Is US Military Spinning Out of Control?

The United States was built on the idea of civilian control of the military, but – as the burden of fighting overseas wars is carried disproportionately by a sliver of the population – that control seems to be slipping, as ex-CIA analyst Paul R. Pillar reflects.

By Paul R. Pillar

Lately it seems that we have been reading many stories of misconduct among U.S. military officers. The most recent collective infraction concerned cheating on a proficiency test and involved a substantial proportion of the Air Force officers who control nuclear-armed ballistic missiles.

We continue to hear about the alleged bribery of Navy officers who awarded logistical support contracts to the payer of the bribes. Other ethical lapses among officers of all the military services are enough to fill a catalog that the Department of Defense itself compiled.

A U.S. Army soldier provides security at a school in Farah City, Afghanistan, on Aug. 1, 2012. (Photo credit: U.S. Navy Lt. Benjamin Addison)

A U.S. Army soldier provides security at a school in Farah City, Afghanistan, on Aug. 1, 2012. (Photo credit: U.S. Navy Lt. Benjamin Addison)

Senior Marine Corps commanders are alleged to have covered up misconduct by lower-ranking members of their service in Afghanistan. General officers in more than one service are described as being abusive leaders who have created poisonous atmospheres in units they have led. Other generals and colonels are identified with seedy behavior ranging from sexual abuse and alcohol abuse to making lecherous comments about members of Congress.

Before we jump to conclusions about what all this says about any broad patterns of bad conduct or bad character in the officer corps, we should note that a concatenation of such stories in the news does not by itself prove the existence of broad, ingrained problems in a service. Perhaps we are seeing part of random fluctuations in the press’ output on this or any other subject, or partly the efforts of some particularly enterprising and energetic journalists who cover the military.

Bearing in mind that there are upwards of 200,000 U.S. military officers on active duty, maybe the bad apples we read about are no more numerous than we should expect to find in other professional populations of comparable size. And maybe most of the problems are best described in terms of individual cases and individual circumstances and do not lend themselves to valid and insightful generalization.

Under the where-there’s-smoke-there-might-be-fire principle, however, it is appropriate to ask whether there may be some overall reasons, applicable to this national military at this time in the nation’s history, for a surge in bad behavior. The U.S. armed forces are coming off more than a decade of continuous involvement in overseas warfare, with the particular wars in question not having gone especially well, or at least ending for the United States in ways well short of what could be called victory.

Stresses that this recent history places on the military as a whole are shared by the officer corps. One thinks, by way of comparison, of the years immediately after the Vietnam War, another overseas war that did not go well and a time when aberrant conduct in the military such as drug abuse was high.

The American public is treating service members returning from the more recent wars, however, much differently from how it treated Vietnam veterans. Today’s uniformed military is routinely applauded at sporting events and otherwise lauded for the service that the other 99 percent of the population is not performing. Maybe herein lies a different sort of explanation for some of the bad conduct.

Maybe being placed on a public pedestal leads some in uniform to feel that they are being given more latitude than others are, and that there is more room for ignoble behavior since it has already been offset by the noble behavior that the public applauds. But that is only a hypothesis, and like any hypothesis it has to deal with the fact that most members of the service, officers as well as enlisted, behave well.

Perhaps relevant is another aspect of the current phase in the history of the U.S. military, which is that it has become more separated from civilian society than perhaps at any earlier time — as measured in part by the small and shrinking proportion of the civilian population that has performed military service.

One can imagine several deleterious consequences of this, some of which can be reflected in the bad news stories about officers. An abusive leadership style, for example, may have something in common with hazing and other abusive behavior in other exclusive, separate cadres. More generally, there may be less exposure to wider societal norms, or more of a notion that those norms don’t apply or don’t apply in the same way to the military.

More military sociology needs to be performed about such questions (or if it has already been performed, it needs to be publicized more). Not very helpful is just to take narrow actions in the name of accountability. The Robert Gates approach of finding someone to fire, whether or not the firee was even aware of whatever is the latest problem to become public, does not help.

It makes the person doing the firing look decisive but offers no reason to believe that things will be better under new management. New management in the Air Force does not seem to have made much positive difference in behavior in the part of the service that handles nuclear weapons.

These issues are not ones to be left only to the military, or to the Department of Defense. They involve the military’s place in larger society, and so larger society has to be involved in thinking about solutions.

