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How a Careerist Culture Leads to Military Scandals

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 [1] 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 [2], 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 [3], 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 [4] 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,” [5] 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 [6].

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 [7] before the investigation is complete. Meanwhile, Rep. Darrell Issa, R-Calif., has opened a preliminary investigation into the matter, writing a letter [8] to Mabus. Issa called attention to a 2011 Navy kickback scandal [9] after which “significant problems remain” three years later, despite a special panel being commissioned and reforms promised.

Recently, the Washington Post reported [10] “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 [11] 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 [12] for spending more than $80,000 in taxpayer money on luxury trips and other items.

More recently, internal documents have been published [13] 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 [14], “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 [15], 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 [16] 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. [17]

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 [18].

21 Comments (Open | Close)

21 Comments To "How a Careerist Culture Leads to Military Scandals"

#1 Comment By Fran Macadam On February 18, 2014 @ 2:14 am

If the standing army so despised by our American Founding Father ancestors really were the supreme force for good in society that we degraded scions now believe it to be, then it would follow that the military dictatorship would be the most perfected, moral way of governing human affairs.

So it does seem our current solons agree, given their penchant for overthrowing pesky foreign democracies and supporting military coups and juntas, from Pinochet to Egypt, now without even communist opponents as handy fig leaves.

Now that there is an overarching fourth branch of secret unaccountable government, unconstrained by law, overruling the other branches, treating the entire domestic population as adversaries to be spied upon, all ruled over by military generals and military-industrial lackeys, we have our own emergent home-grown turnkey totalitarian state infrastructure.

Our biggest businessmen prefer dealing with foreign dictatorships that supply them lackey labor at huge profit, while despising democratic accountability at home, preferring to subvert the republic through donorism, buying their legislation from politicians who were supposed to have been elected to serve the American people instead.

An institution that serves at best only a necessary evil, preparation for mass killing as defense against invasion, and at worst an unnecessary unmitigated evil, waging preemptive wars of imperial conquest and occupation on behalf of financial elites, could hardly be the highest expression of a moral people’s national aspirations. That it is seen as so, is symptomatic of the same decline into degraded self-indulgence that permeates our wider brutalized society. The collapsed military morale simply reflects the low estate of us all.

#2 Comment By John On February 18, 2014 @ 9:47 am

It’s tempting for many to think of the military as being somehow different from any other political organization because of the uniform, the oath of office, etc., but it really isn’t. If you’re at the bottom and have no resources, you can expect to have the book thrown at you for your offenses because the military likes to preach accountability to the rank and file. If you’re in the middle, it comes down to whether you have friends above you and whether they are disposed to help under the circumstances. If you’re at the top, you will get every courtesy from your peers as they try to figure out how to exonerate you and thus protect the perceived infallibility of command.

I was a junior officer for five years in one branch of service, and I spent most of it stationed in Japan. During my time there, one of my enlisted personnel got caught up in a base-wide DUI dragnet; he elected non-judicial punishment, losing rank and pay. This is the kind of result the military touts when it comes to its judicial process, because it’s what you would expect from a civilian judiciary with no reason to care about the rank of the accused.

By contrast, one of my squadron’s officers, who had recently promoted to lieutenant colonel, was found guilty of conduct unbecoming an officer while on exercise; I’ll never know all of it, but it involved significant performance failures during the exercise and prostitutes on the government dime. That colonel lost his opportunity to command, but he kept rank and pay as he accepted another job in the transition to military retirement (in his early forties, naturally). My base commander, a brigadier general, had interceded with the military police to keep his wife from receiving a DUI, and – rumor has it – got a favored aide a prestigious job after she became pregnant out of wedlock with his child. Naturally, nothing ever came of these “investigations” and I believe he retired at the next rank years later.

As long as you have a rank-based hierarchy with very few limits on what subordinates may be commanded to do, things like this will happen.

#3 Comment By EliteCommInc. On February 18, 2014 @ 10:00 am

I appreciate the service of those in uniform — always.

#4 Comment By CK On February 18, 2014 @ 10:21 am

It’s more endemic than you know, especially out of the Academies:

[19]

And from Jacob Hornberger:

“Also published in April 2003 was my series of articles entitled ‘Obedience to Orders,’ which produced the biggest firestorm of controversy in FFF’s history. The article made the simple point that officers who graduated from Virginia Military Institute were generally of higher caliber than officers who graduated from the professional military academies. (In the interests of full disclosure, I am a 1972 VMI graduate.) The reason? The graduates of the academies (generally, and obviously with exceptions) are taught to maintain an unswerving obedience to orders, and they know that their rise through the ranks of the military depends on such a mindset. VMI officers, on the other hand, being trained as ‘citizen-soldiers,’ develop a sense of conscience and independent thinking that (again generally, and with exceptions) trumps blind obedience to orders.”

