An end to general misconduct

Cheater, bribe taker, skirt chaser and drunk should not be the first words that come to mind when you think of the U.S. military.

Unfortunately, a series of scandals involving the military’s top brass has brought to light a bizarre and seemingly unethical culture that pervades what should be America’s finest institutions.

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We’ve learned that “the wheels would come off” if Air Force Gen. David Uhrich didn’t have his vodka, and that he was engaged in other unlawful conduct. Army Brig. Gen. Martin P. Schweitzer was sending emails about the hotness of one member of Congress, and bragging to his superiors in an email about the number of times he masturbated after his meeting with her.

Air Force Nuclear Commander Maj. Gen. Michael Carey went on a drinking binge in Russia that would’ve been the envy of Lindsay Lohan. Too drunk to stand upright, the general’s subordinates found him consorting with beautiful Russian women who were oddly interested in his nuclear portfolio.

Their punishments? Uhrich received verbal counseling, and Schweitzer got a memorandum of concern in his personnel file. Only the nuclear commander was relieved of command, retaining his pension and all other benefits.

Frequently, the public never knows about military misconduct. The kinds of reports in the media are usually only released when someone tips off a reporter to file a Freedom of Information Act request. The misbehaving officer, however, has typically already retired by the time the news comes out. The version of the report the press gets is usually heavily redacted, and can only be decoded in a case like that of Schweitzer, when a whistle-blower helps to fill in the details.

The congressional committees that receive these reports rarely release them or put out statements about how these commanders’ actions are an utter disgrace to the servicemen and women they lead, and a betrayal to the Americans that trust them to conduct themselves honorably. This is why I plan to introduce an amendment in this year’s National Defense Authorization Act to require the public release of inspector general reports that confirm misconduct allegations of general officers within 30 days of the report’s completion.

In the private sector, any of these commanders would have been fired for their misconduct. You wouldn’t promote a CEO that is only functional when he’s sloshed at work. In the military, however, the behavior is still dismissed as “boys will be boys” hijinks, and they are rewarded with pensions as high as $272,892.

Schweitzer isn’t an outlier — he is a symptom of a culture that often condones and encourages lewd and misogynistic attitudes toward women and condones unprofessional behavior.

We’ve let the military call the shots about how to manage this misconduct, and it’s largely failed to police itself. Our lax oversight enables the military to exist in a world of its own and make excuses for grievous and criminal behavior in its ranks. Many of these three- and four-star generals think they are beyond reproach, gods walking among mortals. The chain of command largely reinforces the idea that their decisions and judgment should not be questioned by lower-ranking officers and enlisted service members.

The incentives for the officers surrounding generals are also skewed against reporting wrongdoing. As long as their boss continues to be promoted, the entourage is rewarded for ignoring indiscretions with lavish trips on the taxpayer’s dime. Accusations of infidelity, bribe-taking and sexual assault among the officers have become nearly routine.

Many of us responsible for providing oversight of our military are civilians and are loath to scrutinize these officers too closely. We are doing them no favors, however, as it’s a disservice to our fighting men and women to ignore misconduct and abuse.

Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Gen. Martin Dempsey has said that ethics needs to be a priority and that the military needs to place more importance on character when it comes to handing out promotions. But that’s not enough. I think former Defense Secretary Bob Gates was right when he said there needs to be accountability, and some people need to be fired.

The military is not the appropriate body to lead an investigation of its own ethical deficiencies or major crimes. Congress must uphold its duty in providing meaningful oversight over the military and demand accountability. If BP were appointed to investigate its actions in the Gulf oil spill, we’d call it for what it is — disgraceful and indefensible.

Speier has represented California’s 14th Congressional District since 2009. She sits on the Armed Services, and Oversight and Government Reform committees. She is author of the Sexual Assault Training Oversight and Prevention Act, which would take jurisdiction of sexual assault cases out of the hands of the military’s normal chain of command and place it in an autonomous body made up of civilian and military experts.