Combating the Crisis of Civil-Military Relations

By Foster, Gregory D. | The Humanist, January-February 1998 | Go to article overview

Combating the Crisis of Civil-Military Relations


Foster, Gregory D., The Humanist


Denial is a powerful psychological weapon, and a disturbing common political one. No less than it protects individuals and institutions from the hurtfulness of truth does it shield those in authority from accountability and responsibility. Thus it has become the weapon of choice for those--public officials and citizens alike--who seek to avoid facing up to the crisis that confronts us today in civil-militar relations.

This crisis came to a head last summer with the U.S. Air Force's highly publicized and controversial dismissal of Lieutenant Kelly Flinn and the adultery-related withdrawal of General Joseph Ralston from consideration as the next chair of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. In the period immediately preceding these scandals, charges of sexual misconduct swirled around the sergeant major of the army; a string of court-martial cases against army trainers accused of widespread sexual abuse proceeded apace at Maryland's Aberdeen Proving Ground and Darmstadt, Germany; and separate sexual harassment allegations prompted the navy to relieve the two-star admiral who commanded its 10,000-person supply service and the Defense Department inspector general to initiate an investigation of the army general counsel. Queried about such matters, a Department of the Army legal official was quoted as saying, "I wouldn't describe it as anything out of the ordinary. These are indiscretions. People make mistakes. We're human. They come on the screen every once in a while."

The very day that statement was made, a high-level panel investigating life at the U.S. Naval Academy issued its preliminary findings. Cochaired by former CIA director and academy graduate Admiral Stansfield Turner, the pane concluded that there is no internal systemic flaw to explain the spate of cheating, rug, car-theft, an sex scandals that have racked the Naval Academy over the past eight years. The problem was attributed, instead, to a permissive society that shapes (or misshapes) future midshipmen before they enter.

About the same time, Secretary of Defense William Cohen, addressing the graduating class at the U.S. Air Force Academy, sought to minimize recent military breaches of the public trust:

I believe the reason that our military is the best in the

world is that we re use to accept the least .... Sometimes

members of the force will fall short of our standards....

While harassment, abuse, [and] misconduct have

occurred in the ranks, these breaches of faith are the

exceptions rather than the rule, and they do not paint

the true picture of service in the armed forces.

Occurrences of the type alluded to by Cohen may not paint a true picture of how things ought to be or how we might want them to be, but the evidence at hand suggests that they clearly do paint a true picture of how things are. Although there were previous incidents, in recent years the American people have been deluged by a steady stream of unseemly, embarrassing incidents involving the military, including "Tailhook," the U.S.S. Iowa, the shootdown of an Iranian passenger plane, Beirut, and various instances--we later learned--of Pentagon "truth management" during the Persian Gulf War. During the Clinton administration alone, there have been literally hundreds of reported examples of abused authority, unaccountability, negligence, malfeasance, waste, inefficiency, intolerance, greed, indiscipline, and general parochialism. The signs of crisis are palpable, whether we are talking about the rape of a young girl by U.S. servicemen in' Okinawa or Australia, the existence of G.I. white supremacists in one of our most "elite" combat divisions, intelligence and security failures that produce scores of deaths and injuries from a terrorist truck bomb, the death of the secretary of commerce and thirty-four others in a military plane crash caused by faulty safety procedures and insufficient navigation equipment, the suicide of a chief of naval operations facing allegations that he had been wearing unauthorized combat decorations, the decision to proceed with full-scale production of a weapon system that has failed fifty-three of seventy-one performance standards set by the Pentagon itself, cheating by more than 100 marine officers on a land navigation test, intelligence training manuals that advocate execution and torture, or any of the countless other acts of malefaction. …

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