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Marine Corps commandant weighs in on DOD's ethics push: 'Remember, you are mortal'

Feb. 11, 2014 - 06:00AM   |  
Commandant Gen. James Amos told a Washington audience Tuesday that he believes a small minority who are causing ethical behavior problems in the U.S. military.
Commandant Gen. James Amos told a Washington audience Tuesday that he believes a small minority who are causing ethical behavior problems in the U.S. military. (Sgt. Mallory S. VanderSchans / Marine Corps)
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Against the backdrop of Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel’s announcement that the Pentagon will create an “ethics czar” to police misbehavior among the military’s most senior officers, the Marine Corps commandant told a Washington audience Tuesday that he believes it’s a small minority who are causing problems.

“I don’t know that there has been a surge in ethical misbehavior,” Gen. Jim Amos said during an event sponsored by the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, “but I do think that misbehavior that has become public is bringing shame on the Department of Defense.”

Faced with high-profile incidents of sexual assault, hazing, and misbehavior within the Marine Corps, Amos announced a “reawakening” campaign last fall aimed at reinforcing standards and discipline in barracks life. More recent news of widespread cheating on military exams in the Air Force and Navy and allegations of ethical breaches among general officers of all services precipitated Hagel’s efforts to improve moral conduct.

The Pentagon has advocated 360-degree performance evaluations for senior officers to help rid the services of so-called “toxic leaders” and crack down on ethical breaches. In an interview with Marine Corps Times last spring, Amos said every Marine general officer would receive such an evaluation, noting his observation that accountability lapses and complacency among leaders had allowed unfit leaders to advance.

Nevertheless, Amos indicated he believes those who engage in misconduct are outliers, not indicators of a more pervasive problem.

“The small percentage — in my service for instance, 194,000 Marines — I’m guessing there’s probably less than two percent that we need to kind of get back to heading to true north. And I suspect it’s that way in all the services,” he said.

For the Marine Corps, public scrutiny of discipline in the ranks intensified in early 2012, when a video was posted to YouTube depicting Marine scout snipers urinating on enemy corpses in Afghanistan. Around the same time, an image of other scout snipers posing with what appeared to be a Nazi “SS” flag also stirred outrage.

That spring, Amos toured bases to deliver his “Heritage Brief.” He condemned Marines’ misdeeds, saying the actions of a few brought disgrace to the Marine Corps as a whole.

“As you look back now two years ago and you think about some of those things, you go, yeah, that’s really what it did, it brought shame upon our institution,” he said Tuesday.

Amos did not comment directly on the new instances of misconduct within the Defense Department, but he supported efforts to ramp up discipline and reinforce standards throughout the ranks.

“I think the Department of Defense and military’s got an approval rating of some thing like 67 percent. I don’t want to lose that,” he said. “I don’t want anybody thinking that we’re a bunch of hooligans and that we don’t follow the rules, we don’t care about people, we don’t care about contracts, we don’t care about doing things, because we actually do.”

It is instructive, he said, for Marines to invoke the famous image of a victorious Roman general. In that image, a slave whispers into the general’s ear, “Memento Mori: Remember, you are mortal.”

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