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Congress Should Seek Out Sources of Worsening Military Morale

Turf battles and budget cuts always stir anxieties in the military, but recent signs of damaged morale in the officer corps suggest worrisome trouble from more unusual sources. At some point the fighting ability of the military–its reason for existence–may be impaired. Before that happens, Congress should investigate the causes of the recent spate of firings, resignations, lawsuits, charges of “McCarthyism” and top officer suicides that are afflicting the armed services.
A Congressional investigation almost surely would cast a light on the results of President Clinton’s political correctness policies and micro management, but it also would call into question the attitudes of some members of Congress.

For several years now the military has been treated as some kind of social laboratory. A Tailhook Convention of Navy aviators five years ago included a notorious party that provided the pretext for the puritanical reaction that followed. Somehow, few of the guilty parties at that event were found and punished, but people who merely attended the same convention and were involved in no misconduct have been permanently tarnished. So were superiors and people tagged by remarks or actions in other situations that would have had little or no consequences in a less hysterical atmosphere. In all, 14 admirals have been relieved or retired. Literally dozens of other officers’ promotions have been held up by the Senate. This week, Secretary of Defense William Perry himself finally called for an end to the Tailhook witch hunt.

Meanwhile, however, the Navy, and the services generally, are pinned down by an arch-feminist fusillade of charges and policy demands. For example, we now have reached a point, literally, where even unattributed and unsubstantiated accusations of political incorrectness can wreck officers’ careers, and where failure of superiors to punish those so accused can bring them down, too. This truly is McCarthyism.

According to the Center for Military Readiness, a Defense Department Instruction (DoDI 1320.4) was issued last year that allows “alleged adverse information” and “unsubstantiated allegations” to be placed in the files of officers after they have been selected for promotion and before their confirmation. Without the officers being informed, the possibly false charges can be circulated to Pentagon brass, the White House and Congress.

If something similar happens to short-term political appointees, they, at least, can use publicity and political connections to fight back. Military officers, sworn to serve civilian leadership, are nearly immobilized. They may be subjected to unwarranted and devastating shame.

The recent suicide of the Chief of Naval Operations, Admiral Jeremy Boorda, is almost by itself worthy of a Congressional investigation. Far more apparently was involved than an approaching Newsweek article examining his right to wear two “V” (for valor) devices on his Vietnam campaign ribbons. Boorda had been under pressure on one hand to push the Clinton political correctness policies, while on the other he was incurring increasing criticism for failing to defend the honor of his officers and the effectiveness of the service.

Among the critics was combat hero, author and former Navy Secretary Jim Webb, who, in a speech at Annapolis revealed the “disturbing statistic” that in the past year “53 percent of the post-command Commanders in naval aviation left the Navy rather than continue their careers…These were the cream, the very future of the Navy, officers who had performed for two decades in a manner that marked them as potential Admirals.” Rather than continue on a nominally successful track, they are quitting, Webb noted.

It’s not just the Navy. A Coast Guard Captain, Ernie Blanchard, made a speech at the Coast Guard Academy that included some weak humor that offended some female cadets. Example: he said that his friend, the Commandant, was so unsexy that on his wedding night, when he told his wife they could do anything she wanted, she said she’d like to go to sleep. Was it funny? No. Was it offensive? Well, it seemingly was so offensive that Capt. Blanchard was forced to make a public apology. But that didn’t end it. Feminists demanded a court-martial, and the top brass went along. Blanchard, a life-time veteran with a wife and two teen-aged daughters, was led to believe that he might well be found guilty, and lose not only his job, but also his pension. Ruined–by a joke–he, too, committed suicide.

In the Army, a recent critical internal report on morale has not been released to the media, but it has been described in the journal Military Review as an assessment of “anecdotal accounts” indicating a growing culture of mistrust and stifled initiative.

The Army report echoes a former Air Force pilot who quit because of the backbiting and division. “It’s a one-mistake military now,” he says, “and the mistake doesn’t even have to amount to anything much or even be true.”

It cannot help morale, in this context, that the very President who has visited many of the new rules upon the military is the same one who has used his status as Commander-in-Chief as a claim against prosecution in a lawsuit for, of all things, sexual harassment in the Paula Jones case.

Some service tension, as noted, would be expected anyway in an era of military downsizing. The armed forces are now 1.4 million, compared to 13 million at the height of World War II; yet we have just as many generals and admirals as then. We are top-heavy. But demoralizing your officer class so that many of your best people quit and many of the others live in quiet fear is a strange way to address the leadership issue.

Are these problems as serious as the news stories and “anecdotal evidence” suggest? Why doesn’t the Congress find out?

Bruce Chapman

Cofounder and Chairman of the Board of Discovery Institute
Bruce Chapman has had a long career in American politics and public policy at the city, state, national, and international levels. Elected to the Seattle City Council and as Washington State's Secretary of State, he also served in several leadership posts in the Reagan administration, including ambassador. In 1991, he founded the public policy think tank Discovery Institute, where he currently serves as Chairman of the Board and director of the Chapman Center on Citizen Leadership.