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Military Needs Accountability at the Top

Military prosecutors have filed a battery of charges, including forcible sodomy and engaging in inappropriate relationships with subordinates, against Brig. Gen. Jeffrey Sinclair, the former deputy commander of the famed 82nd Airborne Division. The case is newsworthy primarily because it is so rare for a general officer to face court-martial proceedings. Usually when a general or admiral does something wrong he or she is quietly retired–not hauled into court.

One of the few recent precedents was the case of Maj. Gen. Dave R.E. Hale who was hauled out of retirement in 1998 so he could be court-martialed. Not surprisingly his case also involved sex charges–in his case accusations that he had slept with the wives of several subordinates. Hale’s punishment was a reduction in rank to colonel.

There is nothing wrong with these prosecutions even though such conduct would not be considered criminal in the civilian world; military personnel are proud to be held to a higher standard. But what is jarring is that generals are so seldom held to account for non-sexual misconduct–whether it is outright scandals such as those at Abu Ghraib or Walter Reed Army Center, or merely losing wars as in Iraq from 2003 to 2006. As then-Lt. Col. Paul Yingling wrote in 2007, “As matters stand now, a private who loses a rifle suffers far greater consequences than a general who loses a war.”

This is an issue that Tom Ricks discusses at greater length in his forthcoming book The Generals: American Military Command from World War II to Today–and it is an issue that the military leadership should be asking themselves about. Accountability is imperative if the military is to continue to perform at a high level, but there is a widespread perception that accountability is lacking for those who wear stars on their shoulders.


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