Amidst renewed plans from Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid to take up legislation this spring addressing sexual assault in the military, a collection of ethical scandals involving military leadership continues to dog Pentagon officials.
Though the U.S. military still ranks as one of the most respected institutions in public life (and rightly so), the reputation of top brass has taken a beating with news of a Navy bribery scam, drinking binges during high profile missions, and incidents of serial adultery. Problems at one Air Force base extend to the junior officer level as over ninety officers responsible for operating our nuclear missile force have been caught cheating on monthly proficiency exams. In South Carolina, sailors tasked with operating Navy nuclear reactors appear to have shared exam questions and so far at least thirty sailors have been decertified as a result.
Given these troubling stories of lapses in integrity, numerous new oversight plans have emerged. Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel ordered a full review of the ethical training senior officers receive, with the report due last Friday. The Secretary of the Air Force has spoken of the need to address “systemic problems,” and the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff has said that assessing character will be a larger part of the evaluation of military officers in the future.
With the pivot to introspection however, it’s important for Pentagon officials to consider how moral virtue in the Armed Forces is cultivated in the first place.
That human failings have surfaced in the military isn’t in itself news. After all, the military is made up of individuals who are influenced by and reflect the social mores of our culture. Look at any aspect of American society, and you will quickly find examples of cheating, moral failure, and personal irresponsibility. Honesty, sobriety, and sexual propriety are not often glorified in our culture at large. Instead, our culture lauds self-expression and immediate self-gratification.
In a self-focused culture, how can we shape an environment that demands honesty, fidelity, and honor, all characteristics demanding self-denial? In other words, how is an expectation of ethical and moral behavior to be cultivated and maintained?
Traditionally, religious beliefs have been helpful in forming an ethic that values others over self, upholds integrity, and demands personal piety. Religion generally involves the humbling of self in light of a Divine Being, a realization of answering to a higher authority. Such beliefs tend to inspire an individual to please a higher power in interactions with fellow men. (Of course, religious individuals as fallible human beings can be guilty of violating ethical codes too, sometimes egregiously so in light of their claiming to have a high standard to which they have failed to adhere.)
Unfortunately, religious expression within the military has grown more difficult following the repeal of “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell,” in part because of the taboo surrounding the expression of politically incorrect opinions on sexuality. In an effort to be accommodating to homosexual service members, religious opinions about the proper boundaries of sexual behavior have been constrained.
Yet religion strongly condemns infidelity, lying, and drunkenness -- all problems highlighted in the latest military scandals. Moreover, the dominant religion practiced in the United States, Christianity, upholds the ideal of chastity, a demand for purity and restraint in sexual conduct.
Army General Martin Dempsey, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, has said that multiple rounds of deployment demanded by the pressures of war in Iraq and Afghanistan in recent years have caused a focus on character to fall behind a focus on competence. That failure also meant “we were neglecting the tools that manage us as a profession over time.”
Since we know that one of those tools for cultivating morality for many people has been religious faith, are we encouraging the “systemic problem” in our services by ostracizing the expression of moral beliefs rooted in religious faith? It’s a question worth asking as DOD leaders search for the tools to reinforce moral integrity in our military.