US armed forces misconduct has reached worrying proportions, with drug, alcohol and sexual abuses and expulsions on the rise, documents obtained by the AP reveal.
The past three years seem to have been the hardest on army officers, as they have seen a steep, three-fold increase in departures due to misconduct and internal crimes, according to the documents. A total of 119 Army officers were forced to leave due to misconduct in 2010, which closely matched the average since 2000, but the figure more than tripled in 2013 to 387. For enlisted soldiers, the number jumped from 5,600 in 2007 to upward of 11,000 in 2013.
This may be in part due to the army’s rapid expansion in the last decade, owing to a soaring demand for soldiers in places such as Afghanistan and Iraq. This may have led to a relaxing of standards for the purpose of retaining soldiers in ranks that needed to stay filled.
Also, a possible reason is that long, repeated exposure to combat puts both an individual strain on the soldiers and their leaders, but also changes the ethics and style of how recruitment and behavioral oversight are conducted in periods of prolonged war.
Similarly, the protracted period of conflict could have led to a greater number of soldiers with psychological problems being allowed to stay, because commanders didn’t have the time or the luxury of being more selective about who to keep and who to dismiss.
At the height of the Iraq and Afghanistan invasions, the Army was inflated to a record 570,000, more than any other military service.
Speaking to the AP, one of the Army’s top officials, General Ray Odierno, had a slightly expanded take on the issue, believing that soldiers’ commitment and competence may also have forced commanders to overlook certain disciplinary or psychological issues in the military.
Odierno doesn’t believe that "a lack of character was tolerated in [the war] theater, but the fact of the last 10 or 12 years of repeated deployments, of the high op-tempo — we might have lost focus on this issue.”
Gambling, drinking and sexual misconduct form part of a series of high-profile scandals that have plagued the US military, leading to scathing reviews and changes in personnel regulations. One army general was demoted for lavish spending, while another had to face charges of sexual misconduct, with multiple gambling and drinking violations pinned on a number of others.
The US chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Army General Martin Dempsey, said: “It is not the war that has caused this, it is the pace, and our failure to understand that at that pace, we were neglecting the tools that manage us as a profession over time.”
The string of offenses also extends to some truly massive cases along the lines of Marines urinating on the corpses of Taliban fighters, while some posed for pictures with their body parts. Cases like these lead Odierno to the conclusion that more attention needs to be paid to the problem, and that there is a move in the positive direction. “We are not tolerant at all of those showing a lack of character… We have to refocus ourselves so we get to where we think is the right place.”
Regarding the Navy, in the period 2004-13, one third of all misconduct cases had to do with drugs and alcohol, of which 1,400 each year were classified as “serious offences,” often involving civil or criminal trials.
American commanders believe the problem cannot be traced back to any one particular issue and are working out ways to identify all issues that lead to intense misconduct by their military.
As Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel said during a recent briefing: "I don't think there is one simple answer to the issue of ethics, values, a lapse in some of those areas… Was it a constant focus of 12 years on two long land wars, taking our emphasis off some of these other areas? I don’t know.”
Following these thoughts, Hagel announced a plan to appoint a special officer that would deal with identifying the root causes of what is happening.
Speaking about how the problem extends not only to junior officers, but also to senior leaders, Odierno said that a lot of them do not realize that power is another factor – a corrupting one. "Some don't realize it's happening to them," he said of its effects on character.
As part of the effort to address the problem, senior officers are facing evaluation by their juniors at the behest of the military and its new policies.