April 19, 2012

Soldiers’ Photostream Must Follow Chain of Command

The most recent scandal to rock U.S. military forces in Afghanistan concerns photos published in the Los Angeles Times depicting U.S. soldiers goofing around with the body of a dead Taliban fighter.

Clearly, this incident reflects a failure on the part of whichever commissioned or noncommissioned officer had responsibility for the men in the picture. Afghans -- most of whom will never see the pictures -- will probably not be terribly offended by what U.S. soldiers do to the body of a suicide bomber. But Americans have a right to expect more from the men and women in uniform.

Anti-war activists will complain that the soldiers themselves were victims of the conflict, but most veterans will point out that officers and noncommissioned officers are responsible for everything their soldiers do and fail to do, and that the actions portrayed were clearly out of line. One officer told New York Times reporter Thom Shanker that the photos reflected a kind of “Lord of the Flies” situation in Afghanistan. But William Golding’s book was about schoolchildren who survived a plane crash -- not soldiers who volunteered for combat service and were then given extensive training in the duties and standards expected of them.

At the same time, though, veterans will also be the first to know that these kinds of incidents happen in all wars. As Iraq War veteran and military blogger Alex Horton tweeted on Wednesday night, “If the Athenians had cameras, we’d have photos of them posing with dead Melians. It’s always going to happen.”

Rules Against Photos

What’s new, as Horton noted, is the ubiquitous presence of cameras and camera phones on the battlefield. In my last unit, the Army’s 75th Ranger Regiment, we were under strict orders not to take any photos lest they compromise operational security. The few pictures I have of myself in combat in Iraq and Afghanistan were approved for release by our battalion’s intelligence officer.

The proliferation of camera phones and social-media networks has caused problems for the U.S. military as an institution. Much of this has to do with the generational divide in understanding technology. Most of the men and women serving in the lower enlisted and company-grade officer ranks are what the defense expert Thomas Rid identifies as digital natives. They grew up with e-mail, Facebook and the Internet playing as much a part in their childhoods as Saturday morning cartoons did.

The senior ranks of the military, on the other hand, are populated by digital immigrants. E-mail is something they can remember using for the first time. As late as 2008, at a conference at the U.S. Army War College, Rid asked a collection of senior officers and civilian defense officials how many of them had a Facebook profile. Only four of about 50 people in the room raised their hands.

He then asked how many people had heard of Twitter, and only two people raised their hands. Today, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff himself has a lively Twitter feed -- but the generational divide remains.

If the older officers and noncommissioned officers are not always aware of social media’s potential to transform diplomacy and military operations, the young soldiers are often naive about the dangers of new technologies. When my younger cousin Jon deployed to Iraq for the first time a few years back, I made a point of talking to him about his Facebook profile. Don’t have anything up there, I warned him -- pictures of relatives, details about your home or military service -- that you wouldn’t want an enemy to see. (The Onion, a humor publication, grasps theintelligence-collection potential of Facebook better than the mainstream media does.)

Digital Prowess

Over time, the military leadership will come to include people who have a firmer grasp of both the potential and the dangers of new technologies. For now, though, the importance of small-unit leadership has never been more vital. If an 18-year- old paratrooper wants to snap a photo of himself with a dead Talib, his 21-year-old team leader has to intervene. And that 21-year-old team leader’s 24-year-old platoon leaders and 32- year-old platoon sergeant have to set clear expectations for what is appropriate and what is not.

As has always been the case, the most difficult tasks and decisions in war are left to men and women of a shockingly young age.

As for the photos themselves, their real effect might be not in Afghanistan but in U.S. living rooms. Americans -- only a small number of whom have served in Iraq and Afghanistan -- could stand to see such horrors more often. It is entirely appropriate to believe, as I do, that an all-volunteer military is the right answer for the U.S. But by the same token, Americans should know what their country asks these young men and women in far-off war zones to do.

(Andrew Exum, a former Army officer who fought in Iraq and Afghanistan, is a senior fellow at the Center for a New American Security and teaches a course in low-intensity conflict at Columbia University’s School of International and Public Affairs. The opinions expressed are his own.)