Shadow Government

Time to think carefully and strategically about a military profession in crisis

It has been a very long time since the military profession has had to struggle with so many overlapping challenges at the same time — fiscal, ethical, medical, bureaucratic, and operational. Every day seems to bring a new headline of a scandal, and it is not hyperbole to suggest that, in combination, they add up ...

Mark Wilson/Getty Images
Mark Wilson/Getty Images

It has been a very long time since the military profession has had to struggle with so many overlapping challenges at the same time — fiscal, ethical, medical, bureaucratic, and operational. Every day seems to bring a new headline of a scandal, and it is not hyperbole to suggest that, in combination, they add up to an institution in crisis.

Joint Chiefs Chairman Martin Dempsey, the senior-most uniformed military officer, has already directed a number of sensible reforms aimed at strengthening the moral fiber of military leaders at various levels of command, but many may have missed it because the rollout was eclipsed by the Boston terrorist attack. It is too soon to judge the effectiveness of the changes, yet the continued drumbeat of negative stories underscores that it was not too soon for the institution to respond in a dramatic fashion.

The most controversial aspect of the new reforms is instituting a 360-degree review, meaning military leaders will be evaluated not merely by their superiors in the chain of command, but also by their peers and subordinates. This is alien to military culture, but well-established in many civilian settings. We lowly professors, for instance, are reviewed more often by our peers (through blind peer review of research papers) and by our subordinates (through student evaluations of our teaching) than we are by our superiors (an annual assessment by a departmental chair and intermittent promotion review). The academic profession may not be seen as the paragon of good management, but at a minimum it suggests that the 360-degree review is survivable. The key is to view the information in totality and in context, not giving undue weight to any single bit of information, whether adverse or favorable. Some of the more egregious figures in recent scandals — serial abusive leaders — probably would have been uncovered with such a system.

The Dempsey reforms are a good start, and as they are implemented, I suspect we will learn more about understanding the problems and ways to rectify them.

As for understanding, it seems clear that the strain of over a decade of high optempo/perstempo war-fighting — something the all-volunteer force was explicitly designed not to do — is a major contributing factor. But I think other cultural forces are of equal importance, in particular two generational effects that get less notice than they deserve. First, the junior ranks are drawn from a generation that is itself in something of a moral crisis. I found Lost in Transition, by Christian Smith and his team of sociologists, to be deeply insightful about the ways the generation from which the military draws all its new recruits does moral reasoning. It is a sober read and should be required for all noncommissioned and commissioned officers because it describes a sharp divide between the way older generations of Americans thought about right and wrong (even the notoriously self-indulgent baby boomers!) and the more narcissistic approach that prevails among youth today.

Second, most of the senior ranks joined and became career military during another period of considerable crisis for the institution and for civil-military relations — the Clinton years. I wonder whether one lingering effect of that period is a sense among some officers — perhaps only a subliminal sense — that because President Bill Clinton "got away" with a scandal that would have ended the career of any military officer, the rules no longer apply, or at least should no longer apply to them. Some experts I respect think I am off base with this conjecture. I am sure that the 1990s scandal and civil-military troubles may be completely out of sight and out of mind for most career military and that there may be more officers affected in the opposite way — bound and determined to hold themselves to a higher standard. So at most, it may be only a tiny fraction that is affected by that era in the negative way I imagine, but then it is only a tiny fraction of the military who are causing the problems, so that, by itself, does not rebut the hypothesis.

In other words, at least some of the perceived moral challenges in the military profession probably can be traced to currents in the broader civilian society. Indeed, it is surely deeper than that: They can be traced to the human condition itself. Even the term that is popular to describe one manifestation of the problem with successful leaders, the Bathsheba syndrome, underscores how timeless the challenges are.

Are there any "fixes" to the human condition? Perhaps not fixes, but there are four time-honored approaches. 

1. Inner transformation: drawing upon a Higher Power to make a dramatic change in one’s moral trajectory — the stuff of countless "I was lost, but now I am found" testimonies.

2. Accountability: bringing private behavior from out of the shadows and into the antiseptic light of review by others (this is what the 360-degree review is trying to harness).

3. Systems designed to avoid what Catholic teaching calls "occasions to sin," meaning situations that involve undue amounts of temptation — for instance ensuring that superior officers are not alone in a hotel room late at night with potential sex partners from the junior ranks.

4. Systems designed to provide redemption and renewal for individuals who have erred. This last element, which is integral to all religious forms of moral education, may be the most difficult one to apply in a military setting. Without it, however, the military can develop a zero-defect mentality that inhibits the risk-taking that is essential to combat effectiveness.

The military must be wary of cures that are worse than the disease. For instance, it would certainly be an overreaction to the Petraeus scandal to set in motion a promotion system that would prevent leaders like him from reaching the pinnacle of the profession. As disappointing as his ethical choices were, they were not so egregious that they negated all he had accomplished up until that point. Put another way, any promotion system that did not promote a David Petraeus along the way should be considered broken. The military also must be wary of the paradox of monitoring systems: Is a high number of hits a sign that the system is not working, because so many people seem to be getting flagged, or a sign that the system is working, because it is catching and flagging the behavior it is targeting?

Because of the danger of overreaction, whatever the military institution does to grapple with these various professional crises, it would be well-advised to borrow the "reversibility" notion that was embraced in Barack Obama’s strategic guidance issued in January 2012. In that case, the military was tasked with making deep cuts to meet Obama’s budget targets, and the strategy team recognized that every time the United States had tried to do something similar, it had overshot and left the country with inadequate military capability. The Obama team was sure it had not made the same mistake again, but, as a hedge, it pledged this:

This includes an accounting of our ability to make a course change that could be driven by many factors, including shocks or evolutions in the strategic, operational, economic, and technological spheres. Accordingly, the concept of "reversibility" — inc
luding the vectors on which we place our industrial base, our people, our active-reserve component balance, our posture, and our partnership emphasis — is a key part of our decision calculus

That same caution is probably warranted if Congress presses for more dramatic responses beyond the ones already implemented by the Dempsey reforms.

Finally, the senior-most military leaders need to remember two great principles of moral leadership. First, successful leaders create a moral climate in which imperfect humans encourage each other to act morally, rather than depending on creating or selecting morally perfect people. Second, what the senior-most leaders — the general and flag officers and, in particular, the community of four-star officers at the pinnacle of the institution — set up for themselves will be the loudest message of all they can send to the force, far more instructive and compelling than even the most rigorous professional ethics training regimen.

Peter D. Feaver is a professor of political science and public policy at Duke University, where he directs the Program in American Grand Strategy.