Defense Secretary Leon E. Panetta made a personal appeal to American troops Friday to refrain from misconduct -- a pointed response to the recent publication of images of soldiers urinating on corpses and posing with body parts, behavior that has complicated the war in Afghanistan.
In a speech at Fort Benning, Ga., Panetta was blunt in his assessment of the breakdown of discipline, saying these incidents "show a lack of judgment, a lack of professionalism and a lack of leadership."
Panetta reminded troops that they are representing the American people and they must live up to strict military standards.
"These days, it takes only seconds for one picture to suddenly become an international headline," the former California congressman said, standing in front of one of the most battle-hardened units in the Army, the "Hammer brigade" of the 3rd Infantry Division.
"And those headlines can impact the mission we're engaged in, they can put your fellow service members at risk, they can hurt morale, and they can damage our standing in the world," he said.
Panetta's admonition is part of a broader effort by military commanders to tighten discipline within the ranks of the Army and Marine Corps. It follows revelations of disturbing conduct by U.S. troops over the past four months that have inflamed emotions in Afghanistan, played into Taliban propaganda and strained relations with President Hamid Karzai.
Last month, the Los Angeles Times reported that soldiers serving with the 82nd Airborne Division in Afghanistan in 2010 posed with the body parts of slain enemies.
The Times published a photograph showing soldiers standing with Afghan police who were holding the dismembered legs of a suicide bomber and another showing a soldier with a dead insurgent's hand on his shoulder. The images were part of 18 photographs provided to the newspaper by a soldier who served with the unit.
A month earlier, in February, U.S. troops mistakenly burned copies of the Quran at a base in Afghanistan, sparking violent protests in the country. In January, a video was made public that showed Marines urinating on the corpses of Afghan insurgents.
U.S. officials have publicly distanced themselves from the conduct and renounced the images. Panetta has said the individuals involved will be held accountable.
Panetta emphasized that the troubling incidents "represent a very, very small percentage of the great work that our men and women do every day across the world."
"'And they (the incidents) concern us because our enemies will seek to turn them in their favor, at the very moment when they are losing the wider war," he said.