So many scandals in the US military: signs of rot or reform?

Summary: This morning’s post looked at the unprecedented number of scandals involving senior officers of the US military. Here we examine its significance and causes. Much depends on understanding what’s happening, and responding correctly. {2nd of 2 posts today.}

“Each of us must rededicate ourselves to upholding the principles of sound leadership… Our culture must exemplify both professional excellence and ethical judgment.”
— Letter from SecDef Hagel to US military’s senior leadership, 13 March 2013

Rotten Peach


Rot in the military

Surveys in the late 1990s confirmed that the military’s retention rates resulted from a kind of internal rot as troops lost confidence in their officers. The Chief of Staff of the Army’s Leadership Survey 2000 concluded (CAPs in the original):

Top-down loyalty DOES NOT EXIST. Senior leaders will throw subordinates under the bus in a heartbeat to protect or advance their career.

The wars after 9/11 — enemies to fight, higher pay, more deployments — masked these problems. Now they reappear as that pressure fades. To see the results, in December 2014 the Military Times published a survey of 2,300 active-duty troops asking them about their lives, and compared the results with their 2009 survey. Even over only 5 years the deterioration was rapid.

Overall officers in the military are:

  • 2009 – 78% good or excellent.
  • 2014 – 49% good or excellent.

The senior military leadership has my best interests at heart:

  • 2009 – 53% agreed.
  • 2014 – 27% agreed.

The flood of disciplinary actions against senior officers during the past 5 years shows the scale of the problem. Nobody seems to understand the underlying problem, and the military has not (publicly, at least) shown data explaining if this is a surge of enforcement (i.e., reform) or a surge of bad behavior (i.e., a rot grown so large it can no longer be hidden).


Handle the spirit carefully.
Handle the spirit carefully.

A widely cited article in the Jan-Feb 2013 Military Review pointed to a possible cause: “Narcissism and Toxic Leaders“, Joe Doty (Lt. Colonel, US Army, Retired) and Jeff Fenlason (Master Sergeant, US Army). Excerpt:

The Army recently released a study reporting that 80% of the officers and NCOs polled had observed toxic leaders in action and that 20% had worked for a toxic leader. This problem is not new. Within the past few years, the Army has relieved two brigade commanders and a general for alleged toxic — and arguably narcissistic and abusive — behavior. A division commander who served in Baghdad during Operation Iraqi Freedom was “asked” to retire following an investigation of his leadership style and toxic command climate. Toxic leaders have been around for years and will continue to serve in all branches of our military. The Navy has recently relieved a number of commanders owing to toxic behavior and unhealthy command climates.

… Individuals like these are a cancer spreading throughout the profession of arms, although the Army culture has systemically supported this behavior pattern over the years in many ways …

Although we have focused on narcissism and toxic leaders, the reality is that America’s all-volunteer Army expects and deserves the very best from its leaders, narcissistic, toxic, or not. Leaders and commanders need to be the best they can be. More emphasis on mentoring, self-awareness, self-regulation, and emotional intelligence will help to ensure our leaders are the best they can be and our soldiers experience the type of leadership they richly deserve.

Rot Stop

Whatever the cause, the public nature of these scandals has forced action. Investigations and penalties are one solution. Another was announced on 24 March 2014:

Rear Adm. Margaret Klein will be the first senior adviser for military professionalism, Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel announced Tuesday. Klein will report directly to Hagel on issues related to military ethics, character and leadership, Hagel said in a written statement.

A flight officer, Klein was commissioned after she graduated from the U.S. Naval Academy in 1981, according to her official biography. She is the chief of staff for the strategic plans and policy directorate of the Joint Chiefs of Staff.

Klein “brings to the position a wealth of operational and leadership experience,” Hagel said, including experience as the commandant of midshipmen at the Naval Academy. “She knows that ethics and character are absolute values that must be constantly reinforced.  {Source: Stars & Stripes.}


From outside the military we can only see the surface. Powerful forces are at work, contending within the society of 1.4 million people in our active duty military, part of our trillion-dollar per year defense machinery. Absorbing two failed wars, increasing involvement in still more likely-to-fail conflicts, cuts to benefits, reductions-in-force, and the massive social engineering to accommodate women in the ranks.

It’s a lot for them to process at once. Only a fool would expect all this to go smoothly. The odds of serious problems, even breakdowns in this complex society, seem high. The effect of serious problems could be severe. Watch this space for more about this topic. Post your thoughts in the comments.

