Images of G.I.’s With Taliban Remains Raise Fears on Discipline
A new revelation of young American soldiers caught on camera while defiling insurgents’ remains in Afghanistan has intensified questions within the military community about whether fundamental discipline is breaking down given the nature and length of the war.
The photographs, published by The Los Angeles Times on Wednesday, show more than a dozen soldiers of the 82nd Airborne Division’s Fourth Brigade Combat Team, along with some Afghan security forces, posing with the severed hands and legs of Taliban attackers in Zabul Province in 2010. They seemed likely to further bruise an American-Afghan relationship that has been battered by crisis after crisis over the past year, even as the two governments are in the midst of negotiations over a long-term strategic agreement.
The images also add to a troubling list of cases — including Marines videotaped urinating on Taliban bodies, the burning of Korans, and the massacre of villagers attributed to a lone Army sergeant — that have cast American soldiers in the harshest possible light before the Afghan public. Accordingly, combat veterans and military analysts are beginning to look inside the catchall phrase “stress on the force” to identify factors that could be contributing to the breaches.
One potential explanation put forth by these analysts is the exhaustion felt by the class of non-commissioned officers that forms the backbone of the all-volunteer force: the sergeants responsible for training, mentoring and disciplining small groups of 18- and 19-year-old soldiers at the small-unit level, hour by hour, patrol by patrol.
Another factor, they say, may be the demands of a counterinsurgency strategy that has distributed small units across vast distances to serve at primitive combat outposts. Self-reliance required in isolation may promote heroic camaraderie. But the rugged terrain, logistical challenges and the in-your-face violence of the insurgency may also present great challenges to the noncommissioned officers in charge of these small units, operating far beyond the more consistent senior supervision in past wars.
Officers and analysts express concerns that some of these isolated units are falling prey to diminished standards of behavior and revert to what one combat veteran described as “Lord of the Flies” syndrome, after the William Golding novel portraying a band of cultured British schoolboys reverting to tribal violence when severed from society.
“Some of these incidents certainly seem to be the fault of a breakdown in leadership at the small-unit level,” said Andrew Exum, a defense policy analyst at the Center for a New American Security who teaches a course on irregular warfare at Columbia University.
“Where was the sergeant who is supposed to say: ‘Stop, boys. We don’t do that. We don’t disrespect the dead’?” said Mr. Exum, who led a light infantry platoon in Afghanistan in 2002 and then led a platoon of Rangers in both Iraq and Afghanistan in 2003 and 2004.
Early reports indicate that the soldiers had been sent to gather fingerprints or retina scans for identification of the suicide bomber. Mr. Exum noted how the horrific experience of being ordered to interact with bloody, severed body parts of an enemy may cause soldiers to develop self-defense mechanisms — in particular dark humor around corpses. “But the line is crossed when you disrespect the dead body,” he said. “It’s one thing to have a psychological release valve, and another thing to take trophy pictures.”