WE WANT YOU…..To Clean Up the Military’s “Morals Mess” — An Appeal to a Few Good Generals


Not too long ago, I was at a conference with Hans Binnendijk of the National Defense University and a number of other senior defense policy hands. I made the same comment to them that I had on this blog that the American public deserved a far higher degree of performance from its military and more security deliverables than it gets for the half trillion dollars it spends on defense each year.
Binnendijk made the comment that while reform was always a good thing to pursue, one needed to be careful of harming what he considered to be a “well-oiled, impressive machine” in the military/industrial establishment.
This article ran yesterday in the Washington Post, and below is an excerpt:
The Army intelligence sergeant subjected to a psychiatric evaluation was serving with Detachment B, 223rd Military Intelligence Battalion, and told investigators that he witnessed an escalation of violence against detainees shortly after arriving at the unit’s Samarra detention facility in April 2003.
Although his name is not listed in the documents, the episode precisely matches events described publicly last year by California National Guard Sgt. Greg Ford, a former state prison guard and Navy SEAL team medic whose complaints were dismissed by the Army in October 2004 as lacking sufficient evidence. Ford said last night, after hearing what the documents stated, that he is the sergeant described.
The soldier complained that he had had to resuscitate abused detainees and urged the unit’s withdrawal. He told investigators that the unit’s commander, an Army captain, responded by giving him “30 seconds to withdraw my request or he was going to send me forcibly to go see a psychiatrist.” The soldier added: “I told him I was not going to withdraw my request and at that time he confiscated my weapon and informed me he was withdrawing my security clearance and was placing me under 24-hour surveillance.”

Something is broken in the military services.
The abuse of prisoners detained seems quite widespread and defies comprehension if any normal, even deeply politically and ethically conservative norms are applied. And the failure to assign responsibility at senior levels in the Pentagon indicates a culture that is hostile to critique and feedback. The White House seems to be predisposed to choking off feedback as well — but the consequences of the military losing touch have much larger potential consequences in my view.
I think America needs a working military that is effective at achieving its objectives, and I believe that the military’s norms ought to be relatively close to the broader society from which its forces are derived and which it is protecting — but I recognize the need for anomalous, tough decisions in times of war and conflict that cannot be explained or fully justified in a lesser-stress environment with all the instruments of civil society watching. But those should be exceptions, few and far between.
What we are witnessing is patterned behavior throughout the prisons — and even more broadly — in which the “culture” promulgated by the military is producing outrageous, perverse, cruel behavior. America can never win hearts and minds if it punishes those standing for the right things (as in the case of Sergeant Greg Ford mentioned in the Post article).
I believe that the military culture can be changed by enlightened, responsible, and self-conscious leadership in the military services.
I met a good example of such a person recently. At a dinner with some friends, I had the pleasure to meet and hang out with Brigadier General John R. Allen of the U.S. Marine Corps. He is currently Principal Director, Asian and Pacific Affairs at the Office of International Security Affairs in the Pentagon. ISA is headed by a former colleague of mine, Peter Rodman, who is often described incorrectly as a neocon but who is beneath it all a rather brilliant, hard core realist in foreign policy matters.
General Allen will probably be irritated that I mention him in this context — and I imagine he has a different view than I of what has gone awry in the front line culture of the military services.
Nonetheless, this General has done two things in his career of which I am aware that make him an impressive stand-out. In face, he is the kind of person Rumsfeld should be snapping up and ordering to clean up this unbelievable ‘morals mess’ among the soldiers.
First of all, John Allen was the Commandant at the Naval Academy when sex and cheating scandals were undermining the credibility of that institution. He went in to clean the place up, get standards re-established, and expel a good chunk of the student class — and get courses in place to educate these students on ethics. I’m of the view that the military needs to educate its war fighters about the ethics of war and occupation.
The second thing General John Allen did that impressed me and about which he is very modest is that he organized the U.S. side of America’s response to the December 26th tsunami — once we got to responding.
He went out there and saw the devastation first hand. From a helicopter, he could see the foundations and basic outline of villages that had been wiped clean away by the monstrous waves. Listening to him that evening, I could see how capable this guy was and how sophisticated his understanding of the complex system of support required to assist in such a tragedy. But like me, I think that he believes the military should be used in this way as an exception, rather than as a rule.
To fix the military, a crew of competent leaders is needed who recognize that the ‘well-oiled machine’ is breaking down, and that the military has gone into a reactive, defensive mode — rather than one that is proactive and in control of itself and its people.
The prisoner abuse cases we are seeing make it abundantly clear that something is dreadfully wrong.
I feel that after the Barry Winchell killing, the rape cases at the Air Force Academy, and other serious misogynous criminality within the military services — something has been clearly wrong for a while.
But the Pentagon seems not to want to raise the priority of these norms lapses and instead treats each incident as an exception, an anomaly.
It’s time to get a circle of leaders, like General John Allen, who are less self-triumphal and institutionally blind and know how to fix broken complex systems of human beings.
American honor and the battle for global “hearts and minds” — and ultimately, our security — depend on ending these horror stories.
— Steve Clemons