Ferdinand Foch (1851-1929)

Advice from the past

“In our time, which thinks it can do without ideals, that it can reject what it calls abstractions, and nourish itself on realism, rationalism and positivism; which thinks it can reduce all questions to matters of science or to the employing of more or less ingenious expedients; at such a time, I say, there is but one resource if you are to avoid disaster, and only one which will make you certain of what course to hold upon a given day. It is the worship of two Ideas in the field of morals: duty and discipline.

And that worship further needs, if it is to bear fruit and produce results, knowledge and reason.”

From “A Sketch of the Military Career of Marshal Foch” by Major A. Grasset.

For More Information

Data from the Army about discipline of officers: “129 Army battalion, brigade commanders fired since 2003“, Army Times, 2 February 2015 — “The rate of misconduct is actually a little bit lower than the historical average, but that doesn’t make you feel any better” said Army Vice Chief of Staff General Daniel Allyn.

Posts  about the skill and integrity of our senior military leaders:

  1. The Core Competence of America’s Military Leaders.
  2. The moral courage of our senior generals, or their lack of it.
  3. Careerism and Psychopathy in the US Military leadership, GI Wilson (Colonel, USMC, retired).
  4. Rolling Stone releases Colonel Davis’ blockbuster report about Afghanistan – and our senior generals!.
  5. How many generals would Lincoln have fired to win in Iraq & Afghanistan?
  6. William Lind looks at our generals, sees “rank incompetence”.

Other posts about our senior officers:

  1. Do we need so many and such well-paid generals and admirals? By Richard A Pawloski (Captain, USMC, retired).
  2. How officers adapt to life in the Pentagon: they choose the blue pill.
  3. Overhauling The Officer Corps. By David Evans (Lt. Colonel, USMC, retired).
  4. The cost of too many generals: paying more to get a less effective military.
  5. Is Obama purging the US military leadership?

7 thoughts on “So many scandals in the US military: signs of rot or reform?”

  1. The preposterously luxurious coddling now lavished on the typical U.S. general officer encourages this kind of outrageous behavior.

    Then-defense secretary Robert M. Gates stopped bagging his leaves when he moved into a small Washington military enclave in 2007. His next-door neighbor was Mike Mullen, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff at the time, who had a chef, a personal valet and — not lost on Gates — troops to tend his property.

    Gates may have been the civilian leader of the world’s largest military, but his position did not come with household staff. So, he often joked, he disposed of his leaves by blowing them onto the chairman’s lawn.

    “I was often jealous because he had four enlisted people helping him all the time,” Gates said in response to a question after a speech Thursday. He wryly complained to his wife that “Mullen’s got guys over there who are fixing meals for him, and I’m shoving something into the microwave. And I’m his boss.”(..)

    The commanders who lead the nation’s military services and those who oversee troops around the world enjoy an array of perquisites befitting a billionaire, including executive jets, palatial homes, drivers, security guards and aides to carry their bags, press their uniforms and track their schedules in 10-minute increments. Their food is prepared by gourmet chefs. If they want music with their dinner parties, their staff can summon a string quartet or a choir.

    The elite regional commanders who preside over large swaths of the planet don’t have to settle for Gulfstream V jets. They each have a C-40, the military equivalent of a Boeing 737, some of which are configured with beds.

    Source: “Petraeus scandal puts four-star general lifestyle under scrutiny,” The Washington Post, 17 November, 2012.

    The U.S. military has drifted far from the days of WW II’s Omar Bradley, the “G.I.’s general.”

  2. They seem to have the steely eyed discipline that can only result from spending other people’s money, at alarming rates, while being accountable to no one.

    1. Dissenter,

      “while being accountable to no one.”

      That’s a big misunderstanding of the US system. Everybody in it is highly accountable to the powerful interests who run it. For example, if a general turns against a major policy — such as occupying Afghanistan or spending so much on the F-35 — he can count on rapid career failure. No more nice assignments, no lucrative after-retirement second job. Harsh immediate accountability keeps almost everybody in line.

  3. One thing to consider, in the development of a high level of narcissism in the officer corps is the larger than usual reliance on OCS as a candidate pool since the war on terror got under way. While obviously not a factor when considering toxic full birds or generals, my experience with OCS-grad captains and majors was that they came in expecting that the old man’s word was law and their experience as NCOs made them more tyrannical amongst the junior officers and senior enlisted men when they weren’t viewed as God. I don’t think they’ll do a great job in higher positions, so I would expect things to get worse before getting better.

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