By Nancy A. Youssef, McClatchy Newspapers –
WASHINGTON — One of the Marines shown urinating on three corpses in Afghanistan in a widely distributed Internet video was the unit’s leader, two U.S. military officials have told McClatchy, raising concerns that poor command standards contributed to an incident that may have damaged the U.S. war effort.
Even before the unit deployed to southern Afghanistan last year, it suffered from disciplinary problems while the troops were based at Camp Lejeune, N.C., the officials said.
As Pentagon officials investigate the incident — the latest in a string of high-profile cases of U.S. troops abusing Afghans and Iraqis on the battlefield — the revelations renew questions about whether the U.S. military will hold commanders responsible when their troops misbehave or commit crimes.
Despite U.S. military doctrine stating that commanders ultimately are responsible for their units’ behavior in combat — and Geneva conventions barring the desecration of dead bodies — the Pentagon rarely has charged commanders in cases where troops have knowingly killed, injured or mistreated Afghans and Iraqis. Instead, lower-ranking troops or those directly responsible for crimes have been charged while commanders have only faced administrative penalties, like dismissal or demotion.
Experts say that the U.S. military hasn’t made the treatment of locals on the battlefield a priority for commanders. However, the military in Afghanistan has found that coalition troops’ behavior toward Afghans, including such acts as urinating in front of them, is a contributor to what one U.S. report last year called “a crisis of trust and cultural incompatibility” that has sometimes led to Afghan soldiers turning their weapons on their coalition partners.
Commanders “are often the last ones to feel the ax fall in terms of serious repercussions,” said Tammy Schultz, a professor of strategic studies at the Marines Corps War College.
The case of the Marines in Afghanistan — which the two Pentagon officials discussed with McClatchy only on condition of anonymity because the investigation was ongoing — will once again test how high up the chain of command the military will go to punish troops if the allegations are determined to be true.
The troops involved are members of a sniper squad from the 3rd Battalion, 2nd Marines. Officials at Camp Lejeune refused to release disciplinary statistics for the unit, but officials said that the ongoing investigation would study command climate.
The Marine Corps has identified the four Marines shown in the video, as well as a fifth who was recording it on video, officials said. They added that among those shown urinating on the corpses are two staff sergeants, including the unit’s leader.
But the military’s handling of past cases continues to haunt its efforts to police new problems.
Only one U.S. commander has been charged for abuses under his command in Iraq or Afghanistan. But that commander, Marine Staff Sgt. Frank D. Wuterich, who told his troops to “shoot now, ask questions later” in a November 2005 incident that left 24 civilians dead in Haditha, Iraq, reached a deal with prosecutors last month to avoid a lengthy prison term. Wuterich pleaded guilty to negligent dereliction of duty in exchange for a three-month sentence.
Sen. Carl Levin, D-Mich., chair of the Armed Services Committee, said last week that while he didn’t want to second-guess the Haditha verdict, “I thought it may have led to more severe outcomes.”
Schultz, the Marine Corps War College professor, argues that military attitudes toward civilians in the Iraq and Afghan wars emanated from the top — starting when then-Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld, reviewing a 2002 memo that discussed forcing detainees to stand for prolonged periods of time, scrawled at the bottom: “I stand for 8-10 hours a day. Why is standing limited to 4 hours?”
That, Schultz said, helped set the tone for the wars.
Command climate begins with making sure troops keep their uniforms clean and extends to how they conduct themselves on missions. Charging or relieving a commander is subjective and varies across the U.S. military services, but it usually hinges on proving the commander knew about an offense and did not respond appropriately.
The military regularly conducts surveys that ask troops to rate the command climate in their units — including how commanders treat troops, mete out discipline and treat military families — but none of the questions deal with treatment of local residents.
In combat, platoon and squad commanders who are on the front lines with their troops report to battalion commanders, who often are stationed at the main base and at times patrol with troops. Those commanders report to a brigade commander who usually works from a local headquarters and, more than any other commander, is responsible for the unit.
Some military leaders have rejected the idea that troops should be charged, saying that some crimes are part of the inevitable horrors of war. In the Haditha case, then-Marine Lt. Gen. James Mattis recommended dropping the case against one of the eight Marines originally charged by writing that the Marine was “in my eyes innocent.”
Mattis has since been promoted to a four-star general and is the commander of the U.S. Central Command, whose responsibilities include the U.S. forces in Afghanistan and Iraq.