Rules aren’t enough.
That seems to be the conclusion of Defense Secretary Leon Panetta following a wave of scandals this year involving top military officers – most notably Gen. David Petraeus.
On Wednesday, Mr. Panetta ordered the Joint Chiefs of Staff to review the Pentagon’s training in military ethics. He made a pointed reminder that senior officers must “exercise sound judgment in their stewardship of government resources and in their personal conduct.”
Conduct by the book, in other words, also requires conduct by a conscience that knows right from wrong. Or as Panetta put it: “An action may be legally permissible, but neither advisable nor wise.”
To be fair, he noted that thousands of officers regularly follow the military code of justice as well as make sound judgments. Still, four generals have been investigated this year alone for ethical violations and now in the wake of the extramarital affair by former Army general and CIA chief Petraeus, the Pentagon is also investigating Marine Gen. John Allen. The top US commander in Afghanistan was cited for “inappropriate and flirtatious” e-mails with a Florida woman.
The US military retains the highest respect of any American institution, according to a Gallup poll. Yet the long wars in Iraq and Afghanistan have seen enough high-profile scandals, such as the abuse of Iraqi prisoners in Abu Ghraib, to make the Pentagon concerned about its ethical culture.
Some experts blame declining values in society at large or the shift to a volunteer service that may have created a military apart from society, one that sees itself as operating by different rules or with a sense of entitlement.
Fixing the military ethos, however, isn’t simply one of changing the social or institutional context for officers and soldiers – though that’s important. Decisions are made on personal values, as Panetta noted in his memo, and this requires an individual to make choices of the heart based on spiritual values.
For all public servants, “character is not a private issue,” writes Navy Capt. Chuck Hollingsworth, who recently commanded the Navy’s Center for Personal and Professional Development. “Regardless of one’s spiritual inclination, professional and ethical behavior can and should be the expectation.”
Federal workers serve the highest ideals of a nation, not just a boss or a set of rules. For the military, especially, failure to live up to those ideals can result in tragedy.
Thus the urgency of the Pentagon’s review of its ethical training. The defense chief wants a plan on the president’s desk by Dec. 1. Given the publicity of both the Petraeus and Allen scandals, the military needs quick action to not only restore its reputation but further shore up the conscience of every officer and soldier.