[20]

#5 Comment By JRolicker On February 18, 2014 @ 11:13 am

Security clearance investigations must eliminate the Privacy Act of 1974 which means that everything that a colleague, subordinate, superior says about someone is available to the person investigated through FOIA. Can you imagine if law enforcement and criminal investigations had the same requirement?! Then again, we are just talking about national security.

#6 Comment By Jeff On February 18, 2014 @ 6:41 pm

Wait…what? There are human beings who make mistakes in the military? I am shocked. Truly shocked. Why do we always grasp at “institutional flaws” to explain every situation that is simply a result of man’s fallen state? Sometimes its as simple as human beings acting on human impulses and making human mistakes. Are the mistakes of powerful people magnified? Yes, but powerful people are still human.

#7 Comment By The Wet One On February 18, 2014 @ 6:53 pm

” Fran Macadam [said]:
February 18, 2014 at 2:14 am”

That was the best jeremiad I read all day. One I wholly agree with. Well done!

#8 Comment By Andrew On February 18, 2014 @ 9:27 pm

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.

My time in the naval academy (granted that it was in USSR early 1980s) was spent under the rule of the semi-joke, semi-truth–“the fewer chevrons are on the cadet’s epaulets, the cleaner is the consciousness”. The talk, of course, was about cadet ranks which were awarded during the study. Everyone knew, including the guys (class and company mates) who were in the cadet command positions (squad, platoon and company leaders) that the only thing which mattered first of all was academics. Leadership and command qualities were acquired through number of the activities and courses. And fleet practices and cruises, of course. Obviously, upon graduation and acquiring an officer rank things changed.

#9 Comment By Escher On February 18, 2014 @ 10:41 pm

Glory and promotions roll up the ranks, s**t rolls down – inside and outside the military.

#10 Comment By UGA IX On February 19, 2014 @ 6:05 am

A standing army is a dangerous thing to have around,and a highly professional one even more dangerous. To assuage guilt for loading all the burdens on a relatively small group of people we heap honors and privileges upon them. Soon they get the idea they deserve the privileges and take to believing they are indeed special people. A military in that condition will soon direct its attention to extracting more wealth for its members from society at large. And they can do it. They have the guns.

#11 Comment By EliteCommInc. On February 19, 2014 @ 6:20 am

Nothing like living in an echo chamber. According to [21] there are 1,433,000 active duty personnel.

This article highlights less than 1% of them involved in some manner of scandal. Far less than 1%. While I do think that 800 involved in a single investigation is a matter of some concern.

less than one percent of the overall manpower hardly reflects some manner of moral crisis. While I have a much lengthier response overall. I think the numbers indicate that most men and women in our Armed Services are not scandal prone or involved in scandal.

Because of the nature of their mission any scandal should be addressed, but I am not sure these media stories demonstrate a trend. And certainly the above examples are part of some aspects of military culture, but hardly any more selective than what occurs in civilian communities.

#12 Comment By Joe the Plutocrat On February 19, 2014 @ 11:35 am

is it me, or am I the only one who understood Ike when he warned of the perils of “misplaced power” inherent to the military industrial complex? more accurately, accepting the “military” is half of the (potential) problem. just as with the “careerism” of America’s political class, the military has developed it’s own class of smarmy, self-serving “professionals” who view public service as a vehicle for personal enrichment. there are many professional, dedicated officers who serve(d) honorably, but as with Capitol Hill, there remains a disturbingly high number of pimps and influence peddlers who present themselves as public servants.

#13 Comment By Joseph Dooley On February 19, 2014 @ 12:12 pm

This article should be read back-to-back with the New York magazine’s expose of Kappa Beta Phi.

Mammon, Decadence, Entitlement.

