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Petraeus Scandal and Honor Codes

The fall of General Petraeus, like that of his onetime protégé Stanley McChrystal, is an example of how the behavior of people in leadership positions hasn’t changed in thousands of years—but the penalty for it has. In a word, people are led by their emotions and make stupid mistakes, and now it’s easier to catch them. We have become better at catching evidence of stupidity—but we haven’t become less stupid. 

This lag is responsible for what seems like the increasing volume of scandals reported by the media. Even as we were digesting the Petraeus details, it came out that a four-star Army general, William Ward, has been demoted for lavish spending. Yesterday, it came out that the current US commander in Afghanistan, General John Allen, is now being investigated for sending a large number of e-mails to Jill Kelley, the woman whose reporting of threatening e-mails from Paula Broadwell to the FBI set in motion the investigation of Broadwell.

The foreign policy and national security angle on this is, most obviously, that more and more senior figures will be revealed to have feet of clay. A secondary consequence, more interesting philosophically, is that the culture of impunity that has surrounded our senior military leaders since 9/11 can quickly become toxic when mixed with timeless human error and new communications technology.

I have written often here about the circling of the wagons by the military to prevent real investigations of questionable behavior and bad decisions. Instead of addressing “command climate” at the top, lower-ranking officers and enlisted men and women have been punished as though their bad behavior existed in a vacuum. In March I discussed the fact that Lieutenant General Curtis Scaparrotti, who commanded the Strykers in I Corps at Joint Base Lewis-McChord (near Tacoma, Washington) from October 2010 onward, has never taken responsibility for the scandals involving the Strykers:

Since July 2011 he has also led NATO’s International Security Assistance Force joint command in Afghanistan and is the deputy commander of US troops there under General John Allen. Scaparrotti held these positions while the Marines urinated on Taliban corpses, Korans were burned by mistake, and Staff Sergeant [Robert] Bales went on his killing spree.

At the time that the Bales rampage prompted me to discuss the overall problems with Stryker culture, I also wrote,

War demands a moral compass. Why not insist that general officers have to take an oath deriving from the West Point cadet’s famous honor code? “I will not lie, cheat, steal, violate the laws of war, or tolerate those who do.” It’s the least we can demand of those who send our sons and daughters into harm’s way.

The recent revelations make this need for internal housecleaning even more urgent. It is nonsense to say that in other eras commanders had affairs that don’t seem to have impacted national security (Eisenhower is often mentioned). We live in a different era. We have unprecedented freedom of communication and action, but also unprecedented scrutiny. It’s also worth noting that in earlier eras there were many more social sanctions on bad behavior. Human beings operate better when we know there are rules we are following and everyone perceives them as fair—or at least justified under some general moral code.

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