WASHINGTON -- The head of the Marine Corps is embarking on a worldwide visit of bases to remind his leaders of the kind of conduct he expects following "troubling" lapses in the storied discipline of his fighting force.
Marine Corps Gen. James Amos, the commandant, says a decade of war might have led to a slight fraying of the values that have been the hallmark of the Corps throughout its history.
The concerns came to a head earlier this year when a video circulated on the Internet depicting Marines urinating on dead Taliban fighters in Afghanistan. Shortly afterward, a photo appeared online of Marine snipers posing next to a flag that resembled the Nazi SS symbol.
"The Marine Corps is not wholesale off the deep end here," Amos said in an interview with USA TODAY. But, "I am concerned with the public image of the Marine Corps. ... We're called to a higher standard."
Amos pointed out that the number of Marines involved in such incidents are a small fraction of the hundreds of thousands of Marines who have served in Iraq and Afghanistan over the past decade.
But he finds the incidents serious enough that he and the top enlisted Marine, Sgt. Maj. Micheal Barrett, are traveling to Marine installations to address officers and senior non-commissioned officers about making sure to get "back on true north" and focus on accountability and discipline. "It's a big deal for us to get out and do this," Amos said.
The videotaped incidents have been assailed by the Afghanistan government for providing the Taliban with a recruitment tool. Military analysts say the level of misconduct in Iraq and Afghanistan is lower than in previous wars.
"Anytime we go to war these things happen in isolated incidents at least," said David Perry, professor of applied ethics at Davidson College and author of a book on military ethics.
But the Internet and portable cameras and phones has brought incidents home in unprecedented ways.
The Marine Corps owes its survival in part to its reputation among the American public and Congress as a formidable fighting force. It has had to fight off attempts to eliminate the force by rival services who say Marines duplicate the missions of other military branches.
Perry said the Marine Corps and other services remain popular among the American public despite recent headlines. In March, Amos expressed concerns that standards had been affected by the recent wars.
"This conduct is particularly troubling in that it portends a lack of discipline and accountability by Marines and leadership; we are allowing our standards to erode," Amos warned in a letter issued to Marine leaders throughout the Corps.
Amos delivered the message personally to Marine leaders that he assembled last week at Marine Barracks Washington, which was established in 1801 and is the Corps' oldest base.
"If the American public and Congress ever lose faith in us then we will cease to exist," Amos told the leaders. "We're not in that kind of position.
"As the keeper of the flame I don't ever want to even get close," he said.