WASHINGTON - In a survey of U.S. troops in combat in Iraq, less than half of Marines and a little more than half of Army soldiers said they would report a member of their unit for killing or wounding an innocent civilian.
More than 40 percent support the idea of torture in some cases, and 10 percent reported personally abusing Iraqi civilians, the Pentagon said Friday in what it called its first ethics study of troops at the war front. Units exposed to the most combat were chosen for the study, officials said.
"It is disappointing," said analyst John Pike of the Globalsecurity.org think tank. "But anybody who is surprised by it doesn't understand war. ... This is about combat stress."
The military has seen a number of high-profile incidents of alleged abuse in the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, including the killings of 24 civilians by Marines in Haditha, the rape and killing of a 14-year-old girl and the slaying of her family in Iraq and the sexual humiliation of detainees at Abu Ghraib prison.
"I don't want to, for a minute, second-guess the behavior of any person in the military - look at the kind of moral dilemma you are putting people in," Christopher Preble of the libertarian Cato Institute think tank, said of the mission in Iraq. "There's a real tension between using too much force, which generally means using force to protect yourself, and using too little and therefore exposing yourself to greater risk."
The overall study was the fourth in a series done by a special mental health advisory team since 2003 aimed at assessing the well-being of forces serving in Iraq.
Officials said the teams visited Iraq last August to October, talking to troops, health care providers and chaplains.
The study team also found that long and repeated deployments were increasing troop mental health problems.
But Maj. Gen. Gale Pollock, the Army's acting surgeon general, said the team's "most critical" findings were on ethics.
"They looked under every rock, and what they found was not always easy to look at," said Ward Casscells, assistant secretary of defense for health.
-Sixty-two percent of soldiers and 66 percent of Marines said that they knew someone seriously injured or killed, or that a member of their team had become a casualty.
-The 2006 adjusted rate of suicides per 100,000 soldiers was 17.3 soldiers, lower than the 19.9 rate reported in 2005.
-Only 47 percent of the soldiers and 38 percent of Marines said noncombatants should be treated with dignity and respect.
-About a third of troops said they had insulted or cursed at civilians in their presence.
-About 10 percent of soldiers and Marines reported mistreating civilians or damaging property when it was not necessary. Mistreatment includes hitting or kicking a civilian.
-Forty-four percent of Marines and 41 percent of soldiers said torture should be allowed to save the life of a soldier or Marine.
-Thirty-nine percent of Marines and 36 percent of soldiers said torture should be allowed to gather important information from insurgents.
Lt. Col. Scott Fazekas, a Marine Corps spokesman, said officials were looking closely at the ethics results, taken from a questionnaire survey of 1,320 soldiers and 447 Marines.
"The Marine Corps takes this issue of battlefield ethics very seriously," he said. "We are examining the study and its recommendations and we'll find ways to improve our approach."
Pollock said officials concluded from the overall study that "there's a robust system in place to provide mental health care, but issues continue with the stress of a combat deployment."
Based on the findings, officials have revised training programs to focus more on Army values, suicide prevention, battlefield ethics and behavioral health awareness, Pollock said.
The study team said shorter deployments or longer intervals between deployments would give soldiers and Marines a better chance "to reset mentally" before returning to combat. The Pentagon last month announced a policy that extends tours of duty for all active duty Army troops from a year to 15 months. Pollock acknowledged that was "going to be a stress" on troops.
Marine tours are seven months, one likely reason that soldier morale was lower than Marine morale, she said.
Pike contrasted Iraq's campaign to World War I, saying: "The trenches were pretty stressful, but a unit would only be up at the front for a few months and then get rotated to the rear. There's no rear in Iraq; you're subject to combat stress for your entire tour."