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Parallels in time: A look at cases of misconduct by US forces and possible causes

In Ethics, Military misconduct on April 5, 2011 at 6:55 pm


A cycle of dishonor

The testimony of many troops today seven years after the invasion of Iraq and those facing a longer term in Afghanistan claim to have feelings of being forgotten. Afghanistan was not a story in the media as widely reported as was Iraq for many reasons however fighting had been consistent, challenging and bloodier than combat in Iraq however coverage was limited in nature. Of those cases of extreme behaviors involving charges or violence or murder appear to be the focus of the media as though these cases are the norm and not the exception. Some critics of the military may generally accuse the services of conducting training which leads to this behavior and it is organizationally acceptable which is not true however merits further investigation as to why it still happens. War naturally affords access to events and activities which the average person would not be exposed to and may have a close relationship with how the new stressors are managed by the individual and not the whole military. This is not strictly a case of mental health issues such as PTSD but may also be factored into the hypothesis that personnel who are non-compliant with general or specific rules of conduct are:

  • Mostly linked to having a sense of isolation from leadership and popular support for the war,
  • Their own personal social values in conflict with their new environment and lastly,
  • The relationships amongst personnel within units in the field.

Shocking displays of cruelty or violence by our troops as documented in cases such as the My Lai massacre shows a parallel between isolation and poor leadership as culprits. Attempts by the media to explain such behavior pointed at the proliferation of draftees in the armed forces, lower education and social standing which were irrational standards of comparison. In the interviews conducted of several veterans belonging  to the C Company, 11 Infantry Brigade for a television documentary[1] the overall tone was of great regret and shame for their part in the killings. Some of the soldiers claimed to have felt alone and without support from the outside world and that they felt they had acted for a variety of reasons but not self-defense. Blinding destructiveness was attributed to their training however some soldiers realized what was being asked of them and took different action. While one soldier shot himself in the foot to avoid following Lt. Calley’s orders to fire on innocent villagers, others defied orders and faced possible disciplinary action.

A soldier interviewed blamed his training to kill partly for his behavior as some form of inevitable outcome but felt great pain in what he had done. He was also suicidal and taking medication to keep him from panicking; his mental condition deteriorating from his experience. Conversely another soldier in the interview (Harry Stanley) clearly stated that he knew the difference between a lawful order and an unlawful one – a clear understanding of military procedural code – and that his fellow soldiers should have been also aware of their situation. The statement that was most revealing of his thinking was that for the soldiers who engaged in mass murder must have known they were doing wrong and should have brought with them the same values; whether they learned it from their upbringing at home, religion, school or even from strangers. Stanley felt justified in disobeying orders because the orders were in collusion with the established core values and was prepared to face consequences, calling the entire affair ‘immoral.’

Once the soldiers who dissented realized their unit would not be engaging V.C. elements but unarmed civilians many continued killing while a minority took appropriate measures to avoid participation. The culmination of the four-hour massacre followed by a simple lunch break showed the men had been desensitized to what they had done. Of the surviving villagers who were eventually rescued by an American helicopter pilot showed the tense encounter between military forces fighting two different wars; one remaining on the straight honorable path while the other functioned in its own world. How one small group of soldiers can work totally separate from their original mission objective compared to the rest of the Army was again based on their leadership and their unit cohesion. It is of little surprise why the civilian world finds these acts of great cruelty hard to understand; the hero and anti-hero clashing almost to the point of American drawing arms on Americans. The discovery of the crimes committed by the members of C Company was reported by a conscientious soldier after learning from members of the company. His reporting of the massacre was based on the rejection of their acts and embracement of core values which had been violated.[2]

“Why didn’t I just walk away?” “The answer to that question was I wanted to be part of the team. I wanted to be a respected Corpsman, but that is no excuse for immorality.” Hospital Corpsman Melson J. Bacos asked before being sentenced. [3]

The case of the shooting of an Iraqi man by a Marine patrol in 2006 mirrors this dichotomy between the honor code and isolationist behavior partly similar to the My Lai case. In this instance the Marines had been on edge about being under attack by an unseen enemy and following the recent killing of one of their friends by insurgents. William Calley refused to admit after his sentencing that he valued his troops’ lives more than that of their enemy and of his frustration at the onset of attacks from an enemy which they could neither see or identify as justification for ordering the massacre. The disturbing fact is that Calley only served four days before being transferred to another base then eventually pardoned by President Nixon. This is the extent of the disparity in sentencing seen by the public and also military personnel that is confusing. Executions of personnel under the UCMJ though well-documented, are not carried out often with the exception of cases in the past 20 years such as fragging (murder); rape malingering, desertion or sedition. A problem with public relations and the military services is the perception that justice is not swift and military personnel can and will act in ways unbecoming. It is not surprising to see this misconception grow on both sides of the spectrum; morality can take on many guises in many organizations not necessarily considered honorable as state previously. The conflict of good and evil only held by a thin line; continues to the present day.

