WASHINGTON -- The breakdown in morals and ethics that has scourged the U.S. armed forces in the last two years is finally getting some of the attention it so richly deserves.
As scandals swelled, from massive cheating on military exams to getting drunk on crucial Russian missions to accepting sexual and other favors from a Malaysian businessman, Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel moved to appoint a senior officer to advise on the "breakdown in ethical behavior."
"We need to find out, is there a deep, wide problem?" the secretary declared early in February. "If there is, then what's 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 off some of these other areas? I don't know. We intend to find out."
Thankfully, Hagel, long known in his career in Congress for his integrity, is not alone in his concerns. Gen. Martin E. Dempsey, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, has added his voice to Hagel's saying, through his aides, that new attention to ethics often happens when the military enters a postwar transition and becomes more introspective.
The nation's militaries deserve credit for allowing the complaints to bubble up through the institutions themselves -- but the next level, of deeper concern, involves the question, "Why are these moral malfunctions happening now?"
There is an answer, referred to by both the aforementioned men. It is not only the 12 years, as central as that is to the ethical question. It is not only a postwar transition.
It is the fact that our male and female soldiers, volunteers all, know quite well that they were put into two wars in Iraq and Afghanistan of almost no use to their nation; that they were sent there under provably false pretenses, such as the conviction there were weapons of mass destruction in Iraq; that, once there, they could easily build democracy; and that, in fact, these were small wars not even intended to be won.
Moreover, American military have been sent there to fight, not once, not twice, not even three times. The military man honored at President Obama's State of the Union address had been to those scenes of warfare no fewer than 10 times! Anyone who can hold to morals and ethics that demand time to think and the capacity to discipline oneself can hardly thrive in such a hell.
Most unfortunately, these two wars (and all their spin-off wars, such as Pakistan and Lebanon) are not unique in America's experience since World War II, which stands as our sterling moment in modern military history. Soon after 1945 and also after the Korean War, which is too complicated to fit into any schema, younger "thinkers" in the Pentagon and White House just had to use the military at their fingertips for still other wars.
One waited after the hideous losses of Vietnam, Cambodia and Laos for Washington to learn some lessons about involving the country in wars where American interests are not seriously threatened (dare one also add that Congress might be consulted, as the Constitution requires?). But those lessons never came, and men like Donald Rumsfeld and Dick Cheney, both of whom are true "war lovers," moved militarily the first time they could.
There is nothing worse in serving in the military than being asked to die for another man's ambitions or, the very worst, to die for nothing.
One of the problems is that the Army, at least, has no codified professional military ethic, although its spirit is taught in various ways. In a summary of the problem written for the Strategic Studies Institute of the U.S. Army War College in 2010, Col. Matthew Moten wrote of these problems: "Some observers think the Army is near the breaking point. Several factors contribute to that stress."
He described them as the dependency upon counterinsurgency, "one of the most ethically complex forms of war." During so many years of war, "some policy decisions have tended to blur moral, ethical and legal lines. ... Since the post-Cold War drawdown, the armed forces have chosen to rely more and more heavily on commercial contractors. ... Today, the Army is 'selling' large tracts of its professional jurisdiction."
And finally, "professionally improper dissent on the part of retired generals" causes the American public to lose confidence "in the military's apolitical and nonpartisan ethic of service."
As officers repeat over and over, the vast majority of our soldiers are superb fighters and honest people. Hopeful for them, even more for us, is the serious discussion that is now going on about the behavior of their "superiors."
Yet, when it comes to answers, there is one that almost never comes up: Get ourselves involved in fewer of these totally unnecessary wars, and we'll have fewer problems.
(Georgie Anne Geyer has been a foreign correspondent and commentator on international affairs for more than 40 years. She can be reached at gigi_geyer(at)juno.com.)
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