Bad apples or a bad barrel? Pentagon seeks higher officer integrity

Amid new and massive scandals, the US armed services try again to review ethics training for officers. But is that enough?

AP Photo
Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel and Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Gen. Martin Dempsey answer questions from reporters at the Pentagon Dec. 19.

Two years ago, the Pentagon launched an “ethics review” of its top brass. Then-Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta was appalled by the improper behavior of a few high-ranking officers. He wanted ways to foster “values-based” leadership.

Personal character was to count as much as military competence.

Since then, however, the US armed forces have been hit by a number of new – and massive – scandals. They suggest the problem is not “just a few bad apples.” So in December, Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel asked for another ethics review. He wants a report by Feb. 14. The focus: how the military teaches “core values and ethical leadership.”

In the meantime, details of recent scandals keep leaking out – beyond the ones involving sexual assault. Each one provides a teachable moment on how those within one of America’s most trusted institutions can resist the temptation to abuse their position by internalizing the military’s professional standards.

On Tuesday, Congress heard testimony about a kickback scheme among Army National Guardsmen assigned to sign up new recruits. So far 16 people have been convicted. Hundreds of guardsmen are still under investigation.

In the Air Force, a probe continues into the alleged cheating by dozens of nuclear-missile launch officers on a monthly proficiency test. And the Navy is investigating scandals involving bribery and prostitution in a case of contracting fraud. Two Navy officers have already lost their jobs.

All of these scandals have led the Joint Chiefs of Staff chairman, Gen. Martin Dempsey, to say that the military is in a moment of self-reflection about what its calls “senior leader failures.” Each of the armed services is now renewing its emphasis on ethics training for officers while also looking for ways to change the circumstances that might contribute to someone stealing, cheating, or committing a similar offense.

The Pentagon wants to find a balance between blaming individuals for wrongdoing while taking responsibility for putting individuals in situations or a culture that could set the stage for misbehavior. The military, in other words, is trying to solve two problems: “bad apples” and “bad barrels.” Simply teaching ethics to officers in hopes they act with integrity may not be enough. The “systems” and the circumstances must change, too.

When he retired as Defense secretary in 2011, Robert Gates told cadets at West Point that he hoped the Army could “break up the institutional concrete, its bureaucratic rigidity in its assignments and promotion processes, in order to retain, challenge, and inspire its best, brightest, and most-battle-tested young officers.” It seems each new Pentagon chief seeks to improve the officer corps.

Virtue in any institution is a two-way street because it entails a moral obligation to others. “Character is not a private issue,” wrote Navy Capt. Chuck Hollingsworth, who recently commanded the Navy’s Center for Personal and Professional Development. Such qualities as honesty and respect can be embraced by each individual. They help avoid any temptation to act selfishly or with hubris. But others can help in removing temptation, too.

Perhaps with this latest ethics review, the Pentagon will finally discover the best way to foster “values-based” leadership. If so, it can only strengthen the military’s fighting capability.

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