It is difficult to fathom the motivation for the Marines who shot an unarmed Hashim Ibrahim Awad after losing the trail on a known terrorist, replacing one innocent man to make up for the loss of another target Even more egregious was to cover their crime by staging it as the aftermath of an insurgent attack. The testimony from the only dissenter, Hospital Corpsman Melson J. Bacos showed not only a lack of regard for the life of an innocent man but of honorable conduct in general. The Hospital Corps holds the highest set of standards in caring for the lives of Marines and sailors. Bacos – if no one else in the squad had the moral strength to stop the murder – had an additional obligation to take action because of his position but chose to look the other way. What that action would entail depended on whether he felt, as the men of C Company; he was in danger of being killed himself or merely afraid of not being respected by the others. Bacos obviously chose to fit in rather than follow his instincts and internal morality. He was not unaware that what took place was wrong; he chose to observe as consolation for not stopping the murder.[4]

The cause of these brief moments of immorality though not the norm, will always shock both the public and other service members regardless of the level of stress. Troops are vulnerable to a myriad of socio/economic problems as would most civilians however we have a more complex set of dynamics when dealing with combat veterans. Not only the active duty forces suffer from sudden changes of environment but those servicing in the Reserve components face even greater difficulties at home. One of the main problems of the Reserve forces is the loss of jobs due to prolonged periods of deployment and structurally the Reserves are not equal in addressing issues as do the Active services.[5] Motivating an all-volunteer force which feels neglected or marginalized to maintain a sense of purpose and discipline is difficult. Research has accurately identified poor performance, lack of discipline and suicidal behaviors to poor leadership across the board. Still many leaders do not appear to make the connection between the break-down of the soldier following the breakdown of the institution. The war has been rushed because of politics; and the drawdown will show that the ‘exit plan’ when rushed will do the same.

After the Gulf war many personnel returned home separated from their units and unable to deal with any personal or professional issues they had at the time as a group. Originally the military came out with the idea of conducting mass psychological screenings as people arrived back home. To those personnel right after the war – including this author – felt pushed into undergoing psychological screening en-masse upon demobilization. One point to examine was the reaction of most people who were not keen on this treatment as pre-deployment screenings had not been conducted thus for a lack of background or baseline information on service members. This was hardly a proper approach to study or mitigate mental health problems since the Gulf War was a short mobilization carrying the same types of issues we encounter in troops engaged in years of extended combat operations. Though there are numerous resources for all commands and units to access information on mental health screenings and monitoring; there is no standard approach to be used in all services.

Generally U.S. forces are considered some of the most ethical and moral forces with a reputation for espousing human rights. Countries which abide by the Geneva Conventions are an example of proactive attitudes in establishing a set of rules of war designed to prevent and identify the maltreatment of military persons and innocent civilians. Violations of this honor code are addressed by the participating nations accordingly though not all human rights cases are a matter of public knowledge. There is a strong connection between misconduct and lack of accountability. Recently the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Admiral Mike Mullen examined how the military services are reactive to negative events rather than proactive in preventing them altogether. His belief that the disparities between the all-volunteer force – less than one percent of the total U.S. population – and the rest of the country have grown far apart and calls for more accountability.[6] Drawing from his experiences as a young officer during the Vietnam War, Mullen was candid about pointing out that leaders are not always right nor are they held wholly accountable for their actions and that of their subordinates. To Mullen, there is a great divide between the military and the rest of the country.

Mullen further emphasized this point by quoting an opinion piece by Richard Cohen[7] on how the US knows little about wars and the people who fight them. Cohen has a valid point that unlike our drafted armed forces that fought in Vietnam, had a draft been in effect for the Iraq war, the public’s support would have been more difficult to attain. This brings up the argument that misconduct amongst draftees could be attributed to recruits who were from underprivileged backgrounds and education null. A Heritage Foundation study conducted in 2008 on enlisted and officer demographics in the military revealed that our armed forces personnel are disproportionately represented from high-income backgrounds. American troops are more educated than their peers in the 18 to 25 years and enlistments from these areas have been on the rise since the September 11 2001 attacks.[8] Mainly, America’s military people are informed and educated enough to know how to conduct themselves and something else must be the catalyst of misconduct.

