Last week, the Pentagon announced that Army Maj. Gen. Ralph O. Baker, the commander of a counterterrorism force in the Horn of Africa, had been relieved from his post in late March on charges of sexual misconduct. According to press reports, Baker sexually assaulted a female civilian employee of his while under the influence of alcohol.
That story made me think about a lot of things, leadership, standards, accountability, but, in particular, it made me think about my father and a red bandana.
My father was a career naval officer. He graduated from the academy in 1944, went directly to Okinawa as part of the invasion, participated in the occupation of Japan, fought in the Korean War and served until 1974, when he retired and went home to Southwestern Pennsylvania. He was ramrod straight, and his uniform always meticulous.
And, he always wore a red bandana in the back pocket of his uniform trousers. Even in dress whites he wore that bandana. I sat in the audience as a kid in the early seventies watching him take command of Destroyer Squadron Six at Charleston, SC, and as he walked to the podium he had that bandana dangling from his back right pocket.
As a kid I never thought about it. Dad was fully formed as a man when I was born in 1958. I did not question how he had come to be. He just was. It never occurred to me that there were any other choices as to how he dressed and acted.
I grew up. I joined ROTC. I was commissioned and went on active duty in the Army. I began to have my own direct experience with other officers, good and bad. My first company commander sent the troops to the field for maneuvers and then went home to his apartment to take a shower and watch a movie until the men had finished getting the bivouac established. I began to wonder about that bandana, and why a Naval Academy grad and straight arrow like my Dad always had it tucked in his pocket for all to see.
I left the Army and joined CIA. I continued to build my own experience with officers, leaders and managers. I saw in CIA and the military men and women whose people would follow them anywhere. I also saw my share of men and women focused on themselves, their careers and their personal advancement rather than the welfare of those under their charge. I worked for a boss whose first action when an op went wrong on the street, even before he made sure all his people were still alive, was to start attempting to destroy record traffic showing he had approved the actions taken. I thought more about what that bandana meant.
I'm almost 55 now. I've had my own share of commands and leadership experiences. I've moved on to other endeavors. I'm giving some thought to running for public office. I think about the bandana quite a bit. Its meaning is no longer a mystery. I believe I understand what it was my Father was trying to say by that one simple gesture.
He was saying: I'm a country boy. I come from a place where your word is your bond, where actions speak louder than bluster, and where every man is created equal. I'm not ashamed of that. I'm not a bumpkin or a yokel. I'm proud of where I'm from and what it made me.
He was saying: I am your leader. I am not your better. I'm not afraid to get my hands dirty. I won't ever ask you to do anything I would not do myself. I'll eat last if I eat at all. I'll sleep last if I sleep at all.
He was saying: I am in command. That means it is my privilege to lead you. Whatever obligation you owe me pales beside the obligation I owe you. I come from a family filled with officers and also filled with men and women with stripes on their sleeves. I will pass along the praise. I will accept the blame.
Last year Army Brigadier General Jeffrey Sinclair was charged with sexual misconduct with women under his command. He is now facing court martial at Fort Bragg. He is accused of forcible sodomy, indecent acts, violating orders and adultery. Among other things General Sinclair is charged with forcing a female Army captain to perform oral sex on him and threatening to kill her and her family if she refused to continue to have sex with him.
In November 2012, the former head of the Pentagon's Africa Command, William "Kip" Ward, was disciplined and demoted for misuse of funds. A 17-month investigation revealed that he had used official funds to pay for lavish, personal stays in luxury hotels, utilized military vehicles to transport his wife and insisted on being shuttled about himself in official motorcades while on US soil.
About the same time in 2012, the Pentagon's inspector general censured another commander, Lt. Gen. Patrick J. O'Reilly, head of the Missile Defense Agency, for creating a toxic atmosphere and berating staff members.
West Point Superintendent Lt. Gen. David Huntoon is retiring in the near future after having been reprimanded for an "improper relationship". The details of the official investigation that lead to the reprimand have not been released, but speculation is that it was with a cadet at the academy.
These are just a few of the cases of misconduct involving senior military officers in recent years. Chairman of the Joint Chiefs, General Martin Dempsey, recently completed a lengthy review of these problems and what they say about the ethics standards of senior officers in uniform. His findings have not yet been made public, although there is speculation they may be soon, but it is expected that he will recommend increased mandatory ethics training for senior officers in an effort to address the situation.
I commend General Dempsey for recognizing he has a problem. I am sure that ethics training cannot hurt. Still, I think if you find that you have significant numbers of flag rank officers who need to attend training to learn that their female subordinates do not exist for their sexual gratification or that taxpayers funds are not to be used for personal vacations in Bermuda, then you have a much more fundamental problem on your hands.
In the January-February issue of Military Review, the professional journal of the Combined Arms Center at Fort Leavenworth, Kans. Retired Army Lt. Col. Joe Doty, Ph.D, and Army Master Sgt. Jeff Fenlason addressed the issue in an article entitled "Narcissism and Toxic Leaders." Referring to narcissistic leaders in the military, Doty and Fenlason had this to say. "Individuals like these are a cancer spreading throughout the profession of arms'"
How we got to this point I do not know. What is clear, though, is that we have a significant number of senior military officers who are devoid of even the most basic understanding of what real leadership entails. They do not consider themselves public servants with the honor of commanding the finest men and women ever to wear the uniform. They believe themselves some sort of nobility, deserving of adulation, subservience and preferential treatment.
That suggests some very basic problem with the promotion process, and that's where I would focus my efforts before I would start running seminars on how not to grope your female soldiers. What is wrong with the military selection system such that it is pushing forward to general officer rank narcissists and sex offenders rather than leaders?
This whole situation also suggests some fundamental problem with the military disciplinary process. One general running amok is an aberration. A raft of them acting outrageously, suggests not only that they don't deserve their stars but also that they believe they can act with impunity. Maybe a few more courts-martial, like the one currently in progress for General Sinclair, would help restore a climate of accountability and take the fun out of acting like a second-rate Caesar.
General Dempsey can run all the ethics training he wants. What he really needs is to restore the ethos that is supposed to be at the core of being a military officer. What he really needs is to find a way back to the kind of virtues symbolized by a simple red bandana.