, week, and month before.

What we take comfort in, is the fact that 99.99 percent of our soldiers and service members can have their actions looked a hundred times over and not have one doubt in their mind that they are serving their country in the honorable manner and upholding and defending its values as they swore to do.

The next question that gets asked, is: Can we continue to espouse our values when incidents like this happen? How can we still hold the moral ground over our enemy? I think the answer is pretty simple: We don't tolerate these actions.

We investigate and punish those responsible, while at the same time, ensuring the accused receive fair treatment and the capability to defend themselves. You will never see Al Qaeda punish a member for killing numerous civilians, to include women and children. Call me crazy, but that is what makes us better, that is what makes us the good guys.

We learn from our actions and mistakes. Documents such as the Taguba Report, or the Ryder Report, become mandatory reading for our leaders.

Click here to read the Taguba Report on treatment of Abu Ghraib prisoners in Iraq (pdf).

Training is developed for our soldiers to ensure the same mistakes and failures are not repeated. Subjects such as Abu Ghraib and My Lai have been a constant subject for OPD [officer professional development] and NCOPD [non-commissioned officer professional development] sessions.

The media plays a large role in the development and the publicity of our mistakes. Often those mistakes become front page headlines for days, weeks, and even months on end. It's an important role, and when these incidents come to light, in my view, it's a good thing that the media can be involved. While they do show our failures, they can also show the world what we do to correct those failures, and how we follow through to ensure they do not occur again.

Our military is the strongest in the world today. The word "leviathan" is often used to describe our capabilities. Our technology, our logistics, our weapons, and our communications capabilities can not be matched by any other force on the planet; but that is not what makes our force. What makes us strong is the soldier or the Marine behind those systems. When I mentioned all the demands and pressure our soldiers and leaders face on a daily basis, when you see them perform day in and day out, you gain a sense of confidence that no other country will ever come near our military capabilities.

With the Internet, digital cameras, and all the modern technology available to those on the battlefield, a failure can make the front page before a soldier returns from the mission. The world is too small, the information flow too fast, to prevent reports of our actions from reaching all parts of the world.

You have to ask yourself, what would be worse: That the print, broadcast and Internet media report on our failures? Or if our failures become so common they simply are not newsworthy any more? I'll choose the first with the confidence that we will never encounter the latter.

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E-mail Captain Dan at soldiersdiary@gmail.com. Click here to read his bio.