There must be a sense in the mind of the soldier that at some point in time there will be an end to the war, either winning or losing though losing is not an acceptable standard. Though an unscientific observation on the part of the soldier in peril, knowing that there is less media coverage back home on what goes on in the war must be a low blow to morale. Notice how military-friendly propaganda adverts and movies today take on a less positive representation of military people compared to WWII’s. Great all-American symbols of power and justice are missing from society, further driving the civilian and military sectors apart as there is little or no connection with the war or how we were drawn to war. References to the 9/11 attacks has faded considerably over the years to the point that it has been removed from recent memory. Today, many personnel serving in the military were young children when the attacks took place. This fact may contribute to lack of connection with the reasons for the war, waning support in the media and confusion about their role altogether.

Jaffe points to the lack of recognition of the sacrifices made by our troops now that the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan are approaching ten years. During his state of the union and two years into his first term, Mr. Obama only referenced our troops and the war effort in six sentences.[9] Mr. Obama’s accounts about the war have been equally brief and lacking in affection in comparison with other presidents. In his last state of the union address in 2008 given by President Bush[10] carried over with greater optimism in the face of adversity. Perhaps his social capital – as he had eight years to cultivate – also carried greater confidence in having a national security policy that clearly defined our presence in Iraq and Afghanistan. His speeches also emphasized a general objective of success – winning – in the war on terror; elements which are missing from Mr. Obama’s speeches.[11] Soldiers have a much wider access to the worldwide web, cellular phones and other technologies even in remote locations than it is believed by the public. Sentiments regarding a weakened economy, anti-war protests and crime and unemployment are not lost on service members. These problems could also add to their long list of stressors. Images of a president who delays meeting face to face with his top field commander in a war zone 90 days give the impression that he lacks regard for their well-being and respect for the military.

Losing Control

Our military’s social capital has been further eroded by the reduction in force of military chaplains and the advent of mental health clinics in theatre. Naturally because of the stigma of being perceived as crazy military personnel often avoid talking about emotional distress. There is also tension of serving in a war zone – in garrison – versus those engaged in combat operations. The misconception that life on the FOB (Forward Operating Base) is easy and field operations is cause for resentment and occasional rivalries but most disturbing is the perception that life in the ‘rear’ is easy. Bases are subjected to harassing fire such as mortar or rocket attacks, car bombs and IEDs and other threats cause a separate set of stressors. There’s much expectation either way for the person in uniform who also has a family life and other things to worry about. The amount of stress goes up; the level of confidence they’ll pull through a crisis goes down.

Not only have the incidence of suicides increased in the past three years, non combat-related deaths other than suicide are also on the rise. The Army’s Chief of Staff General Chiarelli has strong words for this tragedy in that leadership or lack of it is the culprit. Chiarelli believes the Army has been so focused on training for combat that it has neglected its own accountability and often gives personnel too many allowances leading to high-risk behaviors. This is a double-edged sword in that the environment is known to be inherently dangerous yet there is a reactive movement by base commanders to drive reactive safety measures. The pressure from following such rules has done little to encourage responsibility but rather antagonized service members. There is such a thing as cuddling of personnel and focusing on enforcing soft policies over that have no relevance to discipline and good order. An example of a hated policy at home and overseas is the wearing of reflective gear between the hours of low visibility. The wearing of the gear was basically enacted because of a high incidence of non-combat deaths.  Troops encounter death and dismemberment by speeding in tactical and non-tactical vehicles – top the list – falls, are run over by other vehicles crossing roadways, etc. If we looked for a root cause initially we would find it in the lack of situational awareness, especially on FOBs which are lacking in lighted areas where soldiers often walk onto roadways without looking.[12]

Driver error is also a factor which is why personnel hate the wearing of the belts because it is viewed as unnecessary. In addition to the rise of accidental deaths substance abuse can be found as a serious contributor to erratic therefore the introduction of safety gear as instrumental in saving lives is less than appealing. Military brass cites an unrelated New Zealand study on the benefits of reflective gear and comparisons with accidental deaths stateside which is difficult to quantify unless the study is based on war zone conditions.[13] It is little wonder that troops often break rules out of pure boredom and reluctance to conform to what they see are trivial and unrelated to their work. Base commanders are more concerned it appears, with minor endeavors than with training and mentoring personnel.

