Popular culture reveres the U.S. military as an institution of pride and strength, as keeper of the American moral center. But a recent series of scandals suggests that, instead, ethical corrosion may be eating away at its very core.

Sarah Palin was in top rhetorical form when she told an assembled crowd of thousands on the National Mall in 2010 that soldiers were “a force for good in this country, and that is nothing to apologize for … for these men and women, honor was never lost.” But behind the partisan politics in which Democrats and Republicans have used the military as props, padded its budgets, and publicly deferred to its leadership in myriad ways over 12 years of war, there lies a complicated breakdown in its culture, military experts tell TAC. Without reform, they believe institution is headed for more embarrassment and transgression.

“I’m not surprised at all—one [scandal] relates to the other,” charges Donald Vandergriff, a retired Army officer who often lectures on leadership and reform, including in the service academies. A former deputy director of Army ROTC at Georgetown University, he wrote The Path to Victory: America’s Army and the Revolution in Human Affairs, in 2002.

“The [military] system that’s evolved over the last 100 years does not test moral courage, it does not test strength of character, or the ability to tell the truth regardless of harm to one’s career,” Vandergriff added. “We don’t do things like that. We are looking at people who follow the process, fall in line, don’t cause waves, aren’t open to innovation, and these personality traits leave them open to scandal.”

Tough words, but a spate of scandals seems to underscore his point, particularly recent ones involving a number of generals and top brass. Most notable is Gen. Jeffrey Sinclair, currently facing a court-martial for sexual assault involving a junior officer on this staff. He is also accused of threatening to kill her and her family—and misusing his government credit card.

Meanwhile, last month 92 officers were caught in a widespread cheating scandal at the Air Force nuclear force. Then, on Feb. 7, it was reported that some 100 Naval instructors have been accused of cheating on an exam they need to pass to teach sailors working on nuclear subs and carriers.

Even more seriously, the Navy has been rocked by a sordid kickback investigation, known now as the “Fat Leonard scandal,” that highlights the dangerous nexus of high-flying insider defense contractors and the deep pockets of the U.S. military. In this case, a top agent from the Navy Criminal Investigative Service (NCIS) has been arrested and two active duty commanders are awaiting trial. Meanwhile, two admirals and two captains have been put on leave pending investigation. The contractor at the heart of the affair, Leonard Francis—known as “Fat Leonard” for his supposed girth and big personality—was arrested back in September on bribery charges and remains behind bars.

The charges stem from a sting operation that found Naval officers were allegedly sending Francis—a Malaysian native who has held more than $200 million in logistical services contracts with the Navy since 2011—classified information about ship deployments in exchange for luxury items, prostitutes, and expensive trips. With the insider knowledge in hand, Francis would allegedly pressure Navy commanders to steer their ships to his ports, where he would not only elaborately wine and dine the top officers but also overcharge the Navy outrageously to service the ships, otherwise known as “husbanding.”

The NCIS investigator implicated in the scheme had, allegedly, tipped off Francis for years about pending inquiries in return for graft. According to Navy Secretary Ray Mabus, more heads are expected to roll before the investigation is complete. Meanwhile, Rep. Darrell Issa, R-Calif., has opened a preliminary investigation into the matter, writing a letter to Mabus. Issa called attention to a 2011 Navy kickback scandal after which “significant problems remain” three years later, despite a special panel being commissioned and reforms promised.

Recently, the Washington Post reported “a litany of revelations about misbehaving brass that have dogged the Pentagon over the past 15 months and tarnished the reputation of U.S. military leadership,” scandals uncovered in previously unreleased investigation reports obtained through a Freedom of Information Act request. They included an Army brigadier general who assaulted his mistress repeatedly and an Air Force general who carried on with a mistress and drank everyday on the job.

While David Petraeus is probably the most familiar general caught in a scandal—he was exposed for having an affair with a officer in the Army Reserves who just happened to be his biographer—he wasn’t the only senior officer to grab headlines in 2012. Aside from the aforementioned Sinclair, Gen. William Ward was demoted for spending more than $80,000 in taxpayer money on luxury trips and other items.

