At this point in his tenure, you'd think that Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel would be preoccupied with budget cuts, force reductions, and the litany of threats our military must guard against every day.
But Mr. Hagel's agenda has undergone a slight revision; near the top of his "to-do" list is re-instilling ethics in the armed forces. Alarmed by a series of personal conduct scandals, Hagel is preparing to appoint a flag officer as an "ethics adviser," presumably with marching orders to implement new directives and training programs to fix the problem.
There is a certain irony in a career politician demanding ethical behavior from members of the armed forces. But Secretary Hagel has little choice; the military is currently awash with incidents involving illegal, immoral or inexcusable behavior. Here are just a few examples:
- Dozens of Air Force missile launch officers at Malmstrom AFB, Montana were suspended from their duties after it was discovered they cheated on a routine qualification exam. Some of the officers reportedly texted correct answers to their colleagues, to avoid failing the test. Investigators say cheating was rampant, encourage by superiors, and passing the exam with a perfect score was the only sure path to advancement.
- The Navy is investigating its own cheating scandal, involving enlisted instructors at its nuclear power school in Charleston, South Carolina. At least 20 senior enlisted members are accused of cheating on tests that help them qualify to operate nuclear reactors on aircraft carriers and submarines. It is the Navy's fifth cheating scandal in the past seven years; all have involved reactor technicians and their training and certification programs.
- Air Force Major General Michael Carey was dismissed last fall as Commander of 20th Air Force--which oversees the service's ICBM wing--amid reports of misconduct during an official visit to Russia. An official probe confirmed that Carey (among other things) drank heavily during the trip, offended his hosts and consorted with women who might be a security risk. In fairness, we should point out that other sources identify the women as members at the British Embassy in Moscow.
- Another senior officer in the nuclear chain, Navy Vice Admiral Tim Giardina, was fired in October 2013 after it was discovered that he used counterfeit chips while gambling at an Indian casino in Iowa. At the time, Giardina was Vice Commander of U.S. Strategic Command, which is in charge of the nation's nuclear forces.
- Three other Navy officers--including an NCIS agent--have been implicated in a bribery scandal. They are accused of arranging port visits that benefited Glen Defense Marine, a long-time vendor in the Pacific Region. In return, the company's CEO, Leonard Francis, provided cash, gifts, vacations and prostitutes for the officers. At least two Navy admirals have been suspended in connection with the case, though they have not been charged with any wrong-doing.
- The Navy also relieved the command and master chief of a Florida-based missile unit after it was discovered their personnel had solicited adult-entertainment businesses in a fund-raising effort for a submarine ball. The unit's commander, Captain John Heatherington, also received non-judicial punishment for failing to stop the fund-raising appeal, which included strip clubs and other seedy establishments.
And if that's not bad enough, there are two new scandals involving lower-ranking personnel who engaged in behavior that is disgraceful and disrespectful, at best.
-A photo of Air Force Staff Sergeant Cherish Byers "tongue-kissing" the POW-MIA symbol went viral earlier this month, much to the embarrassment of her commanders at Fairchild AFB, Washington and the rest of the service. James Cody, the Chief Master Sergeant of the Air Force, said "appropriate action will be taken at the appropriate level." In a Facebook posting, Byers said the photo was three years old, and taken at a point when she "didn't care." Now facing potential punishment, Sergeant Byers has apparently had a change of heart.
- Then, there is the group of National Guard soldiers who decided to take a group photo surrounding a flag-draped casket used to train honor guard personnel. Many of the soldiers are mugging for the camera and the shot--which was posted by a Wisconsin guard member--and is captioned "we put the fun in funeral." The same solider, Specialist Terry Harrison, also posted a selfie with the comment, "It's so damn cold out...why have a funeral outside...someone's getting a jacked-up flag."
Against that backdrop, it's tempting to say that Mr. Hagel needs to impose a month-long "stand down" for ethics training. To be sure, the military has always had its share of scandals, but this recent barrage suggests that standards of conduct, discipline and integrity have slipped badly.
But you can say the same thing about the country they serve. Kentucky Senator Rand Paul was recently criticized when he mentioned Bill Clinton's infamous affair with Monica Lewinsky. Then as now, we're being told that it was a "private matter," even if it did involve the Commander-in-Chief. The same holds true for various other Clinton-era scandals, including Hillary's remarkable luck as a cattle futures trader; those missing records from her Little Rock law firm and the politically-fueled purge of the White House travel office. Examples of inappropriate, shady or even illegal conduct now deemed "irrelevant."
Still, the Clintons don't have a monopoly on sleazy behavior. Newt Gingrich has his own history of marital infidelity. Former National Security Adviser Sandy Burger was caught smuggling classified documents out of the national archive (an act blamed on personal "sloppiness") and received a slap on the wrist--loss of his security clearance for only three years.
The list goes on. Harry Reid has become a wealthy man at the public trough, engaging in questionable land deals along the way. Jesse Jackson and Al Sharpton, have claimed the job title of "activist" for much of their adult lives and become millionaires in the process. Former Republican Congressman Randy Cunningham (a fighter ace in Vietnam) sold his soul for $2.4 million in bribes. He was released from federal prison last year, but retains his military and congressional pensions. William Jefferson of Louisiana, who served in the House with Mr. Cunningham, is still in prison on 13-year sentence for corruption charges. And just last week Mr. Jefferson's former mayor, Ray Nagin, was convicted of bribery.
How does this relate to the military? It's simple; our armed forces are a reflection of the society they serve. If America is doing its best impersonation of a dead fish and rotting from the head, it's inevitable that some military members will mimic their civilian counterparts. That doesn't excuse it and what's worse, the armed forces seem increasingly tolerant of bad behavior. General Carey and Admiral Giardina will retire at flag rank and some of the cheaters at Charleston and Malmstrom will survive as well. That doesn't speak well for a profession that has always held itself to the highest standards of conduct and integrity.
But, as we observed earlier, there is an element of hypocrisy in the current push for military ethics. If Mr. Hagel is serious about the subject, he might start on the E-ring and the senior officers who populate those offices. Many were on duty on the night of September 11, 2012, when four Americans died in Benghazi and the full might of the American military was never mustered to assist them. Almost two years later, we know very little about the actions of our senior officers that night, along with those of the Commander-in-Chief.
In her latest blog post for The Wall Street Journal, Peggy Noonan wonders what happens to a country where the decadent elites engage in all sorts of reprehensible behavior, openly mocking the people they supposedly serve.
We may soon find out.