- The Washington Times - Sunday, October 8, 2000

Sound bites from government budget battles and the presidential campaign have made military readiness one of this year's political catch phrases.

Most discussions on the topic concentrate on easily quantifiable indicators of military strength like new weapon systems or recruiting goals. But there are other less tangible elements of the military that are equally important to readiness that are rarely heard in budgeting rhetoric. This particularly applies to the Army, where it is still the determination and professionalism of soldiers that brings success in many of the service's missions. That's called the "warrior ethic," and it's harder to find and measure than materiel statistics. You usually have to look at the Army from the inside to see evidence of such spirit.

Surprisingly, the Army gave us a glimpse at the warrior ethic last month when they released a report of misconduct in Kosovo.

The facts of the case are grim. In January, Staff Sgt. Frank Ronghi of the 82nd Airborne Division was accused of raping and murdering a Kosovar Albanian girl during his battalion's tour there in 1999. Ronghi's defense counsel argued that a "negative command climate" in his unit, the 3rd Battalion of the 504th Parachute Infantry Regiment, contributed to his actions. He subsequently pleaded guilty to the charges and a court-martial sentenced him to life in prison.

The circumstances of the case led Army Chief of Staff Gen. Eric Shinseki to order another investigation into the unit's activities. The subsequent report revealed "several incidents of misconduct" including "intimidating, interrogating, abusing and beating Albanians." The senior investigating officer recommended that some of the soldiers face courts-martial for their actions. As a result, five enlisted soldiers were reduced in rank and four officers received non-judicial and administrative punishments.

Gen. Shinseki also ordered immediate action to correct deficiencies that led to the offenses, as well as a review of the "unit climate and discipline" in the 82nd.

There is no defense for the soldiers' actions, but since the report stated that Ronghi's battalion lacked peacekeeping training, some editorialists have condemned the Army for sending men into Kosovo unprepared. Others questioned the use of combat infantry units like the paratroopers of the 82nd for peacekeeping. There is some merit to both arguments, but the Army was right to prosecute the soldiers.

Despite its benign-sounding name, peacekeeping can be a dangerous and confusing mission. In tours in Haiti and Bosnia, I saw soldiers alternately cheered, shouted at, cried upon, pelted with rocks, rushed by happy crowds and mobbed by angry protesters. The distinction between friend and foe is not always clear. Infantrymen are often excellent at maintaining order in such situations but they are, by nature, aggressive. Specialized training can help prepare them for the frustrating tasks they face.

Although peacekeeping is tough business, it does not present an excuse for abusing civilians. As infantrymen and paratroopers, the condemned 82nd men were part of an elite group of soldiers who pride themselves on being able to accomplish almost any mission. Their leaders are expected to be mature, responsible and to use good judgment. According to the investigation report, the soldiers violated "basic standards of conduct, human decency and the Army values of treating others with dignity and respect." Those aren't areas that require unique training.

The guilty soldiers of Ronghi's battalion clearly violated military law and their unit's rules for handling civilians. All soldiers are well versed in both subjects.

Trust and honesty, also part of the warrior ethic, is evident in the way Army senior leaders handled the case. The matter could have ended with Ronghi's conviction, but Gen. Shinseki initiated the second, more extensive, investigation. Digging into the conduct of the 82nd Airborne, one of the Army's elite divisions, is comparable to parents searching for and finding drugs in their honor-student's bedroom. Reporting the unit's misconduct would be like turning the guilty child over to the police.

Some editorials called the soldiers' punishment wrist-slaps, but such disciplinary measures will end the careers of many who may have had great potential. Defense Secretary William Cohen called the Kosovo incidents "behavior that cannot be allowed to recur" and could easily have called for harsher punishments, but he backed Gen. Shinseki's measures. Their actions indicate a fair level of mutual comfort and confidence. Compare this to the finger-pointing over which agency botched the Wen Ho Lee case.

The Kosovo report should also serve as a reminder of the difficult missions that our soldiers face daily with little fanfare. Army battalions still rotate through the Multi-National Force of Observers on the Sinai Peninsula, as they have since the early 1980s. Soldiers helped keep the peace in Peru and Ecuador from 1995 to 1997. Another 4,600 are still on duty in Bosnia and others serve in East Timor. All these deployments have passed without serious incident. The troops in Kosovo are in the news now that Serbian elections have triggered disorders, but they'll likely fade from the public eye once the crisis ends.

Long after you read this, soldiers will still be honorably performing tough jobs in harsh conditions and following the warrior ethic every day.

Back in the United States, the Army will learn from its mistake in Kosovo and go back to the business of protecting freedom in the same way it has for 225 years. Men and women will join the Army and serve wherever their nation sends them not because it is glamorous or easy. It isn't. But because they're part of a service that defends people too weak to do so themselves.

They will perform their missions with or without extra training for unique situations and use whatever weapons Congress funds. They will reward those who do well and punish those who break the rules, as they did in Kosovo.

George Washington said it best: "Discipline is the soul of the Army."

That is the warrior ethic, and it is as good an indicator of readiness as anything you'll hear from the campaign trail or Capitol Hill.

Michael Schellhammer is a civilian intelligence specialist for the Defense Department, a free-lance writer and a major in the Army reserve, as well as a former paratrooper and infantry officer. The views expressed in this article are his own and do not re

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