A demonstrator stares at a National Guard solider as protests continue over the death of George Floyd, Wednesday, June 3, 2020, near the White House in Washington.

A demonstrator stares at a National Guard solider as protests continue over the death of George Floyd, Wednesday, June 3, 2020, near the White House in Washington. AP Photo/Alex Brandon

What Do You Tell Young Americans Doubting the Military’s Moral Compass?

After scandals, pardons, and protests, military and civilian leaders have some work to do rebuilding public trust.

Recently, we have been asked some troubling questions about the military by young Americans contemplating their path of service in the military, or embarking on that path, something both of us did in our younger days.

 “What gives?”

“Seriously, how can you say that honor and character matter?”

“How can you trust a system that doesn’t care about integrity?”

What seems to have prompted these questions are the recent examples of officers who have failed to deliver the moral leadership that the U.S. military requires. One is the Navy’s “Fat Leonard” scandal that reaches its the highest ranks. A few months ago it was the cases of Navy SEAL Eddie Gallagher and Army Lt. Clint Lorance, two men charged with war crimes (only Lorance was convicted) who later were protected and celebrated by President Donald Trump.

More recently, it was the nomination of retired Army Brig. Gen. Anthony Tata to be undersecretary of defense for policy. A young officer asked us how he could have faith in a system that values and rewards Tata, a West Point graduate who admitted to adulterous affairs in violation of the Uniform Code of Military Justice, fathered a child out of wedlock, called President Obama a terrorist, and, in a tweet in May 2018, encouraged former CIA Director John Brennan to “suck on his pistol.” 

We spoke with an active duty Navy ensign who asked a similar question. Upon reading of former Navy SEAL Eric Greitens’ reinstatement into the Navy (Greiten resigned in disgrace as governor of Missouri while facing possible impeachment and criminal charges), he was furious. The ensign, who had served on honor boards at the Naval Academy and had voted to expel peers who had lied, cheated, or stolen, wanted to know: “What do I tell my young sailors who have blemishes on their records far less egregious than this, and know they won’t be allowed to reenlist?”

Simultaneously we have both been questioned extensively by friends and colleagues who have asked us how we can continue to have faith in a military in which we served that may have  participated – like it or not, lawful or not – in suppressing lawful protests this summer. We have struggled to find good answers. Some of the images and actions we have witnessed do not connote the universally admired military we waved our caps at during the 7th inning of baseball games we used to attend before this pandemic. 

Our responses to these questions have been heartfelt entreaties to “keep the faith.” The profession of arms is a noble one, steeped in a tradition of selflessness, honor, and integrity. As we write, cadets and midshipmen in ROTC programs and the service academies are enduring the grueling training to earn their commissions as officers in the U.S. military - the most trusted institution in the country, as Gallup polls show consistently every year. Much of that training is not in the physical realm, but in moral sphere. The missions of the service academies are filled with high-minded aspirations of training men and women “morally, mentally, and physically” to serve as “leaders of character.” The Navy’s Stockdale Center for Ethical Leadership is one example of the national commitment to imparting ethical guidance to midshipmen at Annapolis.

Our lives were fundamentally framed by our experiences as Marine officers. We share the commitment to such high ideals. We will continue to mentor promising young Americans as they contemplate wearing the cloth of the nation and to encourage such service.

One of us just said good-bye to his son as he begins college, and perhaps future service in the military or other public service, but we have grave concerns about the moral health of the force, and we see a need for the institutions to recommit themselves to the principles they claim to uphold. Perhaps, in addition to honoring the examples of battlefield courage, they should also look to such figures as Hugh Thompson or Alexander Vindman. Most Americans know the second name, but many do not know the first. They both exhibited moral courage – a willingness to take required action and to stand apart from the group, not just physical courage.

In 1968, Hugh Thompson was a helicopter pilot in Vietnam who while flying a mission near the village of My Lai placed his helicopter between American troops and innocent Vietnamese civilians who were about to be killed by American troops. In addition, he filed a report after the fact and testified before the House Armed Services Committee a year and a half later. The chairman of that committee, Rep. Mendel Rivers, D-S.C., tried to have Thompson court-martialed for turning his weapons on American troops. Though initially condemned and ostracized Thomson was not prosecuted, and years later the Army and Congress commended Thompson for his actions.

In 2019, Lt. Col. Alexander Vindman was concerned about an official phone call between the president of the United States and the president of Ukrainian. He reported his concerns internally and later publicly testified to Congress about what he heard. Vindman stood up for what he believed was right, and stood apart from the crowd. His decision to retire followed a series of reports that the White House sought to withhold his promotion in retaliation for his testimony. He lived by his principles in spite of personal risk and it cost him his Army career.

To be honorable, an individual must act with character. If institutions want to be honorable, they must teach and uphold honor and character. If the services, Joint Staff, and civilian leadership of the military want to continue to recruit and retain the best Americans into their ranks, they have some work to do to begin repairing the military’s moral compass.

Scott Cooper is a retired Marine Corps officer, human rights advocate, and former candidate for Congress in North Carolina.

Paul Lewis is the former general counsel of the House Armed Services Committee and teaches ethics at Georgetown University. He served as a judge advocate in the Marine Corps. He writes in his individual capacity.