Headspace

A social science look at the military

Are the Ethical Lapses of Military Leaders Really Our Fault?

When military members misbehave, civilian society is often blamed.

A recent (21 January 2013) article by Associated Press writer Lolita C. Baldor addressed the issue of misconduct among senior military officers. Many senior officers have been in the news lately for conduct-related offenses, often though not always sexual in nature. According to Baldor’s reporting:

"'It's troublesome,' said Rear Adm. John Kirby, the Navy's top spokesman. 'Navy leadership is taking a look at why personal conduct seems to be a growing reason for why commanding officers are losing their commands. We're trying to get to the root causes. We don't really fully understand it.' He and other military leaders agree that poor leadership, bad judgment, and ethical lapses, rather than operational failures, are growing factors in the firings. But Kirby said it's not clear whether that has anything to do with the strains of the past 10 years at war or simply reflects deteriorating morals among the general population."

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I don’t know what Admiral Kirby’s full views on these matters are, but I’ve heard similar remarks from many in the military when discussing issues such as cheating scandals, sexual assault, and so on. With much encouragement from the civilian populace, the military tends to see itself as apart from, indeed above, the rest of us. When military members are praised for their selflessness and service, their success is not generally attributed to the high moral standards of the population from which the recruits come – instead, it is the exceptionally virtuous culture of the military which is usually invoked. When military members are found misbehaving, we often hear degenerate civilian culture indicted, however. Perhaps it is time to seriously consider whether military culture itself is not at least part of the problem?

The Air Force, confronting its sexual assault issues, recently conducted a “health and welfare” inspection of every workspace in the Air Force looking for inappropriate materials (including my office – yes, I passed). I have heard grumbling and carping from some folks suggesting that most of the items found were harmless, such as fitness magazines (I haven’t a clue what was found) and merely another victory for “political correctness”, but I must say that I am heartened by the fact that the Air Force is at least looking inward rather than outward. In this sense, what was found is perhaps less important than what was searched. It seems to me that real culture change will require this kind of bold leadership from credible leaders if we are to make meaningful progress.

Military culture may not be broken - but it can be "not broken" and yet still require some periodic PM - preventive maintenance - to keep things running smoothly. Mandatory PowerPoint briefings for all are the usual answer  in these situations, but are merely eyewash. Reinvigorating the culture of accountability in the military - accountability to all of us - will require something more serious. Inspecting our offices is a good start.

George R. Mastroianni is a Professor of Psychology at the US Air Force Academy in Colorado Springs, Colorado.

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