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Analysis: The military knows it has a morality problem

Sexual abuse. Adultery. Misconduct. Suicide. Has the U.S. military lost its way?

It has not been a good year for America’s armed forces. David Petraeus’s extramarital affair dominated headlines; 25 instructors are under investigation for systematic sexual abuse of cadets at Lackland Air Force Base; and a rash of senior officers -- at the rank of colonel or higher -- have been reprimanded for serious misconduct. Last month, Martin Dempsey, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, wrote to all four-star generals and flag officers asking for institutional soul-searching. Has the military’s behavior, he seemed to be asking, threatened the “sacred trust” among top officers, the men and women they lead, and the American people? “I know you share my concern when events occur that call that trust into question,” Dempsey wrote in the memo obtained by National Journal. “We must be alert to even the perception that our Nation’s most senior officers have lost their way.”

If they want to take Dempsey’s question seriously, senior leaders should ask themselves: Have the exigencies of war fostered a rules-don’t-apply attitude of unquestioned privilege among the top ranks, corrupting a culture of high standards and accountability? Isn’t it remarkable that Petraeus and his successor as top commander in Afghanistan, Gen. John R. Allen, were both ensnared in the same email scandal? (Allen denies wrongdoing.) Why did Brig. Gen. Jeffrey Sinclair, a married former deputy commander of the 82nd Airborne Division in Afghanistan, become involved with five women (he is under investigation after being accused of adultery, sexual misconduct, and forcible sodomy)? Did colleagues of Col. James H. Johnson III, former commander of the 173rd Airborne Brigade in Iraq, know that he was involved in a bigamous relationship with an Iraqi woman, and that he was attempting to steer government contracts to her father? Why did Gen. William (Kip) Ward, the four-star head of Africa Command, deem it acceptable to take his wife and a large entourage on lavish government-paid trips before he was stripped of a star and ordered to repay $82,000 to the Treasury?

For that matter, what does it say about the evaluation and promotion system for senior leaders that the Navy has been forced to relieve 60 senior officers from command in the past three years (a 40 percent rise over the previous three-year period), including Rear Adm. Charles Gaouette, who was dismissed from his command of the Stennis aircraft carrier group for “inappropriate leadership judgment” while it was deployed to the Middle East?

The fact that so many of the elite -- the officers rigorously selected and groomed by the military -- have behaved so badly shows just how deep the rot is, says Don Snider, a senior fellow at West Point’s Center for the Army Profession and Ethic. “Moral corrosion has spread throughout the entire profession of arms as a result of a decade of war,” he says. “War … creates a culture where cutting corners ethically becomes the norm.” So much so that military leaders are willing to look the other way. “I can almost guarantee you that in each case of ill-discipline by a senior officer, other people in the command knew exactly what was going on and either didn’t say anything, or it didn’t matter what they said.”

The problem goes much deeper than high-profile cases such as the massacre of 17 Afghan civilians by a U.S. soldier earlier this year, the “sport killing” of three Afghan civilians last year by soldiers from Joint Base Lewis-McChord, or the torture and debasement of Iraqi prisoners at Abu Ghraib. Adm. Jonathan Greenert, chief of naval operations, says that his biggest concerns aren’t defense cuts or arsenal upgrades. He thinks the military must reverse what Defense Secretary Leon Panetta has called a “silent epidemic” of sexual assault in the ranks. According to the Veterans Affairs Department, one in five women report sexual trauma during their service. The admiral says that his second priority is coping with a military suicide rate that is up 22 percent over last year and may reach as high as one death per day this year.

Military sociologists and clinicians worry that the suicide rate is just the leading indicator of a tide of mental and physical suffering. This includes unacceptably high rates of substance abuse (binge drinking among service members ages 18 to 35 is 50 percent higher than among civilians, and, in surveys, up to one in four Army soldiers admit they abuse prescription drugs); divorce (the military divorce rate rose 38 percent from 2001 to 2010); and depression and posttraumatic stress disorder (a 2008 Rand survey found that one in five veterans of Iraq and Afghanistan -- some 300,000 people -- are suffering either from major depression or PTSD).

Prolonged exposure to combat triggers such intense emotions -- fear, revulsion, regret, sadness, grief, survivor’s guilt -- that some psychiatrists at the VA have coined a new name for the malady: “moral injury.” All of this threatens “to impede the reintegration into society of a whole generation of veterans,” says David Segal, a sociologist who directs the Center for Research on Military Organization at the University of Maryland.

In response to the recent scandals, Dempsey has completed an initial review of ethical standards in the senior ranks. The findings are serious enough that he is creating a panel on “professional ethics,” which will include respected retired generals and academic experts. Its first order of business should be to consider whether the “moral injury” that so obviously afflicts the rank and file has spread to the military’s top echelon, and to the institution writ large.