WASHINGTON – Defense Secretary Leon Panetta warned troops Friday that it takes just seconds for misconduct to make headlines and said that enemy insurgents can use recent military scandals to fuel their fight.
Speaking to soldiers at Fort Benning, Ga., where Panetta began his military career as an Army lieutenant nearly 50 years ago, the defense chief delivered a personal plea, urging troops to honor their military values.
"These days, it takes only seconds — seconds — for a picture, a photo, to suddenly become an international headline," Panetta said. "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."
The message, which military leaders have also been pushing in recent meetings with their commanders, reflects a growing concern about the broader effects of the widely publicized episodes: the mistaken burning of Qurans, images of Marines urinating on Afghan insurgents' corpses and photos showing U.S. soldiers posing with Afghan police holding the severed legs of a suicide bomber.
It's unclear, however, how the entreaties will reverberate across the military and what actual impact they may have on a young, battle-hardened force strained by 11 years of war. While there have been some quiet complaints and discussions by military leadership about flagging discipline, the more public campaign to raise awareness among the ranks has been slow to expand.
This is the first time Panetta has personally pressed the issue during a troop visit, and the Army and Marine Corps leaders have delivered similar messages during more private meetings with their midlevel officers.
Panetta was careful on Friday to stress that only a very small percentage of the force is involved in the scandals and that no one is deliberately acting to sabotage their mission or put fellow soldiers at risk.
But, he said, "these incidents concern me and they have to concern you ... because a few who lack judgment, lack professionalism, lack leadership can hurt all of us, and can hurt all of those men and women who serve this country with distinction."
The military service leaders have acknowledged that part of the problem may be leadership stumbles by the young officers who have shouldered much of the burden of wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.
"Maybe we've gotten overconfident and maybe we've gotten a little bit comfortable in our young leaders," Gen. Ray Odierno, the Army chief of staff, told The Associated Press in an interview Thursday. "Realizing that they are young, they don't have a lot of experiences. We have to continue to assist them so they understand what is expected of them."
Marine Corps Commandant James Amos, in a blunt letter to his commanders, said, "We are allowing our standards to erode," and the incidents have "brought discredit on the Marine Corps and reverberated at the strategic level."
Senior leaders have warned for several years about a deterioration of discipline that may have contributed to increased substance abuse, suicides, domestic abuse and other problems.
Marine Gen. John Allen, the top U.S. commander in Afghanistan, has expressed concern about the impact that those incidents have had on the war, according to a senior defense official. Allen believes that a number of major setbacks in the past six months have resulted from moral, not operational, failures, said the official, who spoke on condition of anonymity to discuss internal assessments.
Insurgents have used the incidents to incite violence and undermine U.S. efforts to win over the Afghan people, considered critical to counterterrorism operations. The incidents have reinforced the perception of Americans as unfriendly or occupying forces who do not understand the culture or the religion of the people they are supposed to protect.
Lolita C. Baldor can be followed on Twitter at http://twitter.com/lbaldor