From the My Lai massacre in Vietnam to the now-infamous Abu Ghraib prison in Iraq, the question of military accountability has been a difficult one. Does it end with the lieutenant leading the platoon, the lieutenant colonel in charge of a battalion, or the commander in chief in the White House?
When the nuclear attack submarine USS Greeneville crashed into the fishing trawler Ehime Maru three years ago, killing nine Japanese crewmen, teachers, and high school students, there was little doubt who was responsible: US Navy Cmdr. Scott Waddle, the boat's captain. He took responsibility and left the service in disgrace, ending a promising Naval Academy graduate's career.
Few episodes involving military mistakes, bad judgment, or wrongdoing are that clear-cut. Responsibility runs up and down the chain of command, from the lowliest private in fatigues to senior civilians at the Pentagon. It is based on two centuries of US military history and an increasingly complex notion of war.
It can depend on how hands-on a uniformed officer (or the secretary of Defense) is. And it frequently involves moral and ethical decisions not covered by the Uniform Code of Military Justice, international law, or written doctrine.
"In a formal sense, a commander is responsible for everything members of his command do or fail to do in connection with official duties and orders, explicit and inferred," says Dan Smith, a retired Army colonel now a senior fellow at the Friends Committee on National Legislation in Washington. "In a realistic sense, as one moves up the chain of command to larger and larger formations ... the emphasis is less on direct specific knowledge of what individuals at the lowest level might do or not do and more on the climate or tone the commander sets for his subordinates."
In testimony this week before the Senate Armed Services Committee, Army Maj. Gen. Antonio Taguba, whose report detailed the abuses at the US-run Abu Ghraib prison in Iraq, was clear on what he saw as the prime cause: "Failure in leadership from the brigade commander [Brig. Gen. Janice Karpinski] on down, lack of discipline, no training whatsoever, and no supervision."
Moreover, while the military police were under General Karpinski's control, orders placed a military intelligence officer in charge of the facility - highlighting the priority placed on extracting information from detainees. Taguba said this created a confusing situation that was contrary to Army doctrine. Nonetheless, he found that Karpinski retained overall responsibility for the MPs, several of whom now face court-martial proceedings.
But did responsibility go higher than that, senators wanted to know? That is far more difficult to determine, particularly in a time of war and in a contentious political season.
Some observers say Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld's aggressive management style must be taken into account."If the civilians are going to run the Defense Department the way that this particular Defense Department is run, then they can't divorce themselves from the military chain of command when something like this happens," says Charles Peña, a defense expert at the Cato Institute in Washington.
Such concerns extend to Air Force Gen. Richard Myers, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, who (along with Secretary Rumsfeld) has been criticized for not moving quickly to deal with well-documented abuse of prisoners at Abu Ghraib. "On the battlefield, Myers' and Rumsfeld's errors would be called a lack of situational awareness - a failure that amounts to professional negligence," the Army Times, a civilian-published military trade publication, chided this week.
Almost two weeks since photos of the abuse surfaced in the media, impacts are rippling outward in new ways. A video on an Al Qaeda-linked website this week showed an American contract worker in Iraq being beheaded, purportedly in retaliation for US abuse of Iraqi prisoners. The US military has opened an investigation of alleged abuse in Afghanistan. And Wednesday, US senators were scheduled to view photos of additional disturbing images of abuse of Iraqi prisoners by US soldiers.
While the armed services are thought of as by-the-book organizations in which everyone knows his or her place and responsibilities in the chain of command, the system is far more organic than that. "Command is not just being in charge," says retired Air Force Col. Sam Gardiner. "It means forging a bond with subordinates."
"Those commanded give you trust to risk their lives," Colonel Gardiner says. "You give them an implicit promise to care for them. Command and honor are inseparable. When something goes right, they get credit. When something goes wrong, you take the blame."
But blame and accountability are not necessarily clear, even in cases when mistakes are obvious and costly.
In 1988, the cruiser USS Vincennes mistakenly shot down an Iranian airliner, killing 290 people. In 1992, the aircraft carrier USS Saratoga accidentally fired at a Turkish destroyer during a NATO exercise, killing five. Seventeen US sailors died when the destroyer USS Cole failed to protect itself from suicide bombers in Yemen. Yet in none of those cases was the ship's captain court-martialed.
In fact, the trend for officers shown to have done wrong has been away from public military court proceedings and toward more use of nonjudicial punishment, such as letters of reprimand, transfers, forced retirements, and bad fitness reports.
"These are basically secret processes in contrast to the open and public process of a court-martial," says Eugene Fidell, president of the National Institute of Military Justice. While nonjudicial punishment can be an effective way of dealing with instances of bad judgment or major mistakes, says Mr. Fidell, "this is a trend that has not been satisfactorily examined."
Anyone who has served in the military knows that regulations and standard operating procedures - "SOPs" - are the starting point, not the end, of how things work in real life. This is especially true in combat, where plans seldom survive first contact with the enemy and where those in uniform are expected to show initiative.
Retired Navy Capt. Larry Seaquist, whose commands included a battleship, says two problems have arisen in recent years in the US military. First, the sense of accountability within the higher reaches of the chain of command has eroded. The result: many cases where middle and senior officers have evaded any examination of their judgment contributing to serious problems. "Compounding this is a growing complexity with modern, hybrid chains of command," he says. "Military forces nowadays almost always operate in complex webs of multiservice and often multinational activity which blend many different kinds of units, each with separate standards of judgment, different doctrine, and different professional culture. Military law and accountability procedures have yet to catch up to these new complexities."
That has been the case in Iraq for the past year. And amid a violent insurgency, experts say accountability up and down the chain of command is all the more vital. "Psychologically, you're seeing a hardening on both sides that is inevitable in this type of war that pits one culture against another," says retired Army Maj. Gen. Robert Scales, former commandant of the Army War College. "As these tensions rise, and both sides begin to dehumanize each other, that's when discipline, order, and ability to control your people kicks in." If it doesn't, "an army will drift into chaos."
• Gail Russell Chaddock contributed.