Soldiers who have completed several tours of combat carry the burdens of adapting to a new set of dynamics in adapting to home and family then returning to an overseas post. The advent of domestic violence, random criminality and other erratic behaviors at home has not stopped units from deploying personnel with serious behavioral issues. Military units are sorely in need of filling combat and support positions and must weigh in the benefits of rotating personnel to war zones for the sake of national security against upholding the law. The main problem is that military personnel are not afforded the right to due process as their civilian counterparts. In the case of the US Army, many believe the service has the right to move people at will regardless of their behavior. This is a problem both for the units in factoring in potential issues in discipline. It is hardly comforting to imagine a soldier committing a felony such as personal crime to show regard for his fellow soldiers. The only way to gauge this adaptive ability is to test it in real life.

While some violations of law could be considered minor to a soldier’s future performance others involving violence could equally affect unit performance. For one service member who deploys for the good of the service one has to consider whether the individual can regain self-discipline and become a good example to others.

The Forgotten Warrior

“Their struggle is your struggle,” he told the ballroom crowd of former Marines and local business people. “If anyone thinks you can somehow thank them for their service, and not support the cause for which they fight – our country – these people are lying to themselves. . . . More important, they are slighting our warriors and mocking their commitment to this nation.” Lt. Gen. John Kelly

Another assault on a soldier’s psyche can take place at home after multiple deployments. Incidents involving violence against war veterans though not necessarily targeted for their service, can take place because situational awareness is diminished. Many a soldier has returned to their hometowns only to find themselves victims of crime. The soldier appears to believe that having survived combat that urban environments will not pose a security threat. Military units are faced with many challenges in rotating their personnel for each tour often placing soldiers with severe problems back into combat. Mental health, marital problems and previous criminal activity are factors which follow the soldier to the field.

Armies and their soldiers are a reflection of the societies they originate from even down to the subcultures within the military services. However a reflection of our society – whether good or bad – the military services effectively shield their world from others in order to function as one. That the organization is composed of individuals from diverse backgrounds is one small part of what makes it unique from other organizations, including communities in the civilian world. Often a young recruit would hear the warning prior to enjoying the first leave from training to bear in mind the uniform represented the organization and that infractions which brought about dishonor or collective shame would be swiftly prosecuted. Many a uniformed person has been instructed to behave with honor as we are all ambassadors of our country. It is with this concept in mind that this essay begins to explore whether our armed forces are lacking in ethical and moral qualities and what causes this shift in attitudes.

Military cultures are honorable in their own right with catastrophic assaults on its institutions which often challenges its overall membership as being generally troubled. Naturally, the old saying that one bad deed could wipe out many other good deeds rings true and for every rare event that takes place. To outsiders this issue often appears as the normal standard. This is the main issue at hand; perception based on misconceptions about military life in general. Protecting the weak, espousing principles of justice and honor, which is worthy of self-sacrifice as well as exacting accountability from those who dare violate this code. While civilians living in cities or villages maintain the rule of law, establish governments and maintain specific mores which guide their societies its people do not all work towards a common goal.

This is the fundamental difference between civilians and military people in that they generally lack the same goals and do not always work together towards a goal and the main proposal of this essay that higher moral code of conduct are a reflection of the cultures they serve and the higher the regard for civilian populations and the rule of law the higher the incidents of consistent positive and ethical behaviors will be exhibited. Only when the situations encountered in combat are of such great ambiguity is the professional ethic of the soldier challenged. How the soldier deals with decision-making that is both moral and ethical depends on his environment, situational security and what is at stake. Clearly, there are two sets of moral standards at play, whatever values the soldier was reared on and those inculcated during the basic training and subsequent assimilation into military life. At some point in time these two sets of values, though very similar in nature, there will be difficulty in making a moral decision under the stresses of combat that will go against personal beliefs.[14]

In essence, militaries are the soul of their respective countries as they are the institutions most likely to advance social, political and diplomatic agendas as well as the pride of an entire nation. This is a very interesting concept to examine as media and popular opinions have incrementally become more critical of the military services as never before since the advent of the global war on terror spurred from the 9/11 attacks. If we compare attitudes towards military forces during different periods of conflict the decline in discipline and regard for others is more evident. Though codification of conduct is found in military oaths, the rules of war and inspired by the US Constitution, the individual is still expected to serve within the confines of honor, diligence in assuming his duties. The concept of professional socialization may serve as the foundation for a soldier’s state of mind and sense of duty to his country may also have originated from the society he affirms to protect.

