America’s top brass needs a code of conduct
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For decades, Americans have had more confidence in their Armed Forces than any other institution, including organized religion and the Supreme Court.

The presidency doesn’t come close, and Congress is near the bottom of the list. This high level of confidence in the military is favorable to the social compact between citizens and their armed forces and clearly supports the national interest.


Today, however, senior officers --- active and retired --- frequently appear in the media for legal or ethical offenses, ranging from taking bribes to using their official title in the service of partisan politics. Sexual indiscretions --- unethical and illegal --- are all too common. The reputation of the Armed Forces is being put at risk by the bad behavior of numerous senior officers in matters political, occupational, and financial.


Retired senior officers have become pawns in electoral politics.

The latest iteration of this old problem began in the 1980s and has increased in magnitude and fervor in every subsequent presidential election. In the past election, both party conventions featured recently retired officers giving highly partisan speeches, and in one case even leading cheers to lock up the other candidate.

Over the years, retired military partisans have been rewarded with ambassadorial or cabinet positions for their campaign work.

In near every case of retired senior officers openly playing in electoral politics, there is the false pretense of representation, an implicit suggestion that General X or Admiral Y speaks for his former comrades still on active duty.

One can easily see how serving officers and enlisted personnel could be confused by the partisan behaviors of officers who a short time ago had been their non-partisan leaders. Because of senior officer political behavior, today’s senior civilian leaders have increasing reason to see serving senior officers as future political threats.

Roosevelt worried about MacArthur’s presidential aspirations with good reason, and the modern variety of this civil-military disease is not helpful.

Were this not enough, former senior officers use their titles and former positions to peddle influence inside the Department of Defense. The list of former generals and admirals serving as executives or on the board of directors of defense firms would fill a small telephone book.

Some officers are given these roles for their technical competence, but most are there to influence serving officers and officials inside the Pentagon or the Congress.

In a few cases, senior generals or admirals have even become registered representatives of foreign countries or lobbyists for commercial interests. Today, the ban on becoming a representative of a foreign power today is only one year.

All the while, errant senior officers liberally use their military titles in the pursuit of private interests, enjoying along with private salaries their six-figure retirement pay from the taxpayers.

At the highest level of command, politics and policy meet. Generals and Admirals are entangled in many layers of barbed wire of bureaucratic politics.

Sadly, some take up the worst habits of skilled bureaucrats; they dissemble, leak, and engage in the worse kinds of gamesmanship. Again, rather than honest brokers in the service of the national defense, many politicians see the uniformed military as just another hungry player in the bureaucratic politics that dominate Washington life.

It is no wonder that civilian appointees often wonder whether General X or Admiral Y is a democrat or a republican.

It is a highly relevant question.

Ironically, this sad state of affairs owes much to the expectation that officers are of the highest moral and ethical caliber. They are presumed to be like Caesar’s wife, above suspicion. Many experts believe that to give them a list of dos and don’ts would be beneath their station. The truth, however, is that modern life presents many temptations for retired officers to cash in on their decades of experience. Too many officers spend too little time thinking about professional ethics. They see what their peers are doing and copy them, confusing what’s legal on the margin for what’s good for the military profession.

There needs to be an explicit code of conduct for senior officers that eliminates the most obvious ethical gray areas. Before pinning on a third star, senior officers should be asked by their Service chiefs to sign a code of professional conduct that will require them to always give their best military advice without fear or favor. At a minimum, they should also explicitly pledge in active service and retirement to:

  • Not publicly engage in partisan electoral politics, unless they themselves become a candidate,
  • Not use their military titles in political endorsements or partisan advocacy,
  • Not become an employee or board member of a major defense contractor within 5 years of retirement,
  • Not become, ever, a lobbyist for or an agent of a foreign government,
  • Not leak or mishandle classified or sensitive pre-decisional documents, and
  • When in doubt, seek guidance from service ethics authorities.

A skeptic might ask, what would be the punishment for violations of this code?  How could one enforce this code of conduct? Barring sanctions for illegal behavior, the press and the peers of the violators will hold them to account.

In the future, when a group of recently retired officers appear on stage at a Presidential nominating convention, the people will know that this violates the explicit code of conduct of the senior leaders of the US Armed Forces.

Unless we tighten up professional ethics, errant senior officers will cause the military to lose the confidence of the American people as well as our men and women in uniform.

Joseph J. Collins is the Director of the Center for Complex Operations at the National Defense University. A retired Army Colonel and a former Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense, he has nearly 44 years of service with the Department of Defense. The opinions here are his own and not necessarily those of NDU, the Department of Defense, or any other government entity.

The views expressed by contributors are their own and are not the views of The Hill.