The End of Leadership, Military Style

One by one the pins are falling. One by one members of the leadership class are being demeaned and diminished.

High ranking members of the military were among the last to be so leveled. Until recently in fact their stock remained rather high, certainly in comparison with other American leaders, most obviously but by no means exclusively CEOs and members of Congress.

But those days are now over. In the last year multiple members of the military elite have been raked over the coals. It began with David Petraeus, the most admired American general in over a generation. Once he was humbled in consequence of an extra-marital affair, not only was he taken down a peg or two or more, but so was the military more generally. (Petraeus apologized publicly for his transgression, but still he resigned from his post at the time, Director of the CIA.)

Recently have been a slew of other scandals involving U. S. generals and admirals, leading to headlines like this one in the Washington Post: “Military Brass Behaving Badly: Files Detail a Spate of Misconduct Dogging Armed Forces.” (1/26/14) The alleged offenses run along the gamut of wrongdoing, from sexual misconduct to cheating (on tests) to bribery to gambling to drinking. One case involving the Air Force is a cheating probe that already has implicated nearly 100 officers responsible for land-based nuclear missiles ready for short-notice launch. 

But the problems transcend transgressions of individuals. The military has also been under attack for its inability to do what it is expected to do as an institution – fight smart. For example, military historian Max Boot has charged that even as America’s military finds itself increasingly engaged in guerilla wars, its “ignorance” of such struggles “runs deep.” And veteran military reporter Thomas Ricks has similarly concluded that by almost every measure the soldiers and marines who went into Iraq and Afghanistan “were grossly unprepared for their missions, and that the officers who led them were often negligent.” 

There is no satisfaction in any of this – in the drip, drip, drip of information that cumulatively debases America’s military establishment, especially those at the top. But it is worth pointing out that it is part of a piece, in which culture and technology twin to tear down the previously high and mighty. When the Post describes America’s armed forces as “struggling to cope with tawdry disclosures about high-ranking commanders” you know times have changed. 


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