What's happened to command responsibility in Afghanistan?

Much to his credit, when Robert Gates became secretary of defense in 2006, he sought to reverse this erosion of senior officer accountability. When the Air Force demonstrated a cavalier attitude toward managing its nuclear inventory, Gates fired the service’s chief of staff. When The Washington Post broke a story about wounded warriors warehoused in substandard conditions at Walter Reed, Gates handed both the two-star hospital commander and the three-star Army surgeon general their walking papers…

Yet when it comes to misdeeds on or near the battlefield — troops urinating on Taliban corpses, burning Korans, allegedly wandering away from base to murder civilians in cold blood — the pre-Gates norms stubbornly persist. If fault is found, it invariably fixes responsibility and imposes penalties at echelons well below those occupied by the people said to be in charge. The fall guy ends up being the little guy…

This latest scandal, surfacing on Gen. John Allen’s watch, actually occurred in February 2010, when Gen. David Petraeus, then head of U.S. Central Command, had overall responsibility for the war’s direction. The revelation dents the image of mastery that Petraeus and his acolytes carefully cultivated. Yet the interval between the act and its becoming public knowledge suggests that this is unlikely to be the last such incident we will have to endure.

The best way to stanch this outpouring of embarrassing news from Afghanistan is to bring our soldiers home, an option that many Americans find increasingly attractive. In the interim, however, we should reassert a standard of command responsibility that Lincoln would have understood. Yes, when soldiers behave badly, the harsh hand of discipline should fall on individual perpetrators. Yet soldier misconduct expresses professional malpractice at all levels. This epidemic will subside only once we recognize that.