The person at the top sets the tone, so it was important and useful for Defense Secretary Leon E. Panetta to lay down the law regarding recent atrocious breakdowns in military discipline and their impact on operations. But if some generals aren't getting in the faces of some colonels, and some lieutenants in the personal space of corporals, then the effort is going to break down.
The problems have been well-documented: Marines urinating on the corpses of dead Taliban fighters; troops mistakenly burning copies of the Quran at a base in Afghanistan; soldiers posing with the body parts of dead insurgents. These incidents make the military's work in Afghanistan more difficult -- and more dangerous -- and weaken this country's standing in other Muslim countries.
It is not as though this kind of behavior is unique. Throughout history, wars have been characterized by episodes of extraordinary valor and unnecessary cruelty. It is the nature of the beast.
But what was shocking then is dangerous today. In today's world, cameras are ubiquitous, and video can be instantly uploaded to the Internet, there to be viewed by millions of people who can further disseminate it through social networking sites. Because of that, and a 24-hour news cycle, disturbing events can almost instantly catalyze anger and produce a violent response.
That is why military discipline is more important than ever. Our troops are not only on display to the friends and enemies with whom they engage, but in a real sense, to the entire world. That may be a hard concept to grasp, especially for an 18-year-old who is trained to kill and is, himself, living on the razor's edge of his own mortality. Yet it is essential that that standard be expected of our military.
Panetta can't accomplish that alone. Preparation for operating in what is, really, a new kind of world needs to begin in the service academies and in basic training. And it needs to filter down from the secretary of defense through the Pentagon brass to the officers and enlisted men who are struggling to leave Afghanistan in a condition that makes it safe for us to exit.
No one should doubt that maintaining military discipline requires ongoing attention and an unyielding insistence by military leaders that the lesson be learned and applied. These young men and women are serving their country under incomprehensibly brutal circumstances and it is fair to cut them some slack when possible. But what is possible has changed along with the world. These events now take on broad political and military significance, and they need to be treated that way.