Ethical Liability: Holding Senior Military Leaders Accountable for their Ethical Failures
Stephen T. Messenger
America’s profession of arms is an institution grounded on the nature of ethics and propriety dating back to its inception. However in the light of recent ethical violation headlines, Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel expressed his concerns in February that there may be a breakdown in the ethical climate of today’s military. It is logical to assume this when cheating scandals, inappropriate Email traffic, and senior leaders accused of various violations from counterfeiting poker chips to accepting bribes are inundating news channels. Nonetheless, these ethical violators are outliers in our ethical climate and not the norm. This stems from a dangerous individual perspective that has infiltrated into the minds of some military senior leaders: I am above the law and ethical rules no longer apply to me. The answer to this ethical dilemma is to hold these leaders accountable through their retirement benefits.
The military’s unique twenty year retirement structure creates a well-defined goal for many military members to work towards. However, after twenty years elapse and retirement concerns lessen, the desire to abide by every ethical rule could be tempted to fade along with it. This is when rules may not apply as much in their minds since the service member is no longer working to earn a retirement and can depart the military on his or her own fiscal terms. This situation also allows the individual to take more ethical risks because being asked to leave the service is no longer a threat to his or her financial stability. In fact, leaving the service can easily provide a pay raise (retirement plus civilian salary), a stable lifestyle, and less potentially stress. Abiding by an unwavering code of ethics suddenly becomes not so important to an ethical outlier.
Contrast this mindset to a service member with seventeen years in the military. Their ethical decision making criteria is much different. By taking a chance on a questionable moral issue, they risk their career, retirement, health benefits, and financial stability for them and their family. This risk is generally too great to attempt. The leader is almost forced to make quality ethical decisions based on their military timeline and retirement plan.
It is time the military leverages retirement benefits to hold leaders at all levels accountable. An offense that would cause a service member to be discharged at seventeen years must have the same impact on one with thirty years of service: loss of retirement benefits. There is no mystical line crossed at twenty years that relieves one of being held accountable. In fact, they should be held more accountable to set the standard for those coming behind them.
Holding senior leaders accountable through retirement benefits increases their individual risk involved with ethical decisions. This applies to ethical violations that seldom result in jail sentencing but quiet discharge from the service: driving under the influence, adultery, sexual harassment, and general ethics violations. Eliminating retirement benefits would dramatically increase the ethical risk aversion of officers with more than twenty years of experience. Moreover, it provides an accountability measure to ensure we are providing the American people the most ethical leaders our Nation has to offer.
It may seem harsh at first glance to take this hard earned benefit away from someone who served our Nation for so many years. However, we cannot afford to allow senior leader ethical violators to quietly slip into the civilian world with no long lasting effects. First and foremost, this method provides a meaningful punishment for those willfully committing ethical violations. In addition, it shows leaders at all levels that our military will not tolerate those who lie, cheat, or steal, and we will hold them accountable with lasting repercussions. Removing retirement benefits is fiscally responsible; the American people should not have to financially support someone who is not aligned with American values. Finally, holding leaders accountable is the right thing to do. Our military does not have the time nor the inclination to see another senior military official think he or she is above the law.
The twenty year line that separates those with retirement benefits and those without is an important part of a service member’s career. However, it is just an arbitrary line. Crossing to the other side does not make one above ethical conduct or the law. The reality is, these rare cases must be held to a higher standard. By maintaining control over their retirement benefits, the military can positively influence actions of senior leaders. If a violation occurs that would remove a service member having less than twenty years of active duty service resulting in no retirement, the same rules should apply to everyone with more than twenty years of service. This means neither quiet retirements nor sweeping violations under the rug, but establishing a measure of accountability to hold us all answerable for our actions. The individual who feels he or she has earned the right to be above military ethical principles has also earned the right to be denied retirement benefits from the United States Government. The solution to discipline these outliers is simple: one ethical standard for all leaders, regardless of time in service, with accountability measures to discipline those who willfully disobey.