The United States Navy has an increasing number of commanding officers (COs) being fired for misconduct (cf. Captain Mark R. Light, USN, “The Navy’s Moral Compass,” Naval War College Review, Vol. 65, No. 3 (Summer 2012), 136-152). A majority of the misconduct involves sex, but careful analysis shows that the problem is unrelated to men and women serving together (this is certainly an issue for young military personnel). Other forms of misconduct for which senior officers in command have been fired include abuse of subordinates and lying.
Some of the increase in reported misconduct may reflect social changes and technology that make reporting alleged misconduct without fear of repercussions easier, e.g., hotlines and the internet. Some of the increase in misconduct also likely reflects the Navy setting and insisting upon adherence to higher standards, e.g., the type of raunchy, boozy behaviors once condoned among aviators and deployed personnel is no longer acceptable.
Nonetheless, the increase is troubling and appears unlikely to be entirely a function of more robust reporting and higher standards. Concomitantly, fired COs typically acknowledge knowing the standards but believing that they could get away with violations or choosing flagrantly to disregard rules. Commanding officers have typically served in the Navy for sixteen to thirty years, filled positions of progressively greater responsibility, and repeatedly demonstrated more success and potential than did their peers.
Creating new rules will not fix this problem. Nor will training prospective COs in ethical decision making reverse the trend. These individuals do not face a moral quandary in which additional ethical precepts might provide essential help or a moral dilemma in which they must choose between two rights or two wrongs. The misconduct is wrong; the choice is clear and readily understood.
Instead, the challenge is to develop prospective COs with stronger character, character so firmly habituated to saying yes to what is right and no to what is wrong that the inevitable temptations inherent in command remain resistible.
Parents face a similar challenge in raising a child. Teaching a child right from wrong and the principles of good decision-making is insufficient. Children must also have the strength of character consistently to make the right choice when faced with the temptation to misbehave.
Temptation is endemic to existence. Relationship infidelity, cheating on income taxes, stealing from an employer or friend, taking advantage of a sales person’s billing error – temptation is almost omnipresent. We often fail to see these temptations because our character shapes our perception in a positive direction. This makes reflecting on the Navy’s problem doubly interesting: first, individual character does make a difference and, second, the Navy, with its commitment to moral excellence, offers something of a “lab” in which to experiment how to shape better, stronger character.
Several elements seem essential for any character formation program:
1. Clear standards and accountability: The Navy has largely achieved this. Parents are sometimes notably less successful at setting clear, consistent standards and then holding their children accountable. The Church promotes this approach to developing Christians by encouraging people to engage in self-examination, establish a rule of life, and then, with the aid of a confessor spiritual director, to hold themselves accountable for their failures.
2. Transparency: The Navy is progressing toward this, thanks to the internet and other technological advances. Edmund Burke famously observed that people never engage in evil as easily as when they do so in the dark. Similarly, one definition of integrity is how one behaves when nobody is looking. I don’t want to live in a police state that constantly monitors my actions. However, asking how I would feel if someone observed or otherwise learned of my actions can constructively inhibit inappropriate and encourage appropriate behavior. Command distances the incumbent from subordinates. Successful COs typically have someone (a chaplain, the senior enlisted advisor, the senior medic) with whom the CO can be human and who provides the CO honest, timely, and private feedback.
3. Practice: Habits, as Alasdair MacIntyre in Beyond Virtue underscored, are practices, behavior patterns in which one routine engages. In other words, avoidance of temptation does not prepare one to resist temptation. Instead, practicing resistance to temptation in contexts in which resistance is nearly certain builds character. Better yet, developing habits that place one well away from temptation can minimize the likelihood of succumbing to temptation by minimizing the occasions on which one experiences temptation. This, for example, explains why parents prefer their children to associate with other children who have positive behaviors rather than children who frequently skirt the edge of trouble.
4. Forgiveness: Developing habits often entails some failure, even small and infrequent failure. Zero tolerance for failure when combined with no opportunity for forgiveness promotes a culture that implicitly values hypocrisy to cover inevitable failure. Forgiveness, when linked with clear standards, accountability, and restitution encourages positive habits.
5. Culture: Create a culture, whether at work or home, that promotes virtue. Art, literature, conversation, and, most importantly, example all contribute to that culture. Moral exemplars are role models in virtue. The right moral exemplar will inspire, adding a vital emotional component to the behavior. Virtue, more than a concept, is a pattern of behavior. Today’s Navy culture too often does not prize virtue. Conversely, a culture not intentionally shaped to cultivate virtue will more often than not cultivate vice. No culture is value free.
6. Commitment: Commitment indicates the degree to which a habit has become entrenched behavior. The Navy recruits many highly dedicated individuals. Preserving and nurturing their commitment over the course of a career represents a challenge. Too often, the commitment morphs into an unhealthy identification of self with the institution or careerism. The Navy exists to serve the nation, not the other way around. Families can similarly exploit their members or foster unhealthy, enabling dependence.
In the past, people developed character through participation in a church and the family. “Various studies have found that active involvement in church serves as a kind of training center for important civic skills.” (Charles Murray, Coming Apart: The State of White America, 1960-2010, p. 201.) Murray documents that Church participation is decreasing and that the family is coming apart.
To some extent, perhaps a significant extent, I suspect that the increasing misconduct of Navy COs results from both of those trends. If so, that bodes ill for society as a whole. Few other social institutions value virtue as highly as does the military. Will crime – non-drug related crime – increase in the years ahead? Has that already begun to happen? Is cheating in schools, which by most accounts is increasing, a manifestation of the adverse consequences of these trends?