After a wave of recent misconduct reports, Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel is signaling an intent to go beyond the traditional response to scandal. (T.J. Kirkpatrick / Getty Images)
When troops are caught cheating on tests, commanders often call it an “integrity issue.”
When commanders are fired for misconduct involving booze and women, it’s often referred to as a “character issue.”
Some experts say that isolates the problem — and limits the amount of blame to be spread around.
“The military is locked into this ‘character’ and ‘integrity’ talk as the default way to talk about these problems,” said Martin Cook, who teaches military ethics at the Naval War College in Rhode Island.
The result is that blame falls on the moral failings of a few individuals, while questions about broader institutional problems — poor training, toxic command climates, flawed personnel policies and deeper cultural issues — never get raised, Cook said.
“If you consider that there may be some other environmental factors behind this, it greatly expands the aperture for who is responsible,” Cook said.
Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel stunned many at the Pentagon recently by suggesting the military has a “deep” ethical problem. His top spokesman, Rear Adm. John Kirby, used the word “systemic.”
“It is the responsibility of all of us,” Hagel said, to root out problems like cheating, fraud, drug and alcohol abuse, sexual assault and other forms of misconduct that have cropped up in recent months.
After a wave of recent misconduct reports, Hagel is signaling an intent to go beyond the traditional response to scandal — firing a mid-level commander, drawing up a new PowerPoint-based training regimen or rewriting an official policy laden with bureaucratic jargon.
Hagel said he will appoint a new ethics “czar,” a general or flag officer who will focus on this specific issue — something that some experts view as an encroachment on duties typically handled by four-star officers.
“You have an intervention of the civilian leadership saying that the military is not organized properly to deal with this,” said Richard Kohn, a professor at University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill who has written extensively about civil-military relations.
Potential institutional causes are getting new scrutiny. After a recent Air Force cheating scandal, Hagel said some of the blame might go to a culture that places too much emphasis on achieving perfect test scores.
Cook said some Navy leaders now believe commander misconduct stems in part from an organizational structure that isolates senior officers from their peers, resulting in a workplace that fuels feelings of arrogance or invincibility because everyone is an underling.
And some say 13 years of war has simply pushed the force to prioritize competence over character.
The scandals, and Hagel’s response, raise broader questions about the all-volunteer force’s status in society, Kohn said.
“One of the things that worries the Pentagon leadership is whether the military can retain the trust and confidence of the American people” at a time when budgets are shrinking and years of major com bat operations are coming to an end.
Kohn suggested this trust already is strained, pointing to the recent push on Capitol Hill to strip commanders of their authority to handle sexual assault cases.
While those efforts may be well intended, they also come with risk.
“If you start tampering with military culture, like command authority, there are always unanticipated consequences,” Kohn said.
A bottom-up approach may be more effective, said retired Army Col. Joe Doty, a former professor at the Army’s Center for Profession and Ethic at the U.S. Military Academy.
Doty pointed to the deep and enduring force-wide commitment to safety that the military institutionalized back in the 1980s and ’90s.
“Years ago, safety in operations was raised to an epic level of importance. Now you can’t do any kind of training without a discussion of safety,” he said.
Institutionalizing ethics awareness would require close scrutiny of day-to-day activities. Commanders could focus on questions about whether troops are conducting robust unit-level training, adhering to safety procedures, and keeping track of their equipment properly, Doty said
“They send reports up and down the chain of command all the time. How accurate are those reports? Are we telling partial truths? Are we avoiding bad news so the boss doesn’t chew our ass out?” Doty said.
Hagel and others have suggested the military’s problem with ethics and misconduct may well stem, at least in part, from 13 years of war and the relentless operations tempo that many units maintained.
But others suggest the root cause is deeper than that.
“In many ways, this is just a reflection of what is happening across our society,” said Jack London, a former CEO of CACI, a large Virginia-based defense contractor, and author of a new book, “Character: The Ultimate Success Factor.”
London pointed to mounting misconduct in the private sector, from the crimes that fueled the Enron scandal, Wall Street banking scandal and the fraud in the mortgage industry that helped lead to the recent real estate meltdown.
“You really have an erosion of the ethos and culture of doing the right thing,” London said.