From the Deckplates - Stop Punishing the Innocent

By Senior Chief Jim Murphy, U.S. Navy (Retired)

These restrictions apply to all sailors across the fleet, officer and enlisted alike. Instead of focusing on punishment for the guilty, 7th Fleet is doing exactly what the summit said it should not do: defining “the overwhelming majority” because of the actions of a few. Fleet leaders are labeling every sailor as irresponsible for their own conduct, untrustworthy, and a potential liberty incident. That is both patently unfair and unwise.

Another example is the reaction to recent failings of senior officers, capped by retired Army General David Petraeus’ admission of an extramarital affair and his resignation as Director of Central Intelligence. In response, the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff has mandated additional ethics training for all general and flag officers as an apparent means to prevent similar offenses.

While much less severe than fleet-wide liberty restrictions, this reaction defines the majority by the failings of the minority. These so-called solutions and knee-jerk responses have something else in common. They will not work and are meant less to correct deficiencies and more to placate politicians and the media.

Denying liberty to hard-working, well-behaved sailors only masks the problem. Forcing them to stay on base after a certain hour, while other Americans and military dependents face no such limitations, might lead to a temporary reduction in reported incidents, but it will be an invalid measurement and an artificial victory won at the expense of the innocent.

The metrics might look good in self-serving reports and press releases, but what happens when the restrictions are eventually lifted? You cannot keep these adults restrained indefinitely, and any prolonged confinement might only result in even more raucous behavior later. This is especially true because the origin of the initial behavior has still not been addressed.

Similarly, mandating ethics training to senior officers will only pacify the critics; it will not solve the problem. The actions that led to the training were rarely matters of ethics and commonly matters of character. Those two things are not the same.

The officers most at risk for failing will not be influenced. You cannot teach character or impose ethical behavior on those with neither character nor ethics. You cannot train your way out of the human weaknesses that have unraveled many careers. And you can rarely identify those at risk until it’s too late.

So why are these strategies so often employed? I believe the answer is leaders simply do not know how to correct these behaviors but are compelled to be seen as doing something. They should instead focus on individual accountability and punishment when deserved. The use of courts-martial and denying retirement for the guilty, instead of administrative slaps on the wrist, would go a long way toward influencing behavior.

Commanders cannot overlook serious lapses in judgment, but neither can they become so inflexible as to punish imperfect humans who deviate from an unrealistic definition of perfection. Doing so would create dangerously risk-averse leaders in careers that require them to be risk-takers. And they will still be influenced by typical human frailties.

Military members see these actions for what they are, they understand fairness, and they deserve to be treated as adults. Stop punishing the innocent majority for the failures of the culpable minority.

Senior Chief Murphy retired from the Navy after 21 years of service. He is a contributing author to Everyday Leader Heroes (Caboodle Books).



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