The U.S. Military's Ethics Crisis

Higher standards and higher scrutiny.

First, it would seem that no amount of screening for character or training in the rules of moral behavior is sufficient to ensure that every single member of a very large group lives up to the standard. Some people will do the wrong thing even when they're trained to know what the right thing is. Some will be able to rationalize their bad behavior. Others will simply prove weak in the face of temptation. Others still may simply be hard-wired for evil.

Second, while there are certainly exceptions, the instinct of the military brass has been to identify and punish the transgressors, even if doing so embarrasses the profession in the public eye, while the instinct of the Catholic hierarchy was to try to hide the problem to protect the image of the Church. Why Church acted as it did is complicated and, in any case, beyond my expertise. But the opposite reaction of the military profession is worth highlighting.

Our military culture demands accountability, with little tolerance for failure.

General James Amos, the Commandant of the Marine Corps, is under fire for being perhaps too enthusiastic in going after Marines accused of sexual assault and urinating on the corpses of Taliban militants. While his instinct was right in both cases—seeking to uphold the highest standards of his profession—he may well have overstepped his bounds, violating the rules against command influence over the military justice system.

In his new book, former defense secretary Robert Gates shared his frustration that General Stanley McChrystal didn't fight to keep his job after an embarrassing Rolling Stone article quoted the commander of US forces in Afghanistan and his staff making disparaging remarks about President Obama and other senior civilian leaders. Gates remarked that, "I wish Stan had given me something to defend him with." Instead, "It was like he was at West Point again and it was just: 'No excuses, Sir.'" Gates gathered that McChrystal "didn't want to throw his staff under the bus" and instead took full responsibility, thereby handing "his opponents in the White House the ammunition to get rid of him." But that shouldn't have been surprising. While nearly four decades steeped in the military culture, going back to his plebe year, wasn't enough to keep him from stepping across the line, McChrystal instantly recognized that he'd violated his profession's code when he saw it in print. Falling on his sword was not only required by that code but a way of going out with honor.

One of the reason so many of these scandals are coming to light is the fact that the chain of command actively encourages reporting of transgressions. There are all manner of channels for even low-ranking personnel to report bad conduct without fear of reprisal.

That's how a recent incident in which three Navy admirals were rebuked for a questionable trip to London came to light. An "anonymous whistleblower" reported the trip to the Navy Inspector General, saying it may have been technically legal but violated the "Washington Post Test," that is, that it would be embarrassing if reported in the press. The transgression according to, ironically enough, the Washington Post: "Over seven days, the U.S. admirals visited the British Ministry of Defense for two hours, spent half a day at the U.S. Embassy in London and visited several British Navy installations. At the same time, they did take along their wives (although not at taxpayer expense), arranged a leisurely visit to Bath and didn't do any business over the weekend."

Now, the "Washington Post Test" is a good one. As both leaders of people who put their lives on the line for their country and stewards of the taxpayers' money, flag and general officers ought to be above reproach, avoiding even the appearance of impropriety. But it's worth noting that they're being held to a much higher standard than not only their civilian commander-in-chief, the Members of Congress with oversight responsibility over the armed forces, and their private sector counterparts. Presidents, Congressmen, and corporate executives routinely mix business and pleasure, going on trips to nice locations with minimal business to do and taking their families along.

Indeed, The Pentagon's General Counsel's Standards of Conduct Office regularly publishes The Encyclopedia of Ethical Failures, a huge volume cataloging in minute and sometimes humorous detail indiscretions committed by uniformed and civilian employees of the Defense Department. Aside from the sheer stupidity of some of the perpetrators, what quickly stands out is that DoD employees are often punished quite severely for conduct that wouldn't draw a second glance in the private sector.