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An officer and a gentleman: why the concept isn't as silly as it may seem.

Good military order and Discipline." The phrase itself has an old-fashioned Victorian ring to it. Not surprisingly it was greeted by mockery and derision when it was evoked by the military as the basis for what Democratic Senator Tom Harkin of Iowa called the military's "overly moralistic" crackdown on adultery in the ranks. "I'll tell you, the Pentagon is not in touch with reality in this so-called question of fraternization," said Republican Senate Majority Leader Trent Lott of Mississippi. "I mean, get real. You're still dealing with human beings."

On June 7, 1997, New York Times columnist Russell Baker spoke for many when he questioned the "sexual hysteria now racking the military." "What else was to be expected," he asked. "The military is not a Boy Scout Camporee. It is teaching young people to kill other young people, a work that does not prosper when men are expected to behave like gentlemen and women like ladies."

Baker could not be more wrong. It is precisely because the military is about killing people and destroying things that their leaders must have the strength of character inherent in a gentleman and gentlewoman. Otherwise, as Carl von Clausewitz, the great Prussian philosopher of war, warned some 165 years ago, "the mass will drag [them] down to the brutish world where danger is shirked and shame is unknown." What happens when leaders fail to act like "gentlemen" and "gentlewomen" is as near as today's headlines.

Col. Harry G. Summers Jr., a veteran of the Korean and Vietnam Wars, is a syndicated columnist for the Los Angeles Times and editor of Vietnam magazine.

Mob Rule

"European Inquiry Says Serbs' Forces Have Raped 20,000" read the headline of a January 8, 1993 New York Times story describing how Serb soldiers had raped -- and in many cases killed -- Muslim women "as part of a deliberate pattern of abuse aimed at driving them from their homes in Bosnia and Herzegovina." "Killing Spree Blamed on Troops in New Congo," announced the June 8, 1997 Washington Post, reporting that troops in the old Zaire (now the Democratic Republic of the Congo) "have killed hundreds of people and torched scores of houses in attacks on villages."

Such breakdowns of decency are not limited to Serbian soldiers gleefully carrying out their leader's grotesque "ethnic cleansing" policy, nor to ill-trained and undisciplined African soldiers embarking on wild killing sprees. Western armies are also susceptible. "Belgian soldiers go on trial for torture," read the June 23, 1997 Washington Times, telling of how an elite Belgian Army unit in Somalia "roasted a child over an open fire." And the June 25, 1997 Baltimore Sun reported that "two Italian generals resigned in the face of increased evidence that their soldiers tortured Somalian villagers." In March of 1995, the Canadian government disbanded its entire elite Airborne Regiment after evidence of atrocities against Somali teenagers came to light. The ensuing scandal led to the October 1996 resignation of both the Canadian Defense Department's Chief of Staff, and the Minister of Defense.

The U.S. army has also experienced the consequences of disorder within its ranks. In the closing days of Vietnam and in its immediate aftermath, young lieutenants and captains peered into the abyss, as the American military disintegrated before their very eyes. "Never again" is the watchword of those who survived that maelstrom and who have risen to become today's senior officers.

What in 1965 was a magnificent fighting force had turned into a drug-ridden rabble three years later. The My Lai massacre in March 1968 was terrible evidence of that degeneration. Soldiers of the Americal Division's First Platoon, "Charlie" Company, under the command of Lieutenant William L. Calley, Jr, perpetrated the most horrible atrocities against innocent civilians in the Army's history. First publicly revealed in March 1969, it was investigated by Army Lt. Gen. W.R. Peers, who found the facts to be even more gruesome than portrayed in the media. Old women, children, babes in arms were raped, sodomized, and brutally murdered during an hours-long killing frenzy by a unit run amok.

The army searched in vain for an explanation, believing at first that, through accident of assignment, Calley's platoon had an inordinate number of uneducated misfits and miscreants. But upon investigation, it found the precise opposite. The platoon had a higher IQ level and a higher percentage of high-school graduates and men with college credits than average. The only variable that could be found was leadership. From the company commander to the squad leaders, the leadership was severely lacking. It was not a rifle platoon. It was an armed mob, bereft of any vestige of good military order and discipline.

A 1970 professionalism study by the Army War College ordered in the wake of the My Lai revelations found a precipitous decline in leadership throughout the Army. The perception was that the "system" forced officers "to abandon their scruples and ignore the precepts of duty and honor; and if necessary to lie and cheat in order to remain successful and competitive."

Although most Americans were not aware of it, the military had disintegrated to the point where the security of the nation was imperiled. Racial confrontations were widespread, drug rings had taken over entire units, indiscipline was endemic. Lying and false reports were commonplace. At one time, for example, all the air defense systems in Europe were down because of lack of maintenance and spare parts, yet were falsely reported as fully operational.

Road to Redemption

Adding to the decline was the "Modern Volunteer Army Concept" and its motto, "The Army Wants To Join You." With the suspension of the draft in January 1973, many in the Army felt that to attract volunteers to fill its ranks, the Army had to liberalize itself to be more like civilian society and relax the "irritants" that made military life unattractive.

