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Military Ethics Reform Should Start at the Top

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The U.S. military has been rocked by a series of scandals involving cheating, stealing, and corruption. The list of improprieties seems to get longer every day. Recent examples include missile control officers involved in a drug ring, and in cheating on certification tests; high ranking Navy officials accepting monetary bribes and liaisons with prostitutes in exchange for offering improper assistance to a major logistics contractor; Army recruiters manipulating a system of recruiting bonuses to line their own pockets; and instructors in the nuclear Navy cheating on tests on how to operate reactors used for training purposes.

Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel is rightly alarmed about these incidents, and according to Pentagon spokesperson Rear Adm. John Kirby "he sees this as a growing problem, and he's concerned about the depth of this." A review of the missile force is under way, and there are plans to make ethics a more integral part of the training process, and of promotion decisions. These reforms should move forward as quickly as possible. As John Kirby has noted, even though the vast majority of people serving in our armed forces are brave and honest, "it just takes a few to stain the integrity" of the entire force. That can't be allowed to happen.

There's plenty to deal with in addressing the scandals enumerated thus far. But sometimes the real scandal is what's permitted, not what's forbidden. That's certainly the case with the privileges enjoyed by our military's top brass. While he's looking at ethics in the military, Secretary Hagel should take a hard look at the outsized benefits provided to our nation's military leadership.

It was well over a year ago that Rajiv Chandresekaran and Gregg Jaffe published a piece in the Washington Post detailing the special benefits accorded to four-star generals and admirals. Chandresekaran and Jaffe neatly summed up the perks lavished on top military leaders as follows:

"The commanders who lead the nation's military services and those who oversee troops around the world enjoy an array of perquisites befitting a billionaire, including executive jets, palatial homes, drivers, security guards and aides to carry their bags, press their uniforms and track their schedules in 10-minute increments. Their food is prepared by gourmet chefs. If they want music with their dinner parties, their staff can summon a string quartet or a choir."

In the same article, retired General David Barno noted that the generals and admirals receiving these privileges "can become completely disconnected from the way people live in the regular world -- and even from the modest lifestyle of others in the military . . . When that happens, it's not necessarily healthy either for the military or the country."

The special treatment of the military leadership extends into retirement, when many of them go on to take high paying jobs in the defense industry. An investigation a few years back by Bryan Bender of the Boston Globe found that 80 percent of three- and four-star generals and admirals who retired between 2004 and 2008 went on to become executives or consultants in the defense sector. The same phenomenon occurs at lower levels as well. What's wrong with that? The late Senator William Proxmire (D-WI), legendary gadfly and protector of the public purse, answered that question as follows, over four decades ago:

"The easy movement of high ranking military officers into jobs with major defense contractors and the reverse movement of major defense contractors into high Pentagon jobs is solid evidence of the military-industrial complex in operation. It is a real threat to the public interest because it increases the chances of abuse . . . How hard a bargain will officers involved in procurement or specifications drive when they are one or two years from retirement and have the example to look at of over 2,000 fellow officers doing well on the outside after retirement?"

As Ben Freeman of Third Way noted in a June 2013 issue brief, it's not just that our generals and admirals are the beneficiaries of overly lavish benefits, but there are simply too many of them. In a phenomenon known as "brass creep," front-line troops have been reduced much more rapidly than have the flag officers at the top of the bureaucratic pyramid. In World War II there were 2,000 generals and admirals overseeing 12 million troops; there are now nearly 1,000 overseeing a force about one-tenth the size. And this trend is not just ancient history -- it is continuing up to the present. As of mid-2013, the three- and four-star ranks had grown by 20 percent since 2001 while the enlisted ranks had dropped by 1.5%.

This bloat at the top has consequences that go far beyond just wasting money. As Freeman has noted, it also impairs military effectiveness by slowing decision making, imposing rigidity, and moving resources up the chain that might otherwise be used to support front-line troops. A study by McKinsey found that the U.S. military was the most top-heavy among the 29 countries it studied in terms of the ratio of warfighters to administrators. This is a larger problem than just the number of generals and admirals, but overstaffing at the top sets a tone for the rest of our armed forces. To his credit, former Secretary of Defense Robert Gates recognized the problem of "star creep" and proposed a 10 percent reduction in the flag officer ranks. But the four-stars were largely spared cuts, and the process of paring down the cohort of admirals and generals has moved too slowly. Secretary Hagel should cut more deeply and more quickly.

Particularly at a time when troop levels are going down and reductions in pay and benefits for active and retired military personnel are under discussion, it is crucial that the top ranks be trimmed back. Part of the quest for a more ethical military should include imposing basic fairness in how personnel are treated, from top-to-bottom. Secretary Hagel should make reforming the top layers of the military a priority in his quest to impose higher ethical standards throughout the armed forces.

William D. Hartung is the director of the Arms and Security Project at the Center for International Policy and the author of Prophets of War: Lockheed Martin and the Making of the Military-Industrial Complex.