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.
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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.
Experts said that while commanders can't be held responsible for everything their troops do, they do play a major role in how troops behave. Privately, three former commanders in Iraq and Afghanistan told McClatchy that mistreatment of Afghans and Iraqis wasn't seen as a "career-ender," and that if commanders were careful to avoid civilian casualties it was mainly to protect their own forces from repercussions.
Part of that calculus was the lack of charges or serious consequences against commanders in high-profile cases of abuse, they said. They spoke on condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the issue.
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. It was unclear whether the unit in question was the entire sniper squad.
The Marines believe that the men approached the corpses shortly after shooting them as part of a sniper operation. In the 38-second video posted online last month, the four Marines are shown standing over what look like three dead bodies, one with a bloody shirt. One Marine says, "Have a good day, buddy," as he urinates on one of the motionless men. Another says, "Golden like a shower."
Immediately after the video surfaced, Defense Secretary Leon Panetta and other top military officials called the act deplorable and promised a full investigation. Gen. John Allen, commander of the NATO coalition in Afghanistan, has made mitigating civilian casualties a focus of operations.
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 leaders 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.
In past cases, commanders have said they weren't aware of abuses or could do little to stop them. In other cases, prosecutors could not build a strong case.
In the case of Abu Ghraib, the notorious Baghdad prison where U.S. troops photographed the abuse of Iraqi detainees, two specialists received three- and 10-year prison sentences while the brigade general was reprimanded and demoted a rank to colonel.
Recently, the military has attempted to go more aggressively after midlevel commanders. The Army has been investigating allegations that five soldiers with the 5th Stryker Brigade, 2nd Infantry Division, created a "kill team" that targeted unarmed Afghans and cut off their fingers as trophies in 2009 and 2010. In all, 11 U.S. soldiers have been convicted so far in connection with the deaths of the Afghans.
While he hasn't been charged, a 532-page Army report found that the Stryker brigade commander in that case, Col. Harry Tunnell, encouraged an aggressive posture toward Afghans that "may have helped create an environment in which misconduct could occur."
Editor's note: The original version of this story incorrectly stated that one of the staff sergeants was the platoon commander.
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