The Chimera of Ethical Probity in the Military

The Generals lie to us easily because they're so practiced from lying to themselves

We Expect Politicians to Lie….But the Generals?

That Joe Biden lied about the evacuation shouldn’t surprise us (although the craven depravity of the magnitude of his lies revealed by the Reuters transcript does cause one to gasp.)

But many of us have been put back on our heels over the past several weeks as it’s become increasingly clear that many senior military leaders are but a hollow shell; mere shadows of the serious, courageous, and principled leaders we imagined them to be.

Some of us are particularly aggrieved because we should have realized it much sooner. The signs are there in retrospect - the Afghanistan papers, the waiting seats on boards of companies in the military-industrial complex whose raison d’etre is the perpetuation of war, and even the politicization of their purported gravitas as in the “National Security Leaders for Biden” (the WayBackMachine provides a view into the memory hole since they’ve taken down their website.)

How could we have arrived at this point?

At a point where we’re faced with absolute contradictions such as the simultaneous claims around the abandonment of civilians at KBL? As just one example, we have the stark contrast between -

  • MG Christopher Donahue, a self-possessed soldier’s soldier (Delta operator, Army Ranger, West Point and Harvard alum) portrayed as virtuously awaiting any civilians until the last possible moment when he ceremoniously boarded the final bird as the final soldier to leave Afghanistan

  • An Army COL assigned to Donahue’s division stating very clearly “Yes, we are fucking abandoning American citizens.”1

The answer is culture. In this case a cancerous culture.

A culture of lying, winking, and simultaneously basking virtuously in the carefully cultivated publicly held image of unwavering integrity.

“Lying to Ourselves”

In 2015 a report from the Strategic Studies Institute and US Army War College detailed the corrosion of ethics in the Army.

The report can still be found mentioned in various news articles and reviews that were published around the time of its release. Unsurprisingly the links from those articles to the report go nowhere. It’s been, conveniently, taken offline. But archive copies are still available for those with the stomach to read them. (downloadable through the link above)

The message is clear. And while it’s focused on the Army, we know from other documents (such as the Congressional Report on the Fighting Culture of the United States Navy Surface Fleet) that the rot extends beyond the Army. Observation of recent events (from shenanigans like the Air Force Academy Wikan Chapel and fabricated hate crime, Capt. Crozier forced to circumvent the chain of command and then being portrayed as an unbalanced renegade as he tried to care for his sailors, and the cynical handling - including referral for mental health analysis - of Lt. Col. Stu Scheller by the USMC) show that it’s widespread.

The premise is simple.

The “zero-defect” mentality of military promotion intersects with social experiments (with the concomitant “training” burdens) in a truly toxic manner. It is simultaneously unacceptable to have any missed requirements (such as every soldier completing every sexual harassment, anti-extremism, etc. training module.) At the same time, it’s mathematically impossible to complete all of the “woke” training and fundamental, basic military training.

So we have Navy officers who can’t drive ships and navigate, and Army officers who fudge training records as they try to balance tactical and skills training with social science requirements.

Every officer sees it and knows it. They know that their colleagues lie just as they do. And they must, if they hope to be promoted. The pressure increases as officers and NCOs pass some threshold - perhaps 7 or 8 years - on their way to a career and promised retirement benefits. The risk of making the required sacrifices without receiving the benefits is huge.

But….then they stand in front of the mirror and proclaim to their square-jawed, uber badged and ribboned selves, that they represent the pinnacle of ethical probity. Then, having recited that mantra, they go forth and state it publicly to their superiors (in rank), peers and subordinates (in rank.) And finally, with lots of chest-thumping, to an admiring public.

It’s a myth.

And it’s created a culture of endemic lying.

The problem, of course, is that when you lie about something, eventually you’ll lie about anything. Lying about culture training leads to lying about tactical training leads to lying about intelligence, leads to lying about whether we’re losing or winning a war….and then lying about whether we’ve left people behind.

Think Milley’s obfuscation about his walk to the chapel with Trump amidst the Washington DC BLM riots. Or the cherry flag officer Curtis Buzzard who, in pursuit of his second star presided over the shameful recent West Point cheating scandal which codified the institutionalization of the lack of integrity.

There’s a reason that integrity has always been a paramount virtue among those that practice the profession of arms. There are hard truths that must be told at times, and knowing someone will lie about anything alerts us to the painful truth that they might lie about everything.

And so here we are. They’ve lied to each other, to their troops, to politicians and the public. Yet they are sanctimoniously butt-hurt to be called on it (not to mention fiercely loyal within the community.2)

The cognitive dissonance is too much for these warriors to manage.

As a predictable result a large number of talented and ethical people leave the service after a few years. There are lots of reasons that NCOs and officers don’t reenlist, or resign respectively. Some only intended to get some adventure or obtain educational benefits. But many others become quickly disillusioned with the corrosive culture.

But that’s only half the problem. How have we come to tolerate it?

“AWOL; The Unexcused Absence of America’s Upper Classes from Military Service-and How it Hurts Our Country“

The elite has enabled it. The rest of us has accepted it.

They’ve enabled it by foisting the responsibility of military (indeed most true public service) on a second class. Certainly, there are amazing educational credentials among military leaders like MG Donahue. But they’re normally not from the ruling financial and political class.

This is a sharp contrast to earlier times as Roth-Douquet and Schaeffer outline in AWOL. In fact, it’s largely a product of the Vietnam era.

Prior to that most business and political leaders had served in the military (contrast that to now, when NONE of the President, Vice President, National Security Advisor, House Speaker, Senate Majority Leader, and most F500 CEOs have served.)

In fact, in most cases, their children served even as they made the decisions regarding policy and strategy which would directly affect their offspring.

Today that’s a romantic memory. The result is a public, and especially “leadership” that is fundamentally disconnected from the consequences of decisions.

The disconnection not only allows grave policy decisions to be made in an inappropriately cavalier way, but it also has allowed this corrosive culture to develop in the military without public awareness or outcry. For many, the first truly alarming and concrete manifestation was Milley’s absurd white rage temper tantrum.

But oh my, how we’ve begun to peel back the layers of the rotten leadership onion in the intervening six weeks since his June 23rd embarrassment.

We’ve come to recognize that our admiration and adulation for the military senior leadership has been misplaced. They are rogue.

UNFIT to Lead

In short, we have many military leaders with bearing and gravitas, superior intelligence, extraordinary physical courage and capability, and valuable combat experience which they are eager to advertise with actual and virtual “I love me walls” while maintaining a carefully cultivated veneer of faux humility. Yet many profoundly lack the ethical rectitude and integrity that are fundamentally critical to the moral authority we expect of our flag officers and senior leaders.

While they may engender loyalty (as we see in the passionate response of MG Donahoe’s fellow 1stSFODD soldier CPT Zeller) anyone that has perpetuated this culture of lying (by demanding it of their subordinates and reporting zero defects to their superiors) is ethically corrupt.

They are unfit to lead.

This will take generations to change, and the current generation won’t go silently. After all they’ve marinated in their perceived ethical probity so long that they’re unlikely to see their failures. They’ll feel unfairly impugned and fight back - because they’re fighters.

Culture change is hard.

And the current senior leadership who are products of this culture and therefore unable to see the water in which they swim, will not be able to lead the required change.