Paul R. Pillar, in his 28 years at the Central Intelligence Agency, rose to be one of the agency’s top analysts. He is now a visiting professor at Georgetown University for security studies. (This article first appeared as a blog post at The National Interest’s Web site. Reprinted with author’s permission.)

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3 comments on “Is US Military Spinning Out of Control?

  1. Daniel Pfeiffer on said:

    Perhaps it has also to do with the nature of the soldiers themselves who, at a basic level, had to swallow a great deal of propaganda just to participate in these wars; as well as the very nature of what the military has been asked to do these last 12 years. This is not to lump all military personnel into one pot, but when you are asking for volunteers to sign up for new and continuing missions of war that are not defined in clear moral terms, who do you expect to show up? Our soldiers – to say nothing of the country itself – deserve far better ideals to fight and die for.

    • Yeah, but a lot of the officers should know better, particularly command types.

      And that means know for very real legal reasons.

      Of course responsible commanders would have resigned instead of participating in that war of aggression known as the 2003 invasion of Iraq. The invasion and continuing occupation of Afghanistan isn’t much different than a war of aggression, so same crime different land.

  2. elmerfudzie on said:

    Paul, the United States was never at any time, built on the premise that civilian control ruled over the military. President Carter may have gotten away with firing seven hundred or so renegade CIA officers but in retaliation, he lost a second term in office. Our military-industrial-congressional complex spoke aloud when JFK was murdered. Not to point exclusively at top brass (Cabel, Lemnitzer more recently General Be-tray-us ET AL but also to re-examine the beginning of the story, the Dulles brothers, their direct connection with Germany’s ex-Nazis bankers, Wall Streets’ (deliberate) impetus towards a heavily militarized future and economy deliberately eliminating the peace-nicks, any thought of demilitarization, all at the expense of socioeconomic support for a long term indigent citizenry. As JFK said in one of his many speeches; we do not….seek a Pax Americana for the world but wish to create a climate for lives that are worth living (AKA, not drained by endless militarism) …Even our so called “greatest president ever” FDR, admitted that Wall Street, and I’m paraphrasing here, has all the say and sway. Let us also not forget his personal foreknowledge of the Pearl Harbor attack. In this article you spoke of cheating, I don’t apologize for or give a hoot about what pentagon general is fornicating with young, smart and hot looking subordinate office-r/ chicks. God knows, it’s surely our weakest point, (speaking as an older man)… and the subject of alcohol, please! even the best Russian fighter aircraft maintenance techs have been known to drain the ethanol based cockpit windshield wiper solutions to the dregs (Stoly is just toooo expensive). But back to the original issue, like the tormented emotions of the first son of a wealthy and successful tycoon, where pray-tell, does the offspring go? to exceed the already lofty accomplishments of their extraordinary parentage? This more than adequately describes the USA ‘s current situation in world history. The Blessed Generation who fought, died and above all, Won the only war in the last century, fashioned the first A-bomb, with just a slide rule in hand, went to the moon, and so on. Indeed hard to match, let alone-surpass. The rest of the world has managed to mirror the USA’s older technological prowess, such as manufacturing cars, air conditioning systems, washing machines and hydroelectric dams. These truisms, if you will, maneuvered us, No forced us! to go nowhere else but up the technological ladder. In terms of design and scientific progress it took better than thirty years of research to beat the basic functional abilities of the F-100 fighter aircraft. Now, again like an almost suicidal son of a wealthy mogul we strain to succeed (where do you go from up?) The 3-D printer, traversing Jupiter’s moons, even siding with twisted military allies, benevolent despotic and former enemies who give us a wink (the CCP) adds up to just what? German officials (how odd) who have not demand the return of all their gold from the NYC federal reserve, Thank you, Ms Merkel, Washington’s heavy on tranquilizers at the moment-On behalf of the American people let me hope that our citizens will never bad mouth the German people for failing to read or critique Mein Kampf (since the majority of us never bothered to read the Constitution or Bill of Rights) and again …What a tormented soul, America! The reset button must be global this time. The old ways of the Rothschild, Carnegie, Mellon and Rockefeller families, the military-industrial-congressional complexes of this world AND their historical, systematic managing of Planet Earth must now be given a respectful but Very Firm, farewell. I don’t know what tomorrow will bring but without the Lord’s approval, it’s all in vain!!