#14 Comment By ADM64 On February 19, 2014 @ 12:41 pm

The main problem is that we haven’t fought a war of national survival since WWII and much of the military’s role since then has been deterrence. The latter means being around and ready to fight. The emphasis has been on the development and maintenance of weapons, under strict political control (the latter being even more critical during the Cold War). Without an existential threat or even competitive foes, it is hard to focus on the sort of things that inspire excellence or professionalism because, if one is no longer to fight and win, what then is professional competence or excellence except keeping a large bureaucracy going. In my view, beyond the tactical level (and not always then), most of our officer corps simply doesn’t understand what war is, at least not any longer. The proof of this is that between WWI and WWII, we had a small, volunteer military and many commercial incentives for people to leave the military. Pay was low, promotion was slow, but excellent people stayed in. So, it is not the absence of a draft but the absence of a true purpose that is the major problem.

The second major problem is the relentless pressure for a diverse, coed and politically correct military. Whatever the merits of the coed force, the separate, lower and double-standards and the need to lie about them have created a level of dishonesty unmatched by anything since the body counts of Vietnam. The fact is that political correctness is dishonest and discourages truth on a major scale. Combine that with the imperative of keeping a large bureaucratic organization functioning with few ripples, and the ethical problems explain themselves. Officers who can’t admit that men and women are different and that standards have been changed won’t do any better maintaining nuclear records, developing weapons or figuring out our enemies…and they haven’t.

#15 Comment By John On February 19, 2014 @ 3:58 pm

@Jeff:

The military is a rank-based hierarchy which grants commanders wide latitude to reward or compel obedience in subordinates, even in matters which are not strictly work-related. Where one’s discretion or authority is abused, the amount of punishment typically depends more on one’s progress through the hierarchy than the underlying offense. That’s an institutional issue, not an individual one.

#16 Comment By James Marshall On February 19, 2014 @ 4:20 pm

I disagree that lack of innovation and being a “yes” man has been pervasive in the military for 100 years. It’s just not true. No conservative wants to admit that much of it started with Reagan’s generation. No establishment shill wants to admit that corruption starts at the top and works its way down.

Reagan was a disaster as president: war on drugs, supply slide economics, asset forfeiture, and the empowerment of cult religion, posing as traditional Christianity. All of this corruption of culture seeps into the military and everything else.

If you shovel money at an organization (Pentagon, police and CIA) and brainwash them into thinking anything they do has God’s approval or forgiveness, the result isn’t going to be pretty. Look at what the US is doing in Ukraine and Syria. Look at Yugoslavia, Libya, Egypt, Iraq, etc. Are we seriously acting like it’s a huge mystery that soldiers and police, and eventually civilians, emulate corrupt and villainous US, UK and EU politicians run amok in their quest to rule the world?

#17 Comment By EliteCommInc. On February 19, 2014 @ 11:23 pm

[22]

These women seem to be challenging some assumptions about one common scandal concerning women.

#18 Comment By Russell On February 21, 2014 @ 2:25 pm

1,000 flags ?

If you can’t fit them all into a ballroom the night before a battle, you probably have too many.

#19 Comment By Leslie Garrett On February 22, 2014 @ 1:29 pm

I was born in 1946, and most of the men I first knew as a child had been in the military. On the other hand almost without exception those of my generation who went into the military voluntarily were the really stupid ones. I can go back through the ones who died in Vietnam from my high school class and college fraternity, and nobody with any sense volunteered. In college ROTC we were taught that torture was forbidden, because it is totally unreliable as a way of gathering solid information and demeaning for those who inflict it as well as those on the receiving end. When we visited military bases with the Boy Scouts, they still had “VD Only” toilets, and we had learned already in high school that this was known to be futile and stupid for many decades. Even back then the military was for the dumb boys; opening up the ranks to women has, I am sure, helped a lot.

#20 Comment By josh On February 24, 2014 @ 7:43 am

This topic brings me to that worst outcrop of the herd nature, the military system, which I abhor. That a man can take pleasure in marching in formation to the strains of a band is enough to make me despise him. He has only been given his big brain by mistake; a backbone was all he needed. This plague-spot of civilization ought to be abolished with all possible speed.
Heroism by order, senseless violence, and all the pestilent nonsense that goes by the name of patriotism-how I hate them! War seems to me a mean, contemptible thing: I would rather be hacked in pieces than take part in such an abominable business.
Albert Einstein

#21 Comment By Brett Champion On March 2, 2014 @ 12:40 pm

The extent to which the American public showers unreserved praise on the military and soldiers also contributes to the growth of a culture of unaccountability in the military. If a group of people have spent 20 years being told how great they are with little showing up in the demerit column, then a not insignificant portion of those people are going to have that go to their heads. They are going to develop attitudes of superiority and entitlement. It’s the same process that afflicts many world-class athletes and Hollywood stars.