Photos of Afghan Abuse Are Valid (If Unfortunate) News

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COMMENTARY | As a U. S. Air Force veteran, and the brother of a U. S. Army lieutenant colonel who has served in Iraq and Afghanistan (twice), the photos showing military servicemembers posing with body parts of dead Afghans disappoint me.

I also am the son of a career U.S. Air Force journalist who served in Korea and Vietnam. We should note that this story is a snapshot from a brief time, and should not reflect on all military members. We have a legitimate reason to be in Afghanistan, and are doing many things that benefit the people that live there, such as training them in important skills.

My service did not include combat assignments like Afghanistan; I was in the Air Force from 1978 until 2005 but did serve in a remote radar site in Alaska for a year. There, we did see a lot of alcohol use and immature behavior. That experience tells me that people, when they are away from their normal routine for an extended time, shed a lot of their inhibitions. They feel that accepted rules of behavior do not apply to them. Perhaps this also affected these service members in Afghanistan.

The military is a huge operation: There are millions of Army and Marine personnel, there are full-time military and also reserve forces. So the background and training of these people vary widely. We do hear a lot about the good that our folks are doing there, but a few stories like this can tarnish the image of all of our people. This is partly a result of the wide availability of digital photography, and the speed with which those images can be shared.

All military members attend training on their responsibilities, and we all know that actions like this will be swiftly punished. The soldiers in the photos certainly have seen the similar ones from the prison at Abu Ghraib, Iraq, where soldiers were leering at the camera. They knew that they were violating strong directions from their leadership.

Many people, when they are removed from their normal environment and are inserted into a high-stress environment, will do things that they would never normally do. But all branches of the military are on alert for behavior like this. These soldiers appear to be young and inexperienced. But can we imagine that these photos were not widely shared in their units? Where were their senior sergeants and commissioned officers who are immediately above them? It is easy to find current examples of how responsible senior sergeants recognize leadership and work to pass it on. Why were these actions not identified and punished right after they occurred?

This story reinforces the need to closely monitor people in high-stress environments and to take action swiftly when people vary from accepted behavior. But it should not reflect badly on the vast majority of our people who are there trying to accomplish an important mission.

Charles Phillips was an Air Force officer from 1978 until he retired in 2005 (working in space, communications, and maintenance), first in the active duty for 10 years, then in the Texas Air National Guard for 10 years, and last in the Air Force Reserve for eight years. He has been a writer all of that time. Now he finds the stories that people are interested in but might have been missed by other reporters.

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