However disconnected civilian populations are perceived to be from their military institutions, they are still cohesive when the need arises whether it is a matter of fending off a common threat or as a matter of national honor. To understand the nexus between a country’s essence and its army we should examine why they identify with each other in the first place. Knowing merely that armies fight for the political and diplomatic interests of its people is not sufficient in explaining how these institutions are based on a strong ethical framework. Take the Greek code of honor to hubris to wrath to revenge according to Lendon’s work on the reasons for the Peloponnesian war which was basically a battle for total supremacy. In this case the Athenians sought to establish themselves as being of a higher level of honor and excellence over the Spartans; a sentiment clearly shared by the mainstream population. One could hardly imagine the Greeks as anything but competitive in their very culture which translated into the military culture as well.[15]

The source of this seemingly magical concept of power was based on what was considered to be glory which was made palpable and somehow separate from its possessor. Literally honor and glory could be captured by one man from another even in the course of war. More interesting is the measure of restraint within this national honor code in that domestically most people would deal with interpersonal disputes sometimes with violence however resorted often to mediation. Conversely this restraint did not translate well when dealing with external actors and states, as the Greeks were quick to manage disputes with other states with the sword and not give it a second thought. Following any significant event of violence and misconduct the reaction from the public is somewhat detached from the realities of society in comparison with those of a soldier under the stresses of combat. While a person of same age and matching demographics could face public scrutiny differently a soldier is expected to behave under a higher set of standards.

Today, the issue of unethical, reckless or even murderous behavior in the battlefield could possibly be attributed at the loss of connection between the country, its people and its army. The question at hand is whether ethics and sensitivity training given to modern troops as we wage wars in two theatres will curb bad behavior. There is one point of contention in that while there is a wide support for troops from the mainstream population that to those deployed there is a significant disconnect with its culture of origin. Unlike the Greeks who made the attitude of defending the collective honor a matter worthy of war; today the sense of social disconnect between the two is significant. Perhaps this detachment from society is much more than the traditional military culture that causes most of their current troubles involving abuses to prisoners of war, sexual assaults or general misbehavior. Putnam[16] aptly describes the importance of social capital as the element which makes individuals engage in altruism and be active in making social connections. Though Putnam’s research struggles to identify the main culprit in the decline in social participation over several decades, he lists many issues we are even marginally acquainted with today:

  • Growth of the welfare state
  • The 1960s (to include the war in Vietnam, the Watergate scandal)
  • The revolt against authority
  • Technology (television, video games)
  • Economic hard times
  • Women entering the workplace

The connection between countries, their culture and their militaries are deeply ingrained in their national interests. Cohesion however can also function in the same way for groups with less than honorable endeavors – criminals, terrorists, etc. – who would espouse a similar code of conduct for themselves.  The incidence of changing social mores and attitudes has been in decline since the end of WWII with a dip in respect and admiration for the armed forces during the Vietnam conflict. Even as the U.S. entered into the first full mobilization of troops since Vietnam during the Gulf War twenty years ago, due to the brevity of these operations – previous conflicts fell under police actions or irregular warfare such as deployments in Granada, Panama etc. – these wars are different at home than abroad. In the face of unconventional warfare, environment and prolonged combat missions are not the same of our grandfather’s wars. One element present in this equation is fatigue, physical and psychological exhaustion and an even greater need to belong.

The Psychological Impact of Training for Survival

“I am sick and tired of war. Its glory is all moonshine. It is only those who neither fired a shot nor heard the shrieks and groans of the wounded who cry aloud for blood, for vengeance, for desolation. War is hell.” William Tecumseh Sherman

Just as the testimony given by the men of C Company in reference to the great remorse they felt after committing such heinous acts, the element of mental conditioning was often brought up. The belief that military indoctrination was to blame for their actions though each soldier was fully aware that what took place the day of the massacre was considered wrong even by other soldiers and by the civilian population. There is some merit to their claim; the object of training is to prepare the individual for survival and performance within the scope of a hostile environment. Conversely, those soldiers who refused to obey the commands to kill innocent villagers and the only wounded soldier – due to his inflicting a gunshot to his foot – avoided falling under the assumption that orders were always lawful.

Fear, terror, post-traumatic stress, battle fatigue, whatever we consider stressors linked to erratic behavior or use of poor judgment may be the internal conflict between the honorable self and the well-indoctrinated mind. Dave Grossman’s revealing assessment on the perils of training soldiers points at the emotional effects encountered in the act of killing that is universally rejected by men but who are pushed to perform due to their conditioning. While surviving combat is the objective of the training what remains within the soldier’s mind may not be functional upon returning home. Clearly the bonds formed during training and subsequent assignments to units can be considered even stronger than most marriages. If these bonds could afford soldiers the ability to fight for longer periods of time and increase their chances of survival then the same could be applied to men who fought for the wrong reasons.

