American military brass are up to mischief. A lot of it. The Petraeus scandal from fall of 2012 that featured his affair with his biographer, another West Point graduate in sleeveless tops led not only to the retired four-star general’s retirement as head of the CIA but also to serious re-consideration of whether he was in fact as good a general as he was committed to appearing [“A Phony Hero for a Phony War,” by Lucian K. Trescott IV, New York Times 16 Nov 2012]. The Petreaus scandal also led to a greater public awareness of the “imperial trappings that come with a senior general’s lifestyle” such as a personal chef, military escorts on personal business, and house, “an array of perquisites befitting a billionaire” provided at taxpayer expense. [“The Four-Star Lifestyle,” by Rajiv Chandrasekaran and Greg Jaffe, Wash Post Nov 18, 2012.]
Indeed these taxpayer-supported perks are offered well below the top ranks, such as to the Navy 0-5s and 0-6s who live rent-free with groundskeepers and house staff in well-manicured government-owned mansions on the grounds of the U.S. Naval Academy, where I have taught for over a quarter of a century. One recent scandal at the Naval Academy involved putting up an enlisted person instrumental to the then-administration’s affirmative action in such a mansion, which in any case was usually meant for a Navy Captain, four pay grades below that of an admiral or four-star general [“CMC paid as an E-9, lived as an O-6,” by Philip Ewing and Andrew Tilghman, Navy Times July 13, 2010]. Other recent cases of visible Navy malfeasance in the fleet, at far less than the four-star level, include topless (and bottomless) pool parties put on by a Navy Captain in Bahrain, numerous skippers relieved for improper sexual relations with subordinates or drunkenness, and perhaps most notably, the ongoing “cruelty” (in the word of the official report) of Capt. Holly Graf, the skipper of the U.S.S. Cowpens, that led to her dismissal in 2010. Most recently, the commanding officer of Fort Jackson, the Army’s largest raining base, was suspended in May 2013 because allegations of sexual misconduct.
While 2003 holds the last decade’s record for Navy commanding officer firings at 26 (compared to about a dozen a year for the decade previous), 2010 and 2011 clocked in at a near-record 22 each; 2012 was 25. Of the Navy commanding officers relieved in 2012, eight were Naval Academy graduates. Col. James H. Johnson III, commander of the 173 Airborne Brigade, was fired for “inappropriate conduct”; he graduated from USMA in 1986. Both of the two most recent past heads of the Norfolk Navy Shipyard, who were removed after each had had less than a year in post, Capt William Kiestler and Capt Greg Thomas, are Naval Academy graduates.
It isn’t just the Navy that’s having problems. According to the Washington Post in 2011, “A major US Army survey of leadership and morale found that more than 80 percent of Army officers and sergeants had directly observed a ‘toxic’ leader in the last year and that about 20 percent of the respondents said they had worked directly for one. . . . The Army defined toxic leaders as commanders who put their own needs first, micro-managed subordinates, behaved in a mean-spirited manner or displayed poor decision making.”
More recently in a remarkable one-two sequence, Maj. Gen. Ralph Baker, commander of the Combined Joint Task Force-Horn of Africa, became the second holder of that post to be fired from his command. Baker was fired for offenses related to alcohol and sexual misconduct; his predecessor Maj. General William Ward, was demoted and forced to retire for using federal funds to bankroll lavish travel for his family. Meanwhile there is the ongoing court-martial of Brig. General Jeffrey A. Sinclair, charged with sexual misconduct, who is reported as saying “I’m a general, I do whatever the **** I want.” As then-Secretary Panetta observed in November, such incidents “have the potential to erode public confidence in our leadership.”
The result of these goings-on has been a new set of standards for commanders in the Navy, including a written test for all, as outlined by the Chief of Naval Operations, ADM Jonathan Greenert. The Admiral says he is “concerned” by the firings, but “does not know why they’re misbehaving” [“CNO on Skipper firings: ‘I’m concerned’” by Sam Fellman, Navy Times, Nov 16, 2012]. Nor can he see a pattern: “of the 1% approximately that we do have to relieve, there is no one specific issue that we’re finding. It varies.” .
And in April 2013, the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, General Martin E. Dempsey, announced that admirals and generals will be “evaluated by their peers and the people they command on qualities including personal character”. The new element here is evaluation by anyone but superiors, what seems to be a departure from the military’s hierarchical top-down authority structure. The General is quoted as saying that someone who “doesn’t live a life of character” doesn’t “do [him] any good.”