More recently, internal documents have been published describing in detail the drunken binge in Russia responsible for the firing of Air Force Maj. Michael Carey, who commanded three wings of nuclear-armed ballistic missiles. Even when he was interviewed afterward about the embarrassing behavior, the report said, “he appeared flippant in his attitude.”

And just last week, USA Today reported a massive scandal in which 800 recruiters are being investigated for gaming a program early in the Iraq and Afghanistan wars that offered generous bonuses to recruiters for getting men and women quickly into uniform. According to reporter Tom Vanden Brook, who broke the story, “tens of millions” of dollars were fraudulently funneled to recruiters, with one pocketing as much $275,000.

“This is discouraging and depressing,” said Sen. Claire McCaskill, D-Mo., in an interview with Vanden Brook. “Clearly, we’re talking about one of the largest criminal investigations in the history of the Army.”

So what to make of it all? Eugene Fidell, who teaches military justice at Yale Law School, questions whether you can “assemble these dots in any coherent fashion.”

“We’ve certainly spent a lot of time and energy trying to address” the root of the scandals. “But to say it is all part of a single pattern, I have some difficulty with that.”

He tells TAC that part of the problem is it’s “the same kind of erosion of values that we see in society, and they are fellow citizens, after all.” But even Fidell admits the military’s scandals are more complicated than that.

Take the misbehaving generals, for example. “By and large they are quite respectable. By and large they are a gifted cohort,” Fidell offers. “But I have to say, I think, for reasons I don’t understand any more than the Greeks understood hubris, is that sometimes people who rise to the top of the hierarchy seem to think they are bullet proof.

“The temptations are to take advantage of subordinates … to play fast and loose with government resources,” he says. “I think what really turns up the burners is the extraordinary powers we [civilians] vest in these [officers]. It would be an unusual person, I would say, who could spend 25 years or more in this environment and not have it on a certain level go to their head.”

Certainly, there have been complaints over the years of both grade and rank inflation, with the number of generals and admirals ballooning to upwards of 1,000 flag officers commanding 1.3 million active duty military, compared to 2,000 overseeing 12 million in World War II. Meanwhile, the amount of money flowing in and out of their budgets, the prestige and perks and the hands-off ethos from Capitol Hill and the White House, has allowed commanders to carve out fiefdoms, encouraging some to behave quite badly, as the Washington Post pointed out in January.

But observers like Vandergriff and (Ret.) Lt. Col Greg Wilcox, a Vietnam veteran and frequent critic of the Pentagon, say the trouble starts long before men and women rise to the top ranks. They say it begins in the military academies. “The values taught visibly are ‘duty, honor, culture,’ and the honor system: ‘I will not lie, steal or cheat or associate with any that do,’” says Wilcox. However, “subliminally, the message seems to be careerism.”

Today’s academies, he added, tend to force cadets to compete ruthlessly with one another, while setting up an “all or nothing” system that shuns creativity and honesty in favor of “winning” and moving up the ranks. After all, the military system honors seniority over individual merit.

What they need—and what he says the academies should provide—are the basics in “problem solving and strengthening character,” while the skills for soldiering can come later. Cognitive thinking, rather than rote memorization or conformity, will build ethical strength as well as leadership, Vandergriff says.

“Ethical behavior and ethical development is all intertwined,” he says. “What I’ve seen over and over in the field, in a free play exercises, when guys and gals set up situation reports they inflate them, because they’ve been reared to be perfect. Right there, that’s a character flaw.”

Of course, the problems in the culture go beyond the academies. Says Wilcox: “I suspect it has a lot to do with this thing called hubris,” noting the transformation from the draft Army to the professional one in the 1970s. “The attitude that we are the best military force on the face of the earth with the best soldiers and the best equipment and the best training money can provide.”

“I would suggest this attitude gets us into a lot of trouble,” he adds, because it is only partially true—just because we are the wealthiest country doesn’t make us the best in all categories.

“There are many, like [Andrew] Bacevich, who suggest we ought to go back to a draft Army which is drawn from society and better representative,” Wilcox says. “I hope we can find a fix other than going back to a draft.”

Kelley Beaucar Vlahos is a Washington, D.C.-based freelance reporter and TAC contributing editor. Follow her on Twitter.