The U.S. military today is wrestling with issues of morality and ethics on an unprecedented scale. Since the 1991 Tailhook incident, at least as much attention has been focused on this topic as on any issue of combat readiness. The Marine Corps, in coordination with the rest of the Department of the Navy, has instituted its own programs in an attempt to deal with the problems of integrating members of an increasingly amoral society into an organization that demands the highest standards of moral and ethical conduct. Have we succeeded?
Unfortunately, we have not. We are, in fact, on the wrong track entirely.
The Marine Corps has developed an approach, centered on the core values of courage, honor, and commitment, that aims to inculcate or reinforce these values among Marines of all grades by means of various training techniques. For the most part, the training consists of exhortations by senior officers (usually delivered in person or on videotape to large formations of Marines), periodic classes on topics ranging from sexual harassment to drug and alcohol abuse to suicide prevention, and discussions of these topics at the small unit level. In addition, officers and noncommissioned officers of all grades are expected, as always, to instill proper values in their subordinates through appropriate counseling and personal example.
It is hard, in principle, to find fault with this approach. Courage, honor, and commitment encompass the fundamental ethical obligations of military professionals as well as any other formulation that has been promulgated in the past. The speeches, classes, and discussions ensure that all Marines know what the standards are and what is expected of them on a daily basis.
Why, then, do I assert that our approach is failing? I base my opinion on the profoundly negative reaction that the very mention of ethics, as interpreted in today's Marine Corps, seems to inspire among the officers and Marines of my acquaintance. In a very real sense, we are resisting our leaders' efforts to mold our ethos to conform with their vision.
Many within our officer corps believe they need no help in distinguishing right from wrong. Few of us believe that we are ethically adrift. We have committed no crimes, told no lies, cheated on no tests, assaulted no schoolgirls. Those who have, we say, are aberrations—matters for the military justice system rather than cause for a searching examination of our institutional ethics. Those of us who say this are mistaken. In truth, how many of us can take a candid look at our time in the Marine Corps and find no action we wish we had not taken, no statement we wish we had not made? I cannot. We all need some ethical guidance from time to time, so why aren't we buying core values?
Perhaps the reason is that, as an institution, we are unable to back our ethical philosophy with the personal example that is essential to make it come alive. In the words of Professor Joseph Brennan, "the right and the good cannot be taught by precepts mounted with fine words like values, integrity, morality, or even leadership. Instead, the right and the good must be demonstrated every day in the choices that we make, the actions that we take, the example we set."1 It is this example that we, as a Corps, seem unable to provide.
This is surprising, because setting the example is a commonplace of Marine Corps leadership. It is, in fact, one of the time-honored Fourteen Principles that are hammered into the head of every officer candidate in his first few weeks at Quantico. But an example—whether set by a peer, a senior, or a subordinate—is effective only when it is set by one who inspires our loyalty. By loyalty I do not mean the dumb solidarity that binds the members of any group who share a common purpose, nor the far higher sentiment that links those of us who share the mission of defending our nation, nor the mere obedience that is due to those in positions senior to ours. I mean the personal loyalty that stems from trust, two things in critically short supply in today's Marine Corps.
Author Michael O. Wheeler, in an article originally published in Air University Review, lays out the relationship between trust and loyalty eloquently. He suggests that the soldier, airman, sailor, or Marine of today's armed forces, entering the service with the values of a society conspicuously lacking in discipline, can be induced to accept the disciplined values of a military organization only by placing his trust in a superior who earns his loyalty. This is of course what happens routinely at boot camp or officer candidate school; it is the reason so many Marines revere their sergeant instructors or drill instructors, in spite of the fear they inspired. The instructor, by setting an unfailing example of military virtue, earned the respect and loyalty of the Marines in his charge. Wheeler convincingly identifies the central element of this military virtue as integrity, and sums up its relationship to trust: "If you trust someone, you give him the benefit of the doubt when it comes to doing what he tells you to do. . . . This . . . presumption. . . is one which [you] are justified in making if the commander is a man of integrity."2
Our effort to inculcate core values is failing because as an institution, we have lost the ability to set a proper example; at every level of the chain of command, those below are losing faith in the integrity of those above. Without this trust, loyalty is impossible, setting the example is impossible, and effective ethical training is impossible. We are left with slogans and lesson plans, the dry shells of concepts that should be the lifeblood of our institution.