The men also defied the contention that conditioning had afforded them the ability to ignore wrongdoing as though under a spell and continue to carry out their mission. Soldiers also know as part of their training that there are a time when challenging an unlawful order is the lawful thing to do and acted accordingly. The horror of realizing that they would not be engaging an armed enemy but a village of unarmed civilians for reasonable people the men should have conducted a search of the area for V.C. elements; secured the area and moved on. Why the men killed indiscriminately going against military core values as well as personal values remains a mystery; but they did it as a unit even if they were wrong. The conflict lies in whether the soldier kills motivated by group pressures involving regard for their comrades, respect for their leaders, concern for reputation and the urge to contribute to the success of the group.[17] Over many generations, serious contradiction in values are frequently tested within the armed forces in the form of policy changes such as women in submarines; the repeal of don’t ask don’t tell, and the reduction in force of the chaplain corps to name a few.

Self-destructive behaviors

The US Air Force announced in 2010 that it would be eliminating out 15% of its chaplain corps personnel in order to fill combat positions and to maintain only the needed personnel for all job positions. The cuts will take place within the next two years at a time when divorce rates are on the rise as do suicides. Chaplain counseling referrals are important still because they are another social layer military personnel can access that is not associated with mental health problems. In many cases speaking with a spiritual advisor rather than a clinician is potentially more beneficial than addressing the problem in a mental health clinic. As discussed before, personnel will often skew opportunities to talk with a therapist or psychologist in fear that they will be labeled as unfit to serve.[18]

One trend encountered in Iraq is the increased consumption of energy drinks which at first glance appears to be benign but illustrates behaviors similar to drug addiction. Soldiers have these products available at post exchanges and dining facilities practically in equal quantities as water. Water consumption has suffered because of higher consumption of other substances and has a psychological foundation. This is no different than drinking coffee – a much widely consumed drink – to maintain alertness however soldiers consume these beverages at all times of day or throughout the day. In addition to medical conditions developed from this alarming consumption – kidney, gallbladder and dehydration to name a few – commanders do not recognize this escapist behavior. Soldiers are also killed more often due to accidents involving vehicles and weapons discharges or workplace conflicts with other soldiers than from direct combat. Whatever the stressors involved, each individual must reconcile the principles instilled in them through training and select the solution they deem appropriate. Sleep deprivation during combat ops can escalate this environmental response and the individual may survive with no further conflict however that outcome is not guaranteed.

Mental health screening centers are open in Iraq, defying common sense in that personnel under treatment are allowed to carry a weapon – even if taking medication – and remain in theatre. The case of Sgt. John M. Russell, who was convicted of shooting four fellow soldiers and one sailor in a stress center at Victory Base, illustrates the negative connotations in treating personnel in-theatre. It is unknown whether Russell was being treated for mental illness – since he had never been assigned to actual combat – or due to some disciplinary problem which required counseling.

Whatever the cause, the incident spurred on changes in dealing with persons who are in this type of stress, and also brings up the possibility of leaders trying to discipline personnel by using mental health referrals. As in Russell’s case, being sent to a mental health clinic for any reason may eventually work against that unit’s performance and well-being of its personnel. The lack of preparedness is not unusual on the FOB as it is exemplified by the attitudes outlined by General Chiarelli of giving personnel a pass on some behaviors then trying to hold them to higher standards. Assignments on forward bases though not considered combat – are still stressful places and the perception is that in the rear the safety factor is higher; a common misconception. This means that spiritual counseling – which affords a service member complete confidentiality – could go become more difficult to access when needed the most.[19]

Replacing traditional values including access to clergy for mental health approaches has a higher chance of developing more substance-dependent individuals. Increasing mental health treatments versus offering counseling more in concert with the serviceman’s personal values may be counterproductive. Stress clinics are unsuited for treating psychological casualties perhaps because there are many facets to mental problems for which modern psychology is not yet prepared to treat.

Ethics training is not a new development in the military services yet it has been absent from the ranks for generations and regaining importance since the beginning of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan  It is puzzling that as we struggle with our own moral dilemmas that other countries may benefit from our example. American culture is often misperceived yet emulated worldwide, even by detractors who consider us a bad influence. There is a concerted effort by the US to secure a more stable region for African countries by providing military professional instruction to their armies. An even more significant initiative is to assist these countries in changing attitudes of rape as a tool of war. Rape is not an organizationally sanctioned tactic in general as believed by some anti-military circles however it is widely used and a clear example of how ethics training could be effective in molding forces into protectors of a country and not destroyers. This is of course easier said than done however it is equally interesting to see that US forces have been tasked with showing the armies of African countries about reducing and eliminating rape as a tool of war.

