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We're heard quite a bit over the last few months about soldiers and Marines under investigation and being charged for the deaths of Iraqi civilians. Well now their officers are facing disciplinary action and even prosecution.

As NPR's Tom Bowman reports, it's a development that is alarming senior military leaders.

TOM BOWMAN reporting:

The civilian deaths in Iraq are headlines, grim shorthand for the horrible results of war. In Dave Wallace's class, they are case studies for possible failures of leadership.

Colonel DAVE WALLACE (West Point): It's the officers and the non-commissioned officers who set the tone. They're the ones who enforce the standards. They're the ones who are responsible for what happens or fails to happen in their units.

BOWMAN: Wallace is an Army colonel who teaches the law of war at West Point. His 23 cadets will graduate next year as second lieutenants. He says officers are supposed to set an example and keep a check on improper behavior by subordinates. But Wallace says the unforeseen can shatter discipline.

Investigators say that's what happened at Haditha last fall. A Marine was killed in a roadside bomb attack at this town northwest of Baghdad. The rest of the unit then went on a rampage, and 24 civilians died. The Marines involved say those deaths were an accident that came during a firefight with insurgents.

Wallace is not passing judgment on Haditha. What he wants his cadets to see is the cause and effect in combat situations. Leaders must be ready to anticipate and quickly react when, say, a fellow soldier is killed during an operation.

Colonel WALLACE: What impact does that have? Well, what's the response of those soldiers? What do you need to be looking for?

BOWMAN: But now the conflict in Iraq is resulting in allegations of command failures among leaders. A growing number of officers, possibly up to the rank of general, is being caught in the investigative net. In the case of Haditha, two officers were relieved from duty. That came after their subordinates were under investigation for those killings.

In a separate incident at the town of Hamdaniya in April, a Marine lieutenant and members of his platoon were charged with assaulting three Iraqi civilians, and several soldiers charged in the murder of three Iraqi prisoners north of Baghdad in May say they were acting on orders from their colonel, who told them to kill all military age males.

The colonel and the other officers deny they did anything wrong, and Pentagon officials say additional officers will face scrutiny and perhaps charges. There are four separate investigations on the role of commanders in the deaths of civilians.

Gary Solis is a retired Marine and a Georgetown law professor. He says it's unusual to find a growing number of officers implicated in the investigations. He calls officers the gatekeepers, who make sure their units behave properly.

Mr. GARY SOLIS (Georgetown University): For an officer to be involved in this is very disturbing. Very seldom has this happened. I can only think of a couple cases outside of My Lai, a couple cases in Vietnam where this happened.

BOWMAN: Bob Scales is a retired Army general and historian. He says there are similarities between Vietnam and Iraq. Scales says Marines and soldiers caught up in bitter and long-running insurgencies need almost refresher courses in the laws of war and the ethics of the profession.

General BOB SCALES (Historian): Fighting an insurgency really has a morally wearying affect on soldiers. Over time, seeing your buddies killed, seeing your leaders severely wounded, frustration with not being able to pick the enemy out of a general population, that has a corrosive psychological affect on units.

BOWMAN: Gary Solis, the law professor and former Marine, says senior commanders must be especially tough if the evidence points to an officer's failure.

Mr. SOLIS: In other words, you have to show that you're serious, and one way to show that you are very serious is to hammer somebody.

BOWMAN: One of the command investigations involving the Haditha incident is complete. A Pentagon official says it will be sharply critical of mid-level Marine officers and perhaps even a general or two, and it will call for some Colonel Wallace at West Point is offering his future officers - more training in the laws of war and the responsibility of command.

Tom Bowman, NPR News, Washington.

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