Causes for this loss of trust abound. The first is the pervasive cynicism that leads us to believe that corruption is rampant in high places, both in and out of the military. Virtually any Marine—or civilian—will express such sentiments if you seek his private opinion of just about any bastion of traditional authority, from Congress to Headquarters Marine Corps. In reality, there are relatively few concrete examples of serious ethical failure at high levels within the Marine Corps. Our commandants always have been men of irreproachable conduct. Few of our general officers have ever been accused of misconduct. Yet the belief persists that there is corruption at the top.
On the other hand, some Marines have legitimate reason to doubt the integrity of their superiors. Many can describe at least one ethical lapse on the part of someone senior to them, some trivial, some reflecting bad ethical judgment. These negative examples, seen firsthand, weaken the bonds of trust and loyalty.
One incident, of course, stands in a category all its own. The Tailhook affair—whether one sees it as a massive stonewalling campaign by naval aviators, as a betrayal of innocent subordinates by senior officers in the interest of political correctness and the preservation of their careers, or as any of the other possible variations on this theme—has done incalculable damage to the bonds of trust and loyalty within our Corps and the naval service at large.
This breakdown of trust is aided and abetted by the simple fact that it is far easier to doubt the integrity of those whom you do not know personally, whom you see only as remote figures in front of formations or as talking heads on a video screen. One of the more subtle, but perhaps most damaging, factors contributing to this is the reluctance of leaders at all levels to leave their busy offices and make personal contact with their Marines. Junior officers usually are forced to overcome this tendency because of the nature of their jobs, but when an officer transitions to supervising other officers, rather than coming into direct contact with enlisted Marines, the breakdown starts. As they advance up the chain of command, many officers become increasingly remote, not just from the lance corporal at the bottom of the chain, but also from the officers one and two levels down whom they are supposed to be supervising, instructing, and developing. Thus you have company commanders who interact with their lieutenants fairly often, battalion commanders who interact with them occasionally, regimental commanders who may possibly know their names, and general officers who are just signature blocks on message traffic.
Why this tendency to leave subordinate officers to their own devices has crept into our system I cannot say for certain. Perhaps it has to do with a desire to let subordinates develop, to give them room to grow without the constant presence of senior officers. I imagine it has to do with the pressures of duty and the many competing demands on one's time, which must grow ever greater at each step up the ladder of command. Whatever the reason, the effect is virtually to preclude the setting of a meaningful example, moral, ethical, or otherwise. You cannot trust someone you never see.
Our Corps has made a valiant effort to overcome the legacy of uncertain values and doubtful morality that we inherit from our society at large, but our approach is failing because of a generalized lack of trust in the integrity of our system and the officers who run it. It is no comfort that this lack of trust cannot be shown to correspond to any general lack of integrity among an officer corps that is largely composed of honorable men and women doing, in good faith, the best job they can.
There is no simple solution to the situation in which the Marine Corps now finds itself. The path ahead, easy to describe but difficult to follow, has been taken by every leader in our history who was worthy of the name: Examine yourself. Reaffirm your values. Look to your superiors for ethical guidance, but if they don't provide it, find it where you can. Get out of your office and train your Marines. And set the example.
1 Reprinted in James H. Toner, True Faith and Allegiance (Lexington: University Press of Kentucky, 1995), p. 75.
2 Reprinted in Malham M. Wakin, ed., War, Morality, and the Military Profession (Boulder, CO: Westview Press, 1979), pp. 171, 178.