Petraeus Scandal Inspires Emphasis on Ethics, Morality

After a couple of years of being told the US military has no business levying its morality on its troops — or dictating the conduct of their private lives — the Secretary of Defense recently told the Pentagon to figure out why American troops aren’t staying morally in line — even in their private lives.  Said Secretary Leon Panetta:

Defense Secretary Leon Panetta has ordered the Pentagon’s top brass to figure out how to keep their officers ethically in line…

“Beyond mere compliance with the rules, I also expect senior officers and civilian executives to exercise sound judgment in their stewardship of government resources and in their personal conduct,” Panetta wrote. “An action may be legally permissible but neither advisable nor wise.”

Many news articles were aghast at the Petraeus scandal and there was a marked interest in ethics and morality in the US military.  Part of the reason was the high rank of some of those involved in the recent scandals — and with rank, the assumption those men (they were all men) were bound to ‘instill morals’ in their subordinates.  But does anyone really think ethics and morality is something the military hasn’t thought of up to this point? 

The entire US Marine Corps has gone through an “ethics stand down.”  Even references to King David and Bathsheba (a full study on the “Ethical Failure of Successful Leaders“) well pre-date the Petraeus affair.

The emphasis (if there is one), however, has been on “on the job training,” to borrow a descriptor from Dr. Martin Cook of the Naval War College.  He’s now heading up an attempt to make ethical conduct an intentional point of emphasis:

The idea is to develop a “continuum” that reinforces ethics and leadership at every level of command as naval leaders are promoted through the ranks. Cook…described the Navy’s past approach as “largely on the job training.” If someone moved from command to command and kept succeeding, they assumed everything was OK.

“The idea of explicitly working on it is kind of new,” he said.

As a National War College student said some months ago, all the talk about values and ethics is for nothing if the military doesn’t recognize an important fact:

If we lose sight of the moral truth that our core values are grounded in, these mere words of Integrity, Service, and Excellence lose their true meaning and true power.

There are moral truths that must be the foundation for the values we espouse and the actions we take — but will anyone advocate them?

For its part, the US military is in the awkward position of trying to emphasize moral conduct without technically espousing any “one morality” — since doing so would almost certainly result in references to religion.  (Though, while some have noted the religious history of the military prohibition on adultery, the US military maintains it is an a-religious prohibition.)

Besides, how can anyone reconcile the general consensus that retired General Petraeus having an affair was “wrong” — but that having sex with a member of the same gender is perfectly acceptable?  Or, as another article claimed, there is a long history of adultery in the US military, and “the Army is no worse off for it.”

So is the “long list” of fallen General Officers really a sign of doom and gloom in the area of ethics and morality, or is the attention placed on those failures simply old fashioned?