Samuel P. Huntington concluded The Soldier and the State (1957), his influential study of U.S. civil-military relations, with this comparison of the U.S. Military Academy and Highland Falls, New York, the village situated just outside the gates of West Point:

West Point embodies the military ideal at its best; Highland Falls the American spirit at its most commonplace. West Point is a gray island in a many colored sea, a bit of Sparta in the midst of Babylon. Yet is it possible to deny that the military values—loyalty, duty, restraint, dedication—are the ones America most needs today?  ….  Upon the soldiers, the defenders of order, rests a heavy responsibility.  The greatest service they can render is to remain true to themselves…. If they abjure the military spirit, they destroy themselves first and their nation ultimately. If the civilians permit the soldiers to adhere to the military standard, the nations themselves may eventually find redemption and security in making that standard their own.

Once upon a time, as a young serving soldier of conservative temperament, I found Huntington’s idealized depiction of the professional military ethic to be immensely appealing. It accorded precisely with my image of myself and of my calling. Yet Huntington was describing aspiration, not reality. As actually experienced, military service differed considerably from Huntington’s ideal.

Huntington depicted an inherently conservative military profession that defended, even as it stood in tension with, an inherently liberal social order.  The values of that profession demanded that its members abjure liberalism and stand apart from that order. So Huntington believed.

Yet his juxtaposition of the bland and boring Highland Falls with the serenely ordered West Point was off the mark. Temptation lay not immediately outside the gates but further downriver in the garish glitter of Manhattan.

Liberalism per se poses a negligible threat to military professionalism. Far more dangerous are inclinations and attitudes that have seized American culture in an age when neither liberal principles nor conservative ones retain real standing, and when the gratification of appetites, whether material or sexual, has become one of the defining markers of our age. Bright lights, big city: that’s where the temptations to abandon loyalty, duty, restraint, and dedication reside.

What prompts these observations are two ongoing military scandals. The one scandal affects the Marine Corps, and involves misconduct by an anonymous group of (probably enlisted) Marines. Centering on gender, it has drawn attention from journalists and members of Congress, who assiduously patrol the gender beat. The other scandal affects the U.S. Navy and involves senior officers up to the rank of admiral. Years in the making, it attracts only intermittent attention.

In my own judgment, the Marine scandal, if by no means trivial, qualifies as the lesser of the two. An organization calling itself Marines United, perhaps involving as many as 30,000 participants, created a restricted web page on which it posted photographs of nude women, apparently without consent of the subjects. Some of those women were themselves Marines.  

This stunt qualifies as a grotesque and repugnant violation of privacy. Yet in an age where claims to privacy are everywhere besieged and when our infatuation with social media has created an online world where just about anything goes, it falls something short of shocking. The incident offers one more example of the detritus that the wondrous information age is leaving in its wake. As the journalist Christina Cauterucci acknowledged, pausing to catch her breath while subjecting Marines United to an extended rant, “This is the same tactic used by boys in middle school and high school, who create secret ‘slut pages’ on social media, where they distribute any private nude photos they get from girls in their grade.”

Just so. Such behavior is degrading, stupid, unacceptable—and everywhere.

Far more important, in my view, is the ongoing Navy scandal, known under the rubric of “Fat Leonard.” Weighing in at an impressive 350 lbs., Leonard Glenn Francis was, until his conviction on charges of fraud and bribery, CEO of an outfit called Glenn Defense Marine Asia. GDMA specialized in providing support services to ships of the Navy’s Seventh Fleet operating in the Pacific and Indian Oceans.

Fat Leonard himself specialized in plying officers of the Seventh Fleet with cigars, liquor, pricey wristwatches, concert tickets, vacations, and other gifts—not to mention five-star dinners and suites in luxury hotels, often with prostitutes as an added bonus. In return, these officers threw business to GDMA, which then overbilled the U.S. government to the tune of several tens of millions of dollars.

Scores of serving naval officers became Fat Leonard’s de facto agents in this sleazy enterprise. According to an investigative report in the Washington Post, “Francis doled out sex and money to a shocking number of people in uniform who fed him classified material about U.S. warship and submarine movements.  ….  He exploited the intelligence for illicit profit, brazenly ordering his moles to redirect aircraft carriers to ports he controlled in Southeast Asia so he could more easily bilk the Navy for fuel, tugboats, barges, food, water and sewage removal.”

As of last year, 30 U.S. Navy admirals on active duty were under investigation for their suspected involvement in this conspiracy. That investigation, which dates from 2010, continues.  Earlier this week, authorities arrested Rear Adm. Bruce Loveless, a recently retired Navy intelligence officer, along with four retired Navy captains and a retired Marine colonel. Previously three other admirals had been censured and forced to retire. Another has pled guilty to related charges, as have several officers of lesser rank. Almost certainly, there will be further indictments forthcoming.

Christina Cauterucci accuses Marines United of “putting U.S. national security at risk.” That’s hyperbole. When it comes to the officers who sold their souls to Fat Leonard, however, the charge fits. Yet while bringing to justice those who committed crimes at Fat Leonard’s behest is imperative, examining the underlying factors that have produced such egregious corruption qualifies as more important still.

We confront evidence of an officer corps that has lost its moral bearings, abandoning the “military standard” for something quite different. To assume that the rot is confined exclusively to one particular service would be a grave mistake.

Andrew J. Bacevich is The American Conservative’s writer-at-large and a non-resident senior fellow at West Point’s Modern War Institute.