WASHINGTON — When Defense Secretary Leon Panetta pointedly warned young troops last spring to mind their ways, he may have been lecturing the wrong audience.
The culture of military misconduct starts at the top.
At least five current and former U.S. generals at the rank of one-star or higher have been reprimanded or investigated for possible misconduct in the past two weeks — a startling run of embarrassment for a military whose stock among Americans rose so high during a decade of war that its leaders seemed almost untouchable.
From adultery and malfeasance to potentially inappropriate emails, the four-star foibles have rocked the military establishment and shocked the Obama administration even as it wrestles with a host of international challenges and a postelection redo of its national security team.
The missteps suggest the possibility that the senior officer corps — including many who led or sent thousands of troops into battle since 2001 — are troubled by the same strains that sent suicide, sexual assault and stress disorder rates soaring among the rest of the force.
At a deeper level, it may reflect the old adage about the military: Rank has its privileges. Do the generals suffer from arrogance and entitlement, borne from years in a military culture that endows them with unquestioned respect, even reverence? Are they so dazzled by their own standing that they become blind to their moral code?
These questions recall a 2007 essay by Lt. Col. Paul Yingling, then an active-duty Army officer, who stunned his superiors by writing of a "crisis in American generalship" — a condemnation of their intellectual and moral failings. He cited an accountability double standard in the military.
"As matters stand now," he wrote, "a private who loses a rifle suffers far greater consequences than a general who loses a war."
In fact, protectionism among the military's high ranking officers has long been a complaint, as forces see young troops or lower-ranking officers lose rank, money or jobs over missteps that they believe would be overlooked if done by a three- or four-star.
Asked about the possible demotion of a fellow four-star general, Army Chief of Staff Gen. Ray Odierno noted that losing a star could cost someone $1 million over the life of their retirement. No private would have to pay such a high cost, he said. Army Joint Chiefs of Staff Gen. Martin Dempsey recommended to Panetta that Gen. William 'Kip' Ward be spared the demotion for lavish, unauthorized spending.
Others, however, say the generals' stumbles are just a microcosm of people as a whole and not necessarily typical of the higher ranking military.
"You're not describing a general officer corps, you're describing a human condition," said Anthony Cordesman, a national security expert at the Center for Strategic and International Studies. "Whenever people are in hierarchical structures they develop a sense of entitlement, and they do, on occasion, abuse it."
The generals on the hot seat in recent weeks include several top U.S. military commanders.
— CIA Director David Petraeus, the former four-star general and top commander in Afghanistan, resigned as spy chief after the FBI uncovered evidence that he was having an extramarital affair with his biographer, Paula Broadwell. Petraeus has acknowledged the affair.
— Ward, former head of U.S. Africa Command, was demoted and ordered to repay more than $82,000 for inappropriate and lavish spending on travel. A Ward spokesman said the general was not motivated by personal gain.
— Brig. Gen. Jeffrey Sinclair is facing multiple sexual misconduct charges, including forcible sodomy, involving five women, including female officers who served with him. The initial hearing is over, but there has not yet been a decision on whether to proceed to a court-martial.
— Gen. John Allen, top U.S. commander in Afghanistan, is under investigation for potentially inappropriate communications with Florida socialite Jill Kelley, whose name surfaced during the Petraeus investigation. Allen says he has done nothing wrong.
— Adm. James Stavridis, Supreme Allied Commander of NATO, was cautioned by Navy Secretary Ray Mabus to exercise better oversight of his staff after an investigation into travel and expense questions, including a trip to a wine dinner in France. Stavridis was cleared of any misconduct.
Stephen Biddle, a military expert at George Washington University who has advised American commanders in Iraq and Afghanistan, said it's hard to judge whether misconduct like adultery is more prevalent among American generals today than in decades past, or whether it has simply become more difficult for adulterers to keep their secret.
"It clearly was never zero," he said, noting the widespread belief that Gen. Dwight D. Eisenhower had an extramarital affair while in the Army.
Today's military faces a troubling combination of misbehavior at both ends of the rank spectrum.
Concerns about troop behavior hit new heights after a series of widely publicized episodes in Afghanistan: the mistaken burning of Qurans, images of Marines urinating on insurgents' corpses and an alleged rampage by a soldier now on trial for the deaths of 16 Afghan civilians.
It was in that context that Panetta counseled troops last May to watch their step.
"These days, it takes only seconds — seconds — for a picture, a photo, to suddenly become an international headline," Panetta told soldiers at Fort Benning, Ga. "And those headlines can impact the mission that we're engaged in, they can put your fellow service members at risk, they can hurt morale, they can damage our standing in the world and they can cost lives."
The warnings from Panetta and other top military leaders — including the Marine Corps commandant, Gen. James Amos — reflected a worry that the military has let its standards erode and its discipline falter, even as the burdens and sacrifices of war have begun to ease with the end of the Iraq war and a winding down in Afghanistan.
Some military analysts see