Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel said during a Pentagon briefing Feb. 7 that he sees no simple answer to why the military is suffering so many ethical lapses. (Susan Walsh/AP)
Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel believes the military may have a widespread problem with unethical behavior and says rooting out that problem is a now one of his top priorities.
Speaking about widespread misconduct across the force for the first time Friday, Hagel applauded the moral character of the vast majority of service members, but also said “some of our people are failing short of these high standards and expectations.”
Rapid-fire reports of military scandals have persisted for months, including allegations of cheating, fraud, alcohol abuse, drugs and sexual misconduct. Hagel fears there may be a deep and systemic problem inside the military culture.
“We need to find out: Is there a deep, wide problem? If there is, then what is the scope of that problem? How did this occur? Was it a constant focus of 12 years on two long land wars taking our emphasis of some off of these other areas? I don’t know. We intend to find out.”
Hagel said he will soon appoint a general or flag officer to serve as his top adviser on ethical matters. He said he’ll meet regularly with the service chiefs and secretaries to address these concerns about ethics, and reiterated that will be “a top priority.”
“An uncompromising culture of accountability must exist at every level of command. That must be practiced and emphasized by leadership at every level,” Hagel said.
Hagel rejected the suggestion that the recent scandals are just an inexplicable spate of bad headlines.
“He definitely sees this as a growing problem,” Hagel’s top spokesman, Rear Adm. John Kirby told reporters Wednesday. “He is generally concerned there could be, at least at some level, a breakdown in ethical behavior and in the demonstration of moral courage.”
Hagel’s concerns about misconduct have expanded since January, when he focused on the Air Force’s nuclear missile community. Missileers have been accused of cheating on tests, using drugs, and failing to properly maintain the nation’s arsenal of 450 intercontinental ballistic missiles.
Those incidents prompted Hagel to launch a forcewide review of the military’s nuclear enterprise, which also includes the Navy.
The Navy on Tuesday acknowledged a cheating scandal at its Nuclear Propulsion School in South Carolina, which so far has implicated at least 30 senior enlisted instructors accused of sharing answer sheets to nuclear qualification tests with sailors.
The Army has revealed that about 1,200 soldiers — including 200 officers — are implicated in a long-running scheme by National Guard recruiters to fraudulently collect nearly $100 million in recruiting incentive payments.
And those issues follow on the heels of multiple cases of “toxic leaders” who abuse their positions and their people in a variety of ways.
It’s unclear why misconduct appears to be on the rise, Pentagon officials say.
One contributing factor may be the years of combat operations since 9/11, the longest sustained period of conflict in the nation’s history. That view is shared by Army Gen. Martin Dempsey, chairman of the Joint Chiefs, who has made ethics and professionalism — especially in the officer corps — a main focus of his tenure as the military’s top four-star officer.
“He believes the pace — the operations tempo — since 2001 while we have been heavily committed in Iraq and Afghanistan has been a key factor,” said Air Force Col. Ed Thomas, a Dempsey spokesman.
“In some cases, we’ve failed to understand and take advantage of all the tools we have that aid in promoting a culture where misconduct is not tolerated,” Thomas said.
The wars in Iraq and Afghanistan have rippled through the military in other ways that may contribute to the growing perception of ethics problems in the ranks. At the height of the wars, when the U.S. economy was strong, many recruiters needed to lower standards and grant moral waivers in order to meet their minimum requirements for new troops.
Larry Korb, a military personnel expert with the Center for American Progress, noted that officer promotion rates neared 100 percent for lower-ranking officers in many career fields. For years, critics complained that the best and brightest officers were leaving the force in droves.
“It’s a whole combination of things that are now coming back to bite us,” Korb said in an interview.
Dempsey says these problems could undermine the faith in military leaders from those both in and out of uniform.
“The trust of the American people, and ... the trust our young troops place in us as leaders, is too important. We can’t afford to let the transgressions of the few undermine the trust and credibility of our entire profession,” he said.
Dempsey is currently reviewing the Defense Department’s professional military education programs to ensure robust ethics training begins early in an officer’s career path. Dempsey also has required some officers to undergo “360-degree reviews,” which include feedback from supervisors as well as peers and subordinates.
Hagel supports those efforts, yet “also believes there must be more urgency behind these efforts and that military leaders and DoD leaders must take a step back and put renewed emphasis on developing more character and moral courage in our force,” Kirby said.
Hagel “is mindful that the vast majority serve honorably every day,” Kirby said. “But it doesn’t take more than a few to stain the honor and the integrity of the force, and I think that is what we are starting to see here.”
Dempsey agreed. “The overwhelming majority of our military leaders are tremendous professionals and citizens who show up to serve, bring their best, and often sacrifice greatly. There will always be those who let down the team and the nation, and when they do, we’ll hold them accountable,” he said.