The U.S. Military's Ethics Crisis

Higher standards and higher scrutiny.

Military officers behaving badly have been making headlines. But, rather than a sign of widespread corruption, the fact that they're being caught and disciplined is an indication of how seriously the profession takes its ethical responsibilities.

From massive cheating scandals with Air Force and Navy nuclear officers and Army National Guard recruiters to generals and admirals abusing the perks of their office or sending wildly inappropriate emails detailing the things they'd like to do with female Members of Congress, the string of reports have many seeing an ethical crisis in the American armed forces.

They prompted TNI contributing editor Paul Pillar to ask, "What's going on with military officers?" The Pentagon's senior leadership is apparently asking themselves the same thing. Earlier this month, the DoD's press secretary put out word that Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel is "concerned about the health of the force and the health of the strong culture of accountability and responsibility that Americans have come to expect from their military" and "generally concerned that there could be at least at some level a breakdown in ethical behavior and in the demonstration of moral courage." Friday, the other shoe dropped, with Hagel himself announcing that he would appoint a senior general as an ethics czar and that "It will be an individual who is experienced in not just this building, but I want someone who understands the outside, who understands the pressures of combat, the pressures of curriculums and testing, and who has a good, well-rounded background in command."

General Martin Dempsey, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, agrees, proclaiming that, "It is not the war that has caused this. It is the pace, and our failure to understand that at that pace, we were neglecting the tools that manage us as a profession over time." This was Pillar's instinct as well. He observed that "The U.S. armed forces are coming off more than a decade of continuous involvement in overseas warfare, with the particular wars in question not having gone especially well" and noted "One thinks, by way of comparison, of the years immediately after the Vietnam War, another overseas war that did not go well and a time when aberrant conduct in the military such as drug abuse was high."

Regardless, Dempsey says, "This challenge didn't accumulate overnight, and it won't be solved overnight." Further, Dempsey added, "Acts of crime, misconduct, ethical breaches, command climate, and stupidity each require a distinct solution. But the overall solution is attention to who we are as a profession." Hagel echoed this, declaring, "Ethics and character are absolute values that we cannot take for granted. They must be constantly reinforced."

While the secretary and chairman are of course right, it's worth noting that America's military officers have for generations been selected for and educated in the ethical standards of their profession. Before even being selected for officer training, candidates must pass extensive background checks and be eligible for a security clearance. Even minor brushes with the law and experimentation with recreational drugs can be disqualifying. Cadets are given extensive training on professional ethics, the law of war and the Uniform Code of Military Justice. This education is continued throughout their careers, with reinforcement and expansion through basic and advanced courses and then taken to broader context at staff and war colleges. Further, throughout their careers, their efficiency reports rate them on integrity, with anything but the highest marks an assurance they won't be promoted.

Few professions have anything like this level of screening and training for character. The only analog that occurs to me, the Roman Catholic priesthood*, is instructive.

Like military officers, Catholic priests are required** to have a bachelor's degree and extensive follow-on education. Typically, priests have a master's degree in divinity, with extensive coursework in ethics and moral philosophy, prior to ordination. The American military, by contrast, maintains extensive professional education for its officers throughout their careers, with most getting master's degrees some time in their second decade of service.

The overwhelming number of officers and priests alike are credits to their chosen calling, performing exemplary public service and upholding the highest moral standards. In both cases, however, some fall short; some, spectacularly so. And, because the standards are so high and the uniforms of their profession make them so identifiable as a group, the public scrutiny that comes from these failures is not only high, but reflects on the whole.

Two observations come from the comparison.

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