The Moral Corrosion within Our Military Professions

Dr. Don M. Snider

We have now had several weeks of breathless punditry on the moral failure of David Petraeus. The press and online commentariat do love a scandal, and the more so when a deserving American hero tragically falls from grace.

The commentary has evolved from who (just the two of them?), to who else (well, maybe another general…), to why (well, of course, the Bathsheba syndrome!) and more recently to why not (nothing illegal, coerced, kinky, or paid off, so why did he resign?).

Fortunately, amid the frivolous clamor serious efforts at reform may be underway as the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff is very quickly conducting a review of the ethics training for generals and admirals. It is to be done in time for the Secretary of Defense to place it on the President’s desk by December 1st.

The intent and context was clearly stated by General Dempsey: “If we really are a profession – a group of men and women who are committed to living an uncommon life with extraordinary responsibilities and high standards – we should want to figure it out before someone else figures it out for us.[1]

General Dempsey is spot-on contextually. He is leading an American military establishment of three military professions that have been deeply corroded by a decade of war. Most of America, largely isolated from the military, knows very little about the moral corrosiveness of prolonged combat, particularly against an enemy that routinely fights with no ethical constraints whatsoever.

While the egregious behavior of senior uniformed officers, “moral-fading” as the psychologists call it, is perhaps only the latest sign of the effects of moral corrosion, the other indicators have long been there. How else does one account  for the as-yet uncontrolled escalation in suicides among the military, the unprofessional levels of sexual harassment and assault within the ranks, the spiked divorce rate in military families, the amazingly harmful at-risk behavior of so many of our returned warriors, or the high rates of toxic leadership in command and resulting reliefs for cause?

To be a profession, as General Dempsey correctly points out, is to be an introspective institution manned by reflective practitioners who rightly seek to maintain their institution as a self-policing meritocracy . So while the military’s critics are using recurring moral failures to call for steeper force and resource reductions, he is actively leading the professions’ introspection, much as he did earlier within the U.S. Army when he led, after a decade of war, a campaign of research and learning about the Army as a military profession.[2]

What he will find if given the time is that our Armed Forces have, under the pressures of the last decade of war, actually abetted the moral corrosion of war by perpetuating a very unbalanced approach to their most important resource – their uniformed personnel. Simply stated, the focus has been on developing individual and unit military competence, when it should have been all along more equally divided between developing their moral character and their military competence.

Rightly understood, military professions are quintessentially human institutions whose success or failure rests almost solely on the competence and character of their people. To be sure, all of our forces use billions of dollars of technology, but it is all at the beck and call of a human operator or commander who uses discretionary moral judgments to apply that military power. That is the art of being a military professional, making repetitive discretionary judgments often scores of times a day that are both effective militarily and within the moral norms expected by the military’s client – the American people.

Unfortunately, for far too long our Armed Forces have used industrial age developmental systems founded on assumptions that are now of doubtful validity in the current reality. At a minimum, two stand out for General Dempsey’s review.

Assumption #1: Any healthy volunteer will make a good soldier because they accept and agree with the service’s values and inherently will want to live by those values.

At one point in our nation’s history this assumption might have been valid, but not now.  America is too morally diverse and the professions’ values and standards are too high for just anyone to live by them. To be sure, many will, but not all will. And the critical fact is the services do not now determine in advance which volunteers will.

The critical difference between a military profession and a government bureaucracy is whether the individuals within the ranks are motivated by a job and its benefits or by a sacred calling. If motivated only to hold a job, then the individual will likely behave morally only as a dutiful obligation under the threat of punishment or sanction for failing to fulfill duties. However, if motivated by an aspiration to provide a unique, dangerous, and even sacrificial service more important than even themselves, then inculcating and living by the profession’s ethic is far more likely.

Surely, given the state of current research in the behavioral sciences, we can determine in advance the motivations and predispositions under which volunteers are applying and the likelihood they can be further developed in their individual character to the profession’s high standards. Psychometric testing is now done within the services to see who may volunteer for the elite Special Forces. Why not expand entry-level testing to include attitudes and personality traits that indicate capacity for moral development?

As General Sir John Hackett observed decades ago, “What the bad man cannot be is a good sailor, or soldier, or airman.[3] Let’s find out in advance.

Assumption #2:  Our leaders within the chain of command see and know all that is necessary to accurately evaluate the performance and future potential of their warriors.

The recent litany of moral failures within the commissioned and non-commissioned ranks of our services clearly refutes the validity of this assumption. Yet our services continue to use one-dimensional, top-down performance rating schemes that successful American businesses junked decades ago.

Amazingly accurate insights as to a leader’s actual competence and character are readily available from his or her peers and subordinates. We know that in every recent case of moral failure by a uniformed leader, the situation was known by some of their closest staff, all junior to them. But the services have long refused to implement official performance evaluations with such 360 degree methodologies that would allow, indeed mandate, that such information be officially presented. Using the language of the Bathsheba syndrome, the Nathans in our Armed Forces need to be empowered to speak truth to power officially in every single performance evaluation.

In sum, the development of moral character and military competence are inextricably intertwined not only in battlefield effectiveness, but also developmentally through right understanding and living out of the services’ ethics. The current scope of moral corrosion from the past decade of war shows that our services have taken for too long a laissez faire approach to the development of the moral character of our warriors. Our forces are superbly trained and equipped, but in the moral domain the recent record shows they are far weaker than their leaders believe.

Since the state of a warrior’s moral character is a shared responsibility between individual and profession, deep institutional reform is needed now in how our warriors are selected, developed, evaluated, and culled. Evaluations and certifications in moral character should exist side by side with those now being redeveloped for military competence. All warriors must know and accept that both progress in their profession and their success on the battlefield depend on a high moral character on a par with excellence in military competence.

If Secretary Panetta and General Dempsey are successful in reforming the services’ antiquated policies for the moral development of their warriors, David Petraeus’ last contribution to his beloved profession will turn out to be quite positive, indeed.


1. Thom Shanker and Elisabeth Bumiller, “Pentagon to Review Ethical Standards,” New York Times, November 15, 2012, available from

2. The campaign will continue in 2013 as a program of education and training titled “America’s Army — Our Profession,” overview available from

3. General Sir John Winthrop Hackett, “Military Service in the Service of the State,” The Harmon Memorial Lectures in Military History, U.S. Air Force Academy, CO: U.S. Government Printing Office, 1970.


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