THE BLOG
02/03/2014 09:25 pm ET Updated Apr 05, 2014

Military Core Values: They Don't Exist

At a military DUI-prevention lecture, the speaker announced that if we wanted to commit suicide, that was our right -- but we shouldn't do it by driving drunk, where we could kill others.

Those of us involved in suicide prevention programs were frustrated by the instructor's blinders, even angry -- but not surprised.

Military initiatives aimed at preventing a host of problems -- DUIs, suicide, sexual assault, substance abuse, ethics violations, and religious insensitivity, to name a few -- make up a patchwork quilt, with no coherent strategy to ensure programs reinforce each other.

Secretary of Defense Hagel responded to recent revelations of misconduct among senior leaders by ordering a review of "how the military teaches core values and ethical leadership" -- but the truth is that "the military" (the military as a whole) has no core values.

Instead there are three separate programs for service-specific values: different lists for Departments of the Army, Navy, and Air Force -- and outside DOD, another for the Coast Guard -- as if military personnel should live by different values depending on their uniform... and despite the fact that joint operations are more the rule than the exception.

We have one Code of Conduct for POWs, because separate codes for U.S. Soldiers, Sailors, Marines or Airmen imprisoned together make no sense. Separate core values are just as unreasonable.

Moreover, the three core values programs are, even within the individual branches, programs in addition to other initiatives "on the quilt" -- not, as they should be, the foundation for them all. And, each has problems.

Air Force values exclude courage -- integral to the military -- but include excellence, more suitable for a corporation than the military world.

Original Navy values included tradition -- until scandals like Tailhook reminded leaders that traditions should not always be valued: They should be tested by values to determine whether they're part of the solution, or the problem. The Navy adopted Marine Corps values... although belief in tradition as unwritten Navy value has not disappeared.

The Army's seven values often force soldiers to use written notes to remember them, rather than internalizing them as quick ethical checklists to test choices. The military has a commander's estimate of the situation: a quick list to test and compare pros and cons of operational actions in the field. Clear tests, like the old "hometown newspaper test" -- would my parents be proud if this action were on the front page of their newspaper? -- could comprise an ethical estimate of the situation as part of core values training.

Navy/Marine Corps values -- honor, courage, commitment -- are strong warfighter words. But without a strong foundation, they could be a Sopranos code as well. We must link them so strongly to the oath that support and defend the Constitution always comes to mind.

Service Academies add honor codes to the list, banning lying, cheating, and stealing. Cadets and Midshipmen must understand the big lie is breaking the oath they have sworn.

Most of today's military personnel are among the most honorable that have ever served, and many leaders teach ethics and values through their words and lives, leading by example. But no unified approach to values and vision initiatives or training exists, and rare surveys reveal that few believe core values programs help anyone.

Senior officers often tell me they think core values programs are for "today's young people" who don't have the values "our parents gave us." In other words, not for me. But the truth is that anyone who takes the oath and thinks nothing has changed, understands neither the significance of an oath -- nor the purpose of military core values programs.

Individuals don't enlist without values -- but often bring the wrong values for the military.

Reporting aboard a ship in the rivers of Vietnam, where the Commanding Officer had a dangerous drinking problem, the other officers taught me their cardinal rule: protect the old man -- keep the problem secret until he finishes his tour. I know now we weren't protecting anyone, least of all the crew. When lives are at stake, cover-ups are not loyalty. Loyalty means friends don't let friends drive drunk, and values programs must teach the best way to take away the keys.

A true military core values program begins with the way personnel take -- and understand -- their oath. With that oath, they come under military law and must follow military orders; ultimate liability -- service even at the cost of their lives -- now becomes the bedrock of a new ethical framework and moral vision.

Citizens must balance rights and responsibilities. After the military oath, responsibilities must trump rights. In fact, a good values test begins with the question of a citizen's responsibilities in a given situation, and what changes come with the oath. Responsibility and duty undergo a transformation in the military world, where above and beyond the call of duty becomes the goal... and the norm.

Military services have their own proud traditions, and they can be incorporated into the teaching of core values, where examples of courage might include the Berlin Airlift for the Air Force and damn the torpedoes, full speed ahead! for the Navy. But the values, like the military legal system, must be shared -- always linked to the shared oath.

Parochialism often challenges military cooperation, but when it comes to values, we need a shared, values-based vision. Secretary Hagel's review should reveal that teaching "core values and ethical leadership" without one -- thereby navigating ethical seas with no shared chart or moral compass -- is the real problem.

Military personnel must understand values all Americans share, but recognize how their responsibilities change with their oath. Every military initiative in the area of morals and ethics must be grounded in the core values that flow from that oath.

Otherwise, the Armed Forces will continue programs and initiatives -- and devise new tactics -- but unless it shows the core value of courage to make the major changes called for, ethics and morals training will continue with no strategy, no coherent vision, and no true Military Core Values.