There is no doubt that sexual assaults are a serious problem and the services are actively being prodded by the congress as well as independent organizations to take preventive measures. Overseas the proliferation of television and radio adverts about sexual assault prevention, reporting and counseling. Sexual assault prevention programs are well-established throughout the services and are structured to work at the unit level supported from the top.  U.S. forces enjoy a more stable environment than soldiers in African countries where the nexus between securing the homeland and protecting its people are lost in translation.

While the US is a very moral country, one must reflect on the amount of effort and investment involved in teaching another culture not to rape or to engage in human rights abuses. The focus is placed on foreign armies and their use of rape as a tool while US forces are in need of the same attention even if the numbers are not as high as those of African countries such as the Democratic Republic of Congo. US AFRICOM is in a difficult position of indoctrinating foreign troops with western morality while suffering some of its own. Perhaps the same studies conducted in Africa on sex assaults should be conducted with US troops if the problem is indeed worsening.

It is wise to notice that of those nations where rapes are predominant the level of professionalism is lower – less training, mentoring and accountability – than those of the western militaries. Little is known on data and mitigation plans published for male on male rapes. For these statistics are monitored but heavily guarded by the US Army mainly because the effects of such cases coming to light are far too shocking for the victims. The US military can be considered to be in the forefront of tackling sex abuse yet it is neglecting to investigate its root causes.

To teach an entire continent that violence against innocents is an egregious act that has eroded the relationship between the warrior and the soul of a country is quite a feat. The US military also has to deal with its own problems stemming from sexual assaults in its ranks yet it is encouraging news that we can still inspire other militaries to become defenders and not aggressors of the state. This will be a daunting undertaking though; with a six percent rate of sexual assault committed by military personnel, the rest are attributed to the militias which are numerous and culturally difficult to reach. A total rehabilitation of a foreign culture seems an unnecessary endeavor since we continue to face changes in attitudes within the public and military sectors in American life. There is a need to continue to deliver the message to military personnel of all ages about reporting inappropriate behavior and exercising self-control but the trail does not stop with the rank and file. That is where leadership comes into play.   

Leading by example 

The concept that the public will scrutinize the behavior of military people down to the lowest ranking soldier emphasizes the importance of grooming moral and ethical troops. Former Commandant of the Marine Corps Gen. Charles Krulak’s paper on leadership exemplifies the individual Marine as prepared to assume positions of authority at any level. Krulak also expanded the concept by calling it the “Strategic Corporal” which is built on moral character and must be present in order to build ethical leaders. The Marine Corps’s approach to leadership is to instill core values, pride and professionalism in the recruit or officer from day one. The removal of leadership killers like micro-management and encouraging mentoring to him, are paramount in allowing Marines to improve even from their failures. The idea is to prepare personnel to be able to make decisions even in times when their values are tested as they face the ambiguities of combat.[20]

In contrast, Robinson pointed to the perils of training personnel to be so moral as to actually develop the perception of moral superiority from the nation they serve. The key in this case would be to develop ethics programs matching personal backgrounds and culture while avoiding training personnel in elitism. He makes Admiral Mullen and General Chiarelli’s case in citing Andrew Bacevich’s The New American Militarism. In a poll conducted by Bacevich in 2003 officers general officers had voiced concerns over the perceived moral superiority felt by military personnel. With two thirds of personnel polled who believed military personnel have higher moral standards than that of the country they served brings the problem to full circle.[21] It is possible that we are over-socializing people within an organization to believe they are so detached from the rest of the country. One could loosely conclude that military personnel have been trained to be too moral – but only within the scope of their social and professional boundaries.

Regarding ethics classes for deploying personnel, on average they last about a week depending on the military unit mission, resources or agency and they cover topics ranging from personal protection, situational awareness, terrorism, basic local customs, etc. Robinson brings up a good point in that when dealing with multinational forces; cultural standards will differ, calling for standardization of ethics. This is the same argument of training foreign armies not to use rape or massacre non-combatants; no single country will see all things moral with the same set of eyes.


