Might Pentagon have been alerted sooner to boozy US general in Moscow?

Pentagon concern about 'toxic leaders' is not new, but some worry that revelations of bad behavior by senior military officials will rise as the US returns to peacetime footing. Latest case in point is a report about a top Air Force general's drunken cavorting during a trip to Moscow.

US Air Force/AP
This undated handout photo provided by the US Air Force shows Maj. Gen. Michael J. Carey. Investigators say the Air Force general, fired in October as commander of the US land-based nuclear missile force, engaged in 'inappropriate behavior' while in Russia.

The latest bad behavior story coming out of the Air Force – involving the alleged boozy cavorting of the US general in charge of nuclear weapons in the hotel bars of Moscow, no less – has senior military officials again grappling with precisely how the Pentagon might prevent the rise of what it calls "toxic leaders.” 

The cause has been taken up by the US military’s top leader, Gen. Martin Dempsey, in recent months.

The fact that the US military has been on a war footing for more than a decade, he told troops during a “town hall” meeting earlier this year, may have created some “bad habits, frankly.”

“When you’re at war, you tend to value competence most. But in our profession, character has to count,” said Dempsey, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. “You have to find that balance of competence and character. If you’re the most competent guy that has ever put a uniform on, but you don’t have character, I don’t really want you in my military.” 

As the troops come home from Afghanistan and the US military begins to adjust to a peacetime footing, “We may see more such scandals emerge from officers used to 12 years of war and an ‘anything goes in the name of the mission’ mentality,” says Phillip Carter, senior fellow and counsel at the Center for a New American Security.

Recent cases to give the services a black eye appear to be a result of both incompetence and character lapses. This week, a US Navy official ensnared in a massive bribery scandal was convicted over his involvement with a Malaysian defense contractor who provided free concert tickets and prostitutes in exchange for classified information. Five other US Navy officials are also charged.

US lawmakers last week vowed to seek additional information about the case of a Marine officer who says he faced reprisals after blowing the whistle on senior commanders. The Marine believed the commanders were covering up for another commander, who led a unit of Marine scout snipers caught urinating on Taliban corpses. The incident came to light after a video of it surfaced on YouTube. One Marine in the video notably said, after the video was posted, that he was not sorry and that he would do it again.

The latest allegations to come to light involve Air Force Maj. Gen. Michael Carey, who on trip to Moscow reportedly got drunk and, according to an internal Air Force report, “talked loudly about the importance of his position as commander of the only operational nuclear force in the world and that he saves the world from war every day.” The report was released by the Air Force Inspector General after a Freedom of Information Act request.  

The report characterizes Carey as “flippant” with investigators, and it says his subordinates expressed concern that the general may have shared sensitive information with two women he met in Moscow. It also notes that Carey, "unable to keep up" with US delegates while on a walk, “pouted and sulked, and then complained repeatedly about the exercise itself.” 

A subordinate told investigators, “I’ll tell you that when the, when the conference was done and we were in the airplane I didn’t want to have anything to do with him.”

Carey was removed from his post as the head of US land-based nuclear missiles in October, but he remains in the military. He has been reassigned to a job as the special assistant to the commander of Air Force Space Command. 

Senior military officials are looking for ways that they could be alerted sooner to leaders who are behaving badly – before the bad conduct sparks, say, an international incident or a service-damaging scandal.

In this regard, subordinates might be of help. Dempsey has advocated “360 degree” evaluations that not only allow superiors to critique the performances of their staff, but also let subordinates provide feedback about the behavior and leadership skills of their superiors. 

The services use 360-degree reviews to varying degrees, but there is no Pentagon-wide standard. The Army uses them extensively, and Navy admirals get them as part of their training. The Air Force has been developing a prototype review during the past few months and some general officers have begun to receive, which are intended to provide "individual feedback," according to an Air Force spokesperson. None of the services, however, uses 360-degree reviews as part of its formal performance evaluations.

The hope is that the 360-degree review will make leaders more self-reflective. “We should want to know what our superiors think of us, of our performance,” Dempsey said during the town hall meeting in April, “and we need to know what our subordinates think of our leadership style, of our commitment to the profession, of our character.” 

At the US Army’s Command and General Staff College in Fort Leavenworth, Kan., the Department of Command & Leadership encourages such self-reflection by requiring students to write a “self-reflective paper” to complete their leadership curriculum. 

“We have found that it can be very eye-opening for the students and very cathartic at times as well, especially after 13 years of war,” says retired Col. Steve Boylan, assistant professor in the department. 

It is also important that subordinates demonstrate the “moral courage” to address their bosses with candor, Boylan adds. If the services develop emotional intelligence in their officers, “then they will accept it and take it as an assist rather than [as] a criticism.” 

To that end, the military must make an effort to train its top officers as well as their staffs, Dempsey added. “If you want to be part of this profession, you have to be introspective about what it means.”

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