Unwittingly it was repeating a pattern that had led to disaster in the opening days of the Korean War in June 1950. In This Kind of War. A Study in Unpreparedness, a 1963 book which became a minor classic within the military after the Vietnam War, historian and Korean War veteran T.R. Fehrenbach observed that "liberal society, in its heart, wants not only domination of the military, but acquiescence of the military toward the liberal view of life"

"Domination and control society should have," he continued. "But acquiescence society may not have, if it wants an army worth a damn. By the very nature of its mission, the military must maintain a hard and illiberal view of life and the world. Society's purpose is to live; the military's is to stand ready, if need be, to die." Congress, which has the power "to make rules for the Government and Regulation of the land and naval Forces," recognized that critical difference when it promulgated the 1951 Uniform Code of Military Justice, the successor to the Articles of War that had governed the military since its beginnings.

While in many respects the rules for the military are similar to civilian law, they also include prohibitions that have no civilian equivalent. These include such wartime capital offenses as cowardice in the face of the enemy, disobedience of a direct order, and striking a superior officer -- all specifically designed to bolster the ability to fight and win on the battlefield. To that end, laws are also included to ensure "good military order and discipline" and to denounce conduct unbecoming an officer and a gentleman" (which specifically includes "gentlewoman").

"Not everyone is or can be expected to meet ideal moral standards," says the original 1951 edition of the Manual for Courts-Martial, "but there is a limit of tolerance below which the standards of an officer cannot fall without compromising his standing as an officer or his character as gentleman."

In the mid-1970s, Vietnam War battlefield commanders assumed top leadership positions, including Army Chief of Staff Gen. Fred C. Weyand of the 25th Infantry Division and his successor, Gen. Bernard Rogers of the 1st Infantry Division. Charter members of the "Never Again" club, they pulled the military up by its bootstraps. A major effort was launched to reverse the initial permissiveness of the all-volunteer force. New rules from Congress enabled commanders to immediately get rid of misfits and malcontents and a "back to basics" movement swept the military. Discipline was tightened, hands-on training emphasized, the Non Commissioned Officers Corps was revitalized with rigorous new standards, and professionalism was stressed at all levels.

By the late 1970s, the military had fully recovered from the Vietnam morass. "Good military order and discipline" had been restored, and new warfighting doctrines had been adopted to once again focus on the basic mission of fighting and winning the nation's wars. But new stresses began to develop. In order to maintain the intelligence standards increasingly necessary for a high-technology military, the former restrictions on married and single-parent enlistees were relaxed and more and more military occupational specialties were opened to women. By the eve of the 1990 Persian Gulf War the U.S. had 223,154 women under arms, more than four times as many as the rest of our NATO allies combined. Critics claimed (and continue to claim) this change in force composition would lead to disaster on the battlefield.

The Persian Gulf War, however, was proof that, changes in force composition notwithstanding, "good military order and discipline" had indeed been restored. Over 532,000 U.S. military personnel were deployed to Kuwait, including 37,000 women who served in a wide variety of combat support and combat service support positions. There were 3,500 cases of wrongdoing, including 24 cases of sexual assault, of which only 191 were serious enough to be tried by court-martial. With a crime rate of 3.5 per 100,000, "the remarkable thing about this operation," said the U.S. Central Command Judge Advocate, "has been the exceptionally low level of acts of indiscipline."

Never Let Your Guard Down

But, like liberty, the maintenance of "good military order and discipline" requires constant vigilance. Changes in force composition did create new strains, not so much the increase in the number of women in the force but the major shift from a primarily single force to one that is mostly married.

Where in a bachelor military the rules against adultery had little practical application, in today's military, in which 63 percent of the force is not only married, but more often than not deployed away from home on "peacekeeping" missions, the rules take on a new meaning. What had been primarily a moral offense is now an operational offense that has a direct impact on troop morale and troop efficiency. To understand how, you need only look at the story which ran in the July 15, 1997 European Stars and Stripes, which described how one soldier doused another with flammable liquid and set him on fire "over an affair one of the soldiers was allegedly having with the other's wife."

Given the tensions which the military's changing composition has unleashed, the military's leaders have an essential responsibility to set an example for those they lead. When an officer misbehaves, his or her misconduct reverberates through the ranks below. But the worst crime is for a commander to abuse the trust of those who are mandated to follow. That is what makes cases like the sexual abuse of female trainees by drill sergeants at the Army's Aberdeen Proving Ground such a cause for concern.

As the bill of particulars against King George III in the Declaration of Independence makes clear, the Framers of the Constitution were painfully aware of what happens when "good military order and discipline" breaks down. They gave Congress -- the "representatives of the people, periodically elected," as Alexander Hamilton put it -- primary responsibility for chaining the "dogs of war." Although latter-day Congressmen like Senators Lott and Harkin would loosen those chains in the name of political correctness, they do so at all of our peril.

But, while constant vigilance against threats to "good military order and discipline" is always wise, it is also wise to keep such threats in perspective. As Joint Chiefs of Staff Chairman General John M. Shalikashvili recently pointed out, "We are 1,400,000 in the active force. The wrongdoing that you hear about is a tiny, tiny fraction, and the vast, vast, vast majority of the men and women find that kind of behavior as abhorrent as you and I do." "Good military order and discipline" is still alive and well.
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Author:Summers, Harry G., Jr.
Publication:Washington Monthly
Date:Sep 1, 1997
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