At minimum pre-deployment classes, literature in the form of leaflets with country information and even pocket foreign language phrase books are distributed to troops. Clearly this is a good initial gesture in preparing troops for deployment to foreign lands during war or peace to assist them in understanding the culture of the country. However well-intentioned this approach is inefficient and leaves many gaps in attitudes towards people of other countries and other Americans. One could use the example of ambassadors in uniform at the beginning of this essay to explain how unprepared troops and our society are when engaging other countries in war.

If we consider our military services to be an extension of American society then the education about countries hostile to the U.S. as well as our strategic partners should be of a wider scope than a week-long class. To be even more inclusive the American educational system should have continued to address foreign language studies in high schools and the deeper understanding of the cultures as preparation for contact with the outside world. In general Americans leave the educational system unprepared for the advent of foreign travel, relations because we lack understanding of other cultures.

Though morale amongst the more elite units remains strong the disdain for even suggesting that restraint – a moral trait already in practice – can be regulated is even stronger. While the objective is never to attack civilian populations in a war zone, incurring civilian casualties is inevitable though it can be avoided in higher numbers. The issue with changing the rules of engagement has been polarizing since the resignation of General McChrystal and the return of General Petraeus to the battlefield. Focusing the rules of engagement more on protecting the populace has the right feeling yet it is erroneously applied as it increases the likelihood of incurring more casualties on our side. This is yet another stressor added to an already demanding role in Afghanistan where our forces face a non-conventional enemy and a completely different set of rules.[22]

Combat troops must be able to discriminate between the threats and the non-threats in the field, which is part of their training. However imposing the untenable burden of holding fire even while facing certain death themselves to save innocents is unconscionable. It is a sad reality that both wars in Iraq and Afghanistan have been guided mainly by legal experts more than by field commanders who still must request permission to engage viable targets. This is done for fear of involving innocent parties which so far is not as effective as one would expect. We send men and women to war and after all their training they are not allowed to perform their duties to match their training but to accommodate other agendas once on the ground.

It is not news that for the most part military personnel discover that one set of standards is practiced back home while a different standard rules in the field. However procedural differences we may experience while deployed they are not a blanket excuse for misconduct or mismanagement of troops. On the contrary, if the principles by which we train military forces were allowed to remain consistent and leaders expected to mentor and be held accountable for their personnel, we would see more encouraging results. Military service for many young people has had consistent positive impact on their behavior in general and a greater influence in their lives post-service. By introducing challenges to old standards of conduct and policy to mirror those of the civilian world, we are dangerously treading water.

Using the military services as the environment for testing social experiments we have built the foundation for more behavioral problems in the future. If we are a mirror of society, then as its mores decline so do the mores of the military and without a common frame of reference regarding ethical behavior. While no program can address all facets of human need or concern follow-up training and accountability mechanisms must be in place in order to ensure compliance. The dismantling of the military culture to afford other sectors of society access is a devastating way to weaken our ability to fight, and perhaps an unintended consequence. Even rumored policy shifts like the story of the restraint medal – meant to reward a soldier’s effort to avoid killing innocent civilians – can easily derail an already strained fighting force into thinking its sacrifices are no longer relevant.

[2] Nation: THE MY LAI MASSACRE, Time Magazine November 1969,9171,840403-1,00.html

[6] NDU Conference on Military Professionalism
As Delivered by Adm. Mike Mullen, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff , National Defense

[7] Cohen, Richard, How little the U.S. knows of war, The Washington Post

[8] Watkins, Shanea and Sherk, James, Who Serves in the U.S. Military? The Demographics of Enlisted Troops and Officers, Heritage Foundation August 21 2008

[9] Jaffe, Greg, Lt. Gen. John Kelly, who lost son to war, says U.S. largely unaware of sacrifice, The Washington Post

[10] Full Text of President Bush’s 2008 State of the Union Address

[12] McCloskey, Megan, The Stars and Stripes, Task force report says suicides linked to lack of leadership, discipline

[13] Spoth, Tom, Airmen speak out against reflective belts, The Air Force Times

[14] Hartle, Anthony E., Moral Issues in Military Decision Making, Chapters 4 & 8

[15] Lendon, J. E., Song of Wrath: The Peloponnesian War Begins, Chapter 1

[16] Putnam, Robert D., Bowling Alone, Chapters 10 & 12

[17] Grossman, Dave, On Killing: The psychological cost of learning to kill in war and society, Chapter 5

[18] Troops: Loss will be felt when Air Force cuts chaplain corps by 15 percent

[20] Krulak, Charles C. “The Strategic Corporal: Leadership in the Three Block War”, Marines Magazine, January 1999

[21] Robinson, Paul, 2007, Parameters, Ethics Training and Development in the Military accessed 18 February 2011