Small Wars Journal

A Breakdown in Discipline?

The New York Times asks if the recent list of troubling cases from Afghanistan stem from a fundamental breakdown in discipline.  Worth your time to read and consider.


Officers and analysts express concerns that some of these isolated units are falling prey to diminished standards of behavior and revert to what one combat veteran described as “Lord of the Flies” syndrome, after the William Golding novel portraying a band of cultured British schoolboys reverting to tribal violence when severed from society.

“Some of these incidents certainly seem to be the fault of a breakdown in leadership at the small-unit level,” said Andrew Exum, a defense policy analyst at the Center for a New American Security who teaches a course on irregular warfare at Columbia University.

Categories: discipline - COIN - Afghanistan



Fri, 05/04/2012 - 7:13am

I do not believe the recent list of troubling cases from Afghanistan stem directly from a “new” discipline problem in our military nor if we have one should we blame it on our junior leaders as many people are. I can only speak on behalf of the three units I have been a member of and 39 months I have spent deployed to Afghanistan and Iraq. When compared to other nations’ military forces, our individual and collective Soldier discipline is outstanding. Also, when assessing the personal and unit discipline of the leaders above me, when discipline was supposedly much better, our Soldiers’ level of discipline is at least on par with theirs.

As long as there is war in the world there will be a need for Soldiers. Regrettably, just as in every other major war, as long as there are Soldiers on the ground there will continue to be unfortunate incidents like the recent ones in Afghanistan. However, it is our responsibility as leaders to do all we can to limit these incidents. If they do occur we need to swiftly and justly punish any individuals directly involved. We can limit future incidents like these by educating and developing our young men and women in the military on our American values and beliefs. Just as critically, we must ensure our Soldiers know what the policies and regulations of our military are and the intent behind them.

If our leaders insist on shoring up discipline in the ranks it should be less about reestablishing basic standards such as sideburns and tattoos and more about developing our Soldiers’ abilities and their individual and unit pride. If we develop our Soldiers in such a way that they put their unit’s reputation or even their fellow Soldiers’ well being above their own, we will not have a discipline problem; we will have stronger unit cohesion.

As our Army decreases in number and as our promotion rates, at every level, get smaller, we must be careful not create a zero defect environment where Soldiers are afraid to take risks. Some of our junior officers and non-commissioned officers have years of combat experience that cannot be retrained or redeveloped in garrison or one of our national training centers. As many senior leaders point out, experience in combat without education and development is not everything but it is more than education alone. If we create an environment of back stabbing and selfishness and if our economy continues to improve we risk losing our greatest assets, our best people.

We must lead from the front in this so-called campaign to re-instill discipline in the force, while working alongside our subordinates. It is paramount that we train and develop our subordinates in such a way that we trust that they have the tools to accomplish the missions we give them and that they understand commanders’ intent. More critical is their trust in us. They must not question our abilities and they must know we have mission accomplishment and the unit’s best interest in mind throughout our decision making process.

During the past 10+ years, our military has asked junior leaders and Soldiers to accomplish countless tasks that they were never trained for. They have accomplished these tasks and many more. Our record is not perfect nor will it ever be. Because our own duty descriptions state, “everything a unit does or fails to do,” if discipline is a problem in our Army, as leaders, we all need to look in the mirror and truly assess where that problem stems from.

CPT Sean M. Rufolo, U.S. Army, CGSC (ILE), Fort Gordon, GA.

The views expressed in this blog are those of the author and do not reflect the official policy of position of the Department of the Army, Department of Defense, or the U.S. Government.


Sun, 04/22/2012 - 12:12pm

There are no significant discipline problems with US military forces engaged in combat in Afghanistan. The actions reflected by pictures showing troops with body parts, others urinating on the bodies of dead enemy, etc. is no different than similar acts by soldiers in every war past, present, and future. Apparently few, if any, of those commenting were in Vietnam, Korea, or WWII. Today’s politically successful peacetime style generals and admirals won’t acknowledge that because it will adversely impact their career advancement and expose the absurd nature of the COIN policy tactics they are employing.

The problem is with the ridiculous military tactics developed and implemented by political generals who hide in secure bunkers or buildings while they command their line units to act and behave as American police are expected do when patrolling (policing) a US city engaged in crime prevention. The Taliban, however, are not burglars and robbers. Instead they are an insurgent oriented military force seeking to kill US forces using military style weaponry, hidden explosives, and suicide bomber tactics. Sometimes our men respond accordingly as soldiers have always done, forgetting that their actions are being restricted by officers seeking to advance at their expense. I would like to have a dollar for every picture of dead enemy bodies or parts I have seen in the possession of fellow veterans of past wars--or of body parts such as ears ....

US forces attacked / entered Afghanistan to destroy Al Qaeda forces then operating from that area and to punish the Taliban for providing Bin Laden & Company a safe haven--not to change the political and cultural style of the Afghan government and society. We succeeded in that effort and it is time to depart before our "leaders" ruin the American military’s fighting capacity and morale as our generals such as Westmoreland and others did during Vietnam. If Al Qaeda units return to Afghanistan they can be dealt with again in a more conventional, less costly, manner and the TV reporters and the Clinton / Panetta team will have another subject to occupy their time before the cameras.


Sat, 04/21/2012 - 2:25am

I very much doubt there is no connection between (unlawful) violence on and off the battlefield. It may be discipline. And it may be the fault of a failure of small-unit leadership. But there are also larger constraining forces that impose unfavorable conditions on the force. And these are the same forces that have led (and continue to lead to) record rates in personnel turnover, suicide, domestic and sexual violence, and prescription drug and alcohol abuse. We have a (largely) white, male, southern Christian conservative military force conducting "counter-insurgency" operations (which means different things according to different commanders) in a Islamic foreign country that is not well understood while operating under policies, rules, and assumptions that are also not well understood. Couple that with repeated deployments in which soldiers perceive first-hand the the glowing disparities between theory and practice and lack of progress, as well as relative physical and cultural isolation except among those sharing their exact same experiences. Should not be surprising at all that these kinds of things are going to happen. What should be surprising is that we're relying on a strategy that can be wrecked by it.


Sat, 04/21/2012 - 2:29am

In reply to by H_Bouquet

I agree with many of those sentiments with the exception that too much blame is placed on the Afghan security forces -- the people that we have self-assigned for their mentorship and development. There are some very combat effective Afghan military units that we trained. There are also some very poor units that we have also trained. We (the American public, their elected representatives, and their appointed officials) need to take more responsibility for the goals we assign ourselves and how we resource them.


Sat, 04/21/2012 - 1:37am

"...simplify as much as possible, but no simpler." As a former Vietnam Marine, I am looking at this from the squad level. I have spoken with several young Marines who have recently returned from Afghanistan. They all said their greatest frustrations were 1) An uninterested and uncaring nation - at least in Vietnam, pro or con, you knew the conflict was in the national news on a daily basis - they felt abandoned in a remote wasteland. I think they were; 2) Ridiculous and dangerous rules of engagement. Not once in 7 months were they allowed to call-in air, mortars or artillery - all areas had to completely confirmed as being free of civilians before they could be used. The only way to use them was after you had cleared the buildings; 3) Cowardly behavior of the Afghan army and police - during OJT refusal to take the point, refusal to lead building entry teams; 4) Incompetence; no concept of fire and maneuver, noise discipline, etc., and no apparent desire to learn. 5) Theft by the Afghan police of personal items belonging to Marines for resale in the local villages. Given all the above, plus the never-ending stress of combat, what do we expect? Such an environment leads to the need to release frustration and anger.

Dom Save

Fri, 04/20/2012 - 1:40am

Could we try to think like that ? too rigidly, we seek the reasons for these problems in the army and reason in its operation. Maybe if we take over this image fields would include the reaction of the masses of the nations at the refusal to honor the warrior, ignore the difference of sacrifice meaning. The refusal of Western nations to see the violence of the world outside its borders, and the involvement of politic with everything. These images are initially not "politically correct", but they are real life.


Thu, 04/19/2012 - 11:34am

It seems nonsense to say that this is a result of a "break down" or "erroding" of discipline. The obvious answer is the one given at the end of the article, more cameras + faster distribution = more record of incidents. I shudder to think of the "outcry" if cell phones cameras and easy access laptops were the norm in OIF I. Andrew Exums comments also strike as a bit pedantic.

I'm not defending the incident per se, especialy given the political sensitivities in Afghanistan. But drawing some universal conclusions about being better than that as a force or that this is a sign of force strain I think is a stretch too far.

Leadership may in fact be the factor that's missing when these events occur. But that is far closer to common than our public clean-war fantasies lull us into believing. Furthermore, I have to side with the Administration of its admonition of the LA Times for publishing these photos 2 yrs after the fact. I'd hate to see what happens if the LA Times decides to troll the internet for OIF pictures circa 2003-2005 and then decides to write a story about it. It is also worth noting that trophy/picture rules in CENTCOM started to be enforced in any meaningful sense well after the wars began. I am tempted to claim that they didn't exist in any meaningful sense even as late as 2005, but I don't know for certain. Regardless, the issues here are less strain-induced discipline breakdown than poorly enforced image-control-discipline in the modern tech environment.

dos pesos

One suspects that these kinds of events have happened throughout the course of modern history, regardless of combatants involved. We only hear about them (and see them) to a greater degree secondary to the pervasiveness of digital recording media.

Curiously enough, neither the much-vaunted Pashtun societal code nor the contention of consistency with Islam played much of any role when the Taliban first came into power and in short order gained control of the majority of the country. Neither of the two, again, appear to play much of a role when it comes to actions of the insurgency in the current time frame. Neither the Khurasan death squad operating in the Pakistani Tribal Belt nor the unnamed death squad operating in Khost province appear to have much to worry about when it comes to either badal or being un-Islamic.

The issue of image consciousness on the part of the US, however, appears to be one that has been blown out of proportion and is, IMHO, irrelevant when it comes to the much larger issue of the millstone that the US has tied around its neck with the rush to 'legitimacy' vis-a-vis the corrupt and incompetent Karzai regime. Unless the security and corruption issues are resolved in short order, even the greatest image possible for the US and the greatest discipline possible for the US will matter for not.

No matter what you want to call it, these incidents are Bin Laden's dream come true. American soldiers making recruiting videos for Al Qaeda, showing Afghan villagers who are on the fence that American soldiers are in fact brutal, inhumane and anti-Islam.

Our very brave and highly trained special ops risk their lives and work months and years to build trusting relationships with locals. This is the cornerstone of the U.S. strategy. Then in a few minutes a couple of American soldiers destroy all their work more effectively than the Taliban ever could have. Ironically these mindless creatures consider themselves to be patriotic Americans. Apparently they have no idea that they have created a treasured gift from the heavens for Al Qaeda recruiters. In an insurgent environment it is these people that cost us the war.