The question on the table is not whether there are more problems—almost everyone seems to agree there are, with the exception of those who argue that there isn’t more bad behavior, just reduced tolerance for it—but why, and hence what to do. Stabs at why range from puzzled shrugs from ADM Greenert to suggestions that the perks of senior officers have gone to their head. As for whether the problem is real or merely one of public relations, General Dempsey seems to want both. According to The Times, Dempsey “had found that the number of senior officers investigated by the Defense Department inspector general was not at an unusually high level. But the central role in national life played by the military since the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001 — a time in which some general officers attained the stature, and entourages, of rock stars — put them in the spotlight. ‘We’ve been living with unconstrained resources for 10 years and, frankly, we’ve developed some bad habits,’ Dempsey said.” .” (“Conduct at Issue as Subordinates Review Officers,” Thom Shankar, New York Times April 14, 2013, A1). Just bad habits? Or real problems? Are the bad habits new? Or are they just more evident? In any case, his statement seems disingenuous, as many of the commanding officers were removed without recourse to investigations by the Defense Department Inspector General. What is clear is that for Dempsey, it’s all about “character,” and that character can be corrected or created by classroom instruction, something amenable to training.
But what is this “character”? The military waves it around as if it were a real entity, something that can be trained in an academic gym—a notion that I as a professor ought to find flattering, but instead see as deeply problematic. “Character” as the military understands it goes far beyond the soft layperson’s view of it as the tendency of a person, what she has done in the past and is likely to do in the future: it’s something that’s real, and that furthermore they can produce or strengthen. It functions like advertisers’ claims that their products make the user “happier” or “healthier”: if they made a claim that could be disproven they can be forced to show their product actually does this. Keeping things to metaphysical relatives keeps them out of the courts. The military can’t produce “character” or show that it is more than a sum total of what someone has done until now—but if they claim they are building character, the world is likely to leave them alone to do it. And that, apparently, is what the military wants: it’s deeply resistant to outside control, and wants always to claim that whatever the problem—which it typically denies for as long as possible—it’s addressing it. Now go away.
In the view of a substantial article on this subject in the US Navy War College Journal by Navy Captain Mark F. Light, the problems are real, not just apparent. And Light too proposes they can be addressed by beefing up the “character” of officers, once again through classroom training. The article begins by stating flatly that “[t]he US Navy has an integrity problem in the ranks of its commanding officers (COs)”; Light notes that “the premise of [his] article is that this is a systemic problem.” [“The Navy’s Moral Compass: Commanding Officers and Personal Misconduct” Naval War College Review, Summer 2012, p. 136].
Light’s article considers the range of explanations offered for this phenomenon, including increased technology that trips people up, a conflict between what is expected nowadays and the messier “cowboy” culture of days gone by where womanizing and boozing were not only tolerated but encouraged, and the fact of mixed-gender crews. He finds some more contributory than others (culture clash more, mixed crews less), but concludes that the real culprit is a failure to emphasize or exercise “character” on the part of the individuals involved. Captain Light’s solution to the problem is expressed as “Elevating the Character of Naval Leadership” (p. 146). Of course “character flaws” can “become evident” as Capt Light acknowledges (p. 148)—he has no proposals for determining whose “character” has “flaws” until they misbehave. And his solution involves a continuous process of testing and guiding (teaching “ethical behavior”) to see who exhibits “integrity.” And if we can train this, we have it under control. The problem is, there’s no evidence “character” is a substantial thing, or that we can train it. It’s a view in consonance with that of the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff.
The apparent belief is that the person has been shown to possess good character and integrity has a certain something which is larger than the sum of the parts of his/her actions which, once identified, indicates that all future actions will be of the same sort, guided by the same “moral compass.” Yet we can never see the compass, or the character, or the integrity—only a series of actions that may be no more than the sum of their parts, which mean only that until now and under these circumstances, the person has made good choices. Literature has long suggested the possibility, completely ignored by both ADM Dempsey and CAPT Light, that people who act morally simply lack the opportunity to be immoral; this is the suggestion of William Golding’s Lord of the Flies, for example. Who could be sure that, faced with a flattering young woman in a halter top, as General Petraus was, he’d continue to make good decisions? Shakespeare’s Othello was a successful admiral who, suddenly placed for the first time in his long life among civilians in Venice, falls into what all agree to be bad decisions.
Captain Light considers corruption by great power as a contributing factor to the current troubles, citing Lord Acton’s well-known aperçu that “power corrupts and absolute power corrupts absolutely.” “The absolute authority bestowed on commanding officers by regulation could conceivably breed toxic leadership traits and cruelty.” But Light sets the bar so high, at “cruelty,” that he concludes that “abuse of power falls well short of fully explaining the broader trend of increasing misconduct” (p. 143). In fact, all officer positions in the military are cloaked in the mantle of power. The possibility for malfeasance is strong at every level. The more we sing the praises of “character” in military officers, as CAPT Light ends up doing, the more people are going to be encouraged to confuse their subjective reactions with the expression of their (of course sterling) character.
The alternative to invoking “character” or a “moral compass” is administration based on rationality rather than metaphysics: it’s not an alternative the military has ever particularly liked, and that nowadays seems particularly unattractive to it as the point of American military action becomes more and more ungraspable. Yet replacing a “character”-based conception of what it means to be an officer by a rationality-based one is the only way that the wave of military misbehavior can be calmed.