Scarcely a day goes by any more without headlines announcing yet another scandal involving a general or admiral.
Misconduct among the military’s senior leaders has become so commonplace, it’s a running gag at Tom Ricks’ blog, The Best Defense, where the Pulitzer Prize-winning author has a running tally of Naval officers who have had their careers torpedoed. Not to be outdone, one anonymous milblogger trumpets the canning of each subsequent military official with a new take on an old line from the movie Spaceballs, “Keep firing assholes”.
The newspapers would have one believe that brass behaving badly is a recent phenomenon, but I’d disagree. Retired US Army Colonel John Collins—founder of the Warlord Loop—recalls in his memoir a scandal within the 82nd Airborne Division involving Colonel “Speedy” Gomez, the Division’s Chief of Staff in the late 1950s. Gomez, according to Collins, had “announced his intention to marry a 23-year-old bleached blonde singer whose husband happened to be a Private First Class in a subordinate battle group”.
Bonus: Gomez invited 82nd Airborne Division Commander Hamilton Howze to be his best man.
On the scandal-meter, that’s somewhere above “Nuclear general goes on a drunken bender in Moscow”, but not quite “Court-martialed for bigamy”-levels of debauchery.
Though the Warlord’s tale is anecdotal, but illuminating nonetheless. Human nature doesn’t change much throughout history, and indeed, senior officers have probably been involved in all sorts of antics since time immemorial. (To their credit, military officers who become CEOs are generally more ethical than their civilian counterparts)
The difference today is that, in the information era, it’s become much easier to unearth and share the latest salacious gossip. Fifty years ago, “Speedy” Gomez might have been able to retire quietly. Not anymore. Thanks to a 24-hour news cycle, and the rise of blogs of every shape and size, senior leader transgressions have been that much easier to expose, expound upon, and spread.
With the advent of the information age, reporters from military publications and from the local community are much more in tune with base gossip. The military cannot simply remove a senior leader without someone in the media taking notice. Nor is it easy to for an arrest to slip by the media’s notice. Reporters have become so adept at scanning the police blotters that commanders sometimes discover misconduct in the ranks from the media, rather than from the authorities.
Defense reporters also have a much closer relationship with Soldiers than in years past, thanks to the Internet. Though generally a good development—the public needs the “on the ground” perspective on military affairs—it has the dark side of allowing Soldiers and Family members to undertake “Youtube Justice” in response to perceived wrongs. Nearly every Soldier has spent long nights on “lockdown” after losing an expensive piece of equipment. But only recently have news outlets covered such affairs, hour-by-hour—no doubt, tipped off either by Soldiers or angry family members.
The problem is compounded by the fact, in the era of Facebook and Twitter, local news no longer stays local. A salacious news item published in a small newspaper just outside a military base can quickly spread throughout the world. Thanks to 21st Century technology, it only takes a few hours for news of a scandal in a remote locale to travel through the networks of old comrades.
Military blogs like “US Army WTF Moments” have become repositories for publishing and announcing misconduct in the ranks, from scandalous selfies among AIT students all the way up to the most egregious senior leader transgressions. (Let’s not forget that any scandal worth its salt eventually winds up with its own entry at The Duffel Blog, generally considered the US military’s most reliable news source)
Journalists know to check the comment sections either for news or for follow-on gossip, as the reason for a senior leader’s removal may not be made clear. For instance, in early 2010, there was much speculation surrounding the relief of a battalion commander within the 82nd Airborne Division. Readers at Ricks’ The Best Defense gained an interesting insight, however, when two commenters—presumably the wives of the two principal officers involved—had a vitriolic online spat. The comments foreshadowed the caustic climate among the families of the 82nd Airborne Division’s 4th Brigade, which was so noxious that one wife was barred from setting foot on Fort Bragg.
Finally, digital communication makes it easier to record—and even preserve—wrongdoing in the ranks. Star-crossed lovers sharing amorous emails and photographs eventually run the risk of having their emails forwarded, hacked, or subpoenaed. Today’s Gawker culture looks at scandalously revealing emails almost as if they were a Chorderlos de Laclos novel.
Indeed, there really is nothing new under the sun. There’s just a lot less shade.