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Lack of leadership to blame for soldiers' bad behavior

News commentary

Those who have been in combat will testify to the catastrophic insults to the body that modern weapons can inflict. War is horrifying, and nothing can prepare the novice for the destruction that it can cause. Nor do we easily get used to the images of it, and they stay with us forever.

Recently released by the Los Angeles Times, the grisly photos of soldiers posing with the remains of dead Taliban fighters  have raised a variety of observations: From the notion that they are similar to the harmless pranks of adolescents to the assessment that their publication will be a catastrophe for the American mission in Afghanistan.

As with most extremes, neither is the case. We should also reject the argument that this incident, the burning of Korans and the deliberate murder of women and children, such as those allegedly carried out by Staff Sgt. Robert Bales, are all the same. 

No excuses
Here are the facts: The pictures are about two years old and were of Taliban fighters killed when a bomb they were putting into position detonated prematurely. The photos were sent to the Times by someone who said he wanted to highlight the threat to our troops caused by the poor leadership of the unit, a part of the 82nd Airborne Division.

But, although the Times suggested that the concern was merely inadequate physical security rather than a climate of generally weak discipline, it is the latter issue that is the most striking.

When the Times notified the Defense Department that it had the photos, the Pentagon asked the paper not to publish them, arguing that they would incite the enemy to attack Americans. The Times responded that it had an obligation to publish them, citing their readers' right to be informed.

In my view, both the Defense Department and the newspaper are full of baloney: The Taliban don't need any encouragement to attack us, and a big part of the motivation of the Los Angeles Times is to sell newspapers.

More nuanced has been comment from some quarters that the troops, who were mugging for the camera, were letting off the steam that accumulates under the duress of war; that their actions were in response to having lost buddies to the mindless ferocity of the Taliban.

While these are understandable reasons, they are not excuses, of course, and the paratroopers' actions were publicly decried by government officials. Many cited long-standing rules, promulgated after similarly embarrassing episodes, stating that such antics are impermissible.

Lack of leadership
But the truth is that you can't merely legislate against dumb behavior. In and out of combat, good units get that way because they are well led.

Poor leadership can create poor units in a very short period of time, particularly under stress. While good leadership can bring any organization through the most horrendous circumstances with only physical scars.

The leadership of the brigade in the 82nd that is at the center of this photo controversy was evidently already known as weak by the chain-of-command above it. There are many military organizations that have endured more harrowing circumstances with less damage to discipline.

It is not easy being a leader in uniform, but there is a responsibility attached to it that is found nowhere else in society. Military service is a sacrifice and those who volunteer for it are our patriots. But service is no game, and because so much is at stake, standards of deportment must be extremely high.

We are frequently reminded of it, but it bears repeating nonetheless: a commander is responsible for everything that happens or fails to happen in his unit, and it is he who sets the standards in his organization. Accepting less than professional behavior will minimize the service and sacrifice of those who have taken seriously their responsibilities as the guardians of our freedom.

Col. Jack Jacobs was awarded the Medal of Honor for “conspicuous gallantry and intrepidity in action at the risk of his life above and beyond the call of duty” in the battle he describes above. His first assignment in the Army, in 1966-1967, was in Company C, 2nd Battalion (Airborne) 505th Infantry of the 82nd Airborne Division, the same division as the troops in this incident.

Click here to read the complete Medal of Honor citation

He is the author of a memoir: “If Not Now, When? Duty and Sacrifice in America’s Time of Need