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RENEE MONTAGNE, HOST:

This week, more than 100 Marine sergeants and officers are gathering to discuss leadership. It's part of a workshop at Marine Corps University in Quantico, Virginia. The conference was planned long ago but coincides with new reports of failures of leadership and misbehavior by troops in Afghanistan. The latest revelations involve photos of American Army soldiers grinning as they held up body parts of a Taliban suicide bomber. As NPR's Tom Bowman reports, all of it has led to soul-searching going on within the ranks.

TOM BOWMAN, BYLINE: Those pictures of soldiers holding up Taliban body parts followed other troubling incidents - a video showing Marines urinating on the corpses of dead insurgent, pictures of Marines posing with a Nazi SS flag.

Retired Army Major General Robert Scales is a Vietnam combat veteran and historian. He says that kind of behavior is not unusual, especially after a decade of war and repeated deployments.

MAJOR GENERAL ROBERT SCALES: When soldiers get tired, and they've been in the field a very long time and the stress begins to build without very tight supervision from small unit leaders, soldiers - remember these are 18- and 19-year-old kids with a camera - go out and do stupid things.

BOWMAN: Tight supervision. That issue, and whether poor leadership is one reason for incidents like the photos of dead Taliban, will come up this week at Quantico.

Lieutenant Colonel Brian Christmas teaches leadership and ethics there.

LT. COLONEL BRIAN CHRISTMAS: And so what we try to instill in the Marines is, look, your voice matters. If you see something that's wrong you do something about it. You say something, you stop it.

BOWMAN: But it failed in this case.

CHRISTMAS: Yeah, in this case it probably did, and that's what we want to get across.

BOWMAN: The Marines will study some of the most infamous cases from the past: the My Lai massacre in Vietnam. Abu Ghraib in Iraq. And then, says Paolo Tripodi, an ethics professor at Quantico, the Marines will break into small groups, and ask themselves this question...

DR. PAOLO TRIPODI: What do I develop as an individual to make sure that this thing is not going to happen to me and my Marines?

BOWMAN: The instructors at Quantico are not the only ones raising the issue. Defense Secretary Leon Panetta said the recent photographs strike at the heart of the military's ethical code.

SECRETARY LEON PANETTA: That behavior that was depicted in those photos absolutely violates both our regulations and, more importantly, our core values.

BOWMAN: Senior leaders say these are isolated incidents, and not representative of the vast majority of those serving in Afghanistan. Still, senior officers are wondering: after 10 years of grinding war, are small unit leaders maintaining the proper standards of conduct?

The top Marine officer, General James Amos, recently sent a message to all Marines, reminding them of the Corps' ethical standards. And General Amos is visiting Marine commands around the country, driving home a theme of integrity.

Soldiers are hearing a similar message. The Army's chief of staff, General Ray Odierno, met with generals recently. He reminded them of what's called General Order Number One. It lists prohibited activities for soldiers. Among them, photographing or filming detainees or human casualties. And Odierno told the generals that the Army will not tolerate those kinds of behaviors.

It's hard to predict whether leadership conferences or edicts from on high will make a difference. General Scales notes the difficulty of fighting a counterinsurgency like Afghanistan. Soldiers are trying to win over the populace; trying to distinguish between friend and foe.

SCALES: And after a while when operating with an alien culture, soldiers get jaded. And when they get tired, when they're afraid, when they spend long times in the field away from the base camp, these things are likely to happen.

BOWMAN: But senior officers say these things are not supposed to happen. That's where leadership comes in. And that's why in the latest case, some junior leaders may be disciplined, not just those caught misbehaving on film.

Tom Bowman, NPR News, Washington.

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