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WASHINGTON — Following months of scandals that have complicated U.S. strategy in Afghanistan, top military leaders this week said it is time to refocus on discipline and professionalism more than 10 years into America’s longest war.

“I need every one of you — every one of you — and all of your fellow servicemembers, to always display the strongest character, the greatest discipline and the utmost integrity in everything you do,” Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta told soldiers during a visit Friday to Fort Benning, Ga..

Modern technology can amplify fleeting lapses in discipline and overshadow U.S. dominance on the battlefield, he told the troops, echoing sentiments he voiced earlier this week in an interview with Stars and Stripes.

“These days, it takes only seconds, seconds, for a picture, a photo, to suddenly become an international headline,” he said Friday. “And those headlines can impact the mission we’re engaged in, they can put your fellow service members at risk, they can hurt morale, they can damage our standing in the world and they can cost lives.”

The most recent public relations setback resulted from publication of photos taken in 2010 that depicted grinning U.S. soldiers posing with body parts of failed Afghan suicide bombers. Earlier scandals involved video of Marines urinating on dead insurgents and a photo of Marine snipers posing with a Nazi symbol on a flag, as well as videos showing troops beating a sheep with a bat and throwing a puppy off a cliff. Older videos made in Iraq featured troops mocking children and insulting Islam.

In a March 23 letter, Marine Corps Commandant Gen. James Amos told his top-ranking officers overall discipline needs to be shored up to prevent high-profile abuses by a few.

“We are allowing our standards to erode,” he wrote his commanders. “A number of recent widely publicized incidents have brought discredit on the Marine Corps and reverberated at the strategic level. The undisciplined conduct represented in these incidents threatens to overshadow all our good work and sacrifice.”

Army Chief of Staff Gen. Ray Odierno likewise told the Associated Press the Army needs to ensure that its battle-tested junior officers and noncommissioned officers know what’s expected of them in the realm of conduct and discipline in the ranks.

“Maybe we’ve gotten overconfident and maybe we’ve gotten a little bit comfortable in our young leaders,” he said. “Realizing that they are young, they don’t have a lot of experiences. We have to continue to assist them so they understand what is expected of them.”

At Fort Benning, Panetta emphasized his belief that only a few troops are actually causing problems. But they could have an outsize effect.

“I know these incidents represent a very, very, very small percentage of the great work that our men and women do across the world,” he said. “They concern us because our enemies will seek to turn them, these incidents, in their favor at the very moment that they are losing the wider war.”

Twitter: @ChrisCarroll_

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