In recent weeks, errant judgments and actions of current and former general officers of the U.S. military such as Gen. David H. Petraeus have raised questions about the nature of military leadership. Media, government officials and the American public have questioned the cost the nation incurs when we dispense with gifted leaders due to their personal transgressions. Many believe it is bad for the United States when we lose an accomplished general officer over a private indiscretion. Others believe that the armed forces should not be led by generals who commit acts for which captains and sergeants would be separated from the service, administratively disciplined or even criminally prosecuted.
There are consequences for operating under either paradigm, and we can expect consequences from how much weight we give character or performance. This will impact the conduct not only of our generals, but of all service members. It is important to remember why the military is different from other American institutions, and why a premium is placed on honor.
Most U.S. institutions value the bottom line: sales, profits, wins and championships. Normally, we do not balance the moral qualities of CEOs, athletes and entertainers against their performances. As long as performance is maintained, most outstanding performers can get away with less-than-honorable actions. Those who argue that a competent general should be protected despite personal failures believe the bottom line is what matters most in America.
Traditionally, a different metric has been used to judge military performance. Appraisals of troops are not limited to the results of their efforts. For example, along with overall performance, Marine Corps fitness reports measure courage, initiative and ability to set the example for fellow Marines. Service members are taught to do the right thing and to do it in the right way for the right reasons. The bottom line is more than results. It is a reflection of the honor of those who create that line and the manner in which they create it.
Since 2001, in Afghanistan, Iraq, Libya and Yemen, support for new governments and establishing legitimacy has been vital to long-term U.S. strategic interests. Eliminating corruption and demonstrating respect for the rule of law have been top priorities. American conduct in military operations has set the example and created precedents by which these nascent governments may measure their conduct and evaluate the way they will be rewarded or punished by the international community. Any incidents of impropriety — or the appearance of it — among U.S. troops reduces our ability to use moral persuasion as a tool to influence foreign leaders. President Hamid Karzai’s statements after Afghan civilians have been killed, sometimes mistakenly, sometimes intentionally, have reflected the diminished moral influence of the United States in his country.
There is a ripple effect of command conduct on subordinate troops. The words, actions and attitudes of military leaders, especially commanders and senior enlisted leaders, trickle down and are repeated throughout a unit. In a 2008 article in The New Yorker, “The Kill Company,” writer Raffi Khatchadourian drew a direct, plausible connection between the aggressive statements of an army brigade commander and illegal killings committed by his most junior troops.
Every unit has a climate, some aspects of which are unique to that unit, whether an entire army, a battalion, a platoon or a 10-member squad. Every member of the unit contributes to the climate, but none more than its leader. When the leader deviates from the established standard, some subordinates will see this as permission to deviate as well. This sets a new standard for others. A leader without a substantiated moral character cannot begin to correct a subordinate who has seen the leader break rules.
Stanford Law School fellow Andrew K. Woods identified the importance of correcting even minor flaws at the Camp Bucca prison in Iraq in 2008, which held more than 20,00 detainees at that time. Its commander, U.S. Army Col. James B. Brown, went out of his way to retrieve a piece of used chewing gum off the ground to dispose of it properly. “If I let one of my soldier’s hairs get out of place,” the colonel said, “I know abuse [of detainees] is not far behind.”
Before we re-evaluate the importance of honor against capability, we should keep in mind that the personal character and actions of our leaders have enduring impacts on troops, coalition partners and the public. One reason troops are trusted with deadly weapons is that the American people know they are trained, expected to be honorable and held accountable when they are not. If exceptions are made for officers because of past achievements, there’s no telling whether that trust will remain. If the armed forces ever lose that trust, we can count on the honor of the military and its bottom line to be affected, regardless of the proficiency of its leaders.
Maj. Kurt Sanger is a judge advocate and law instructor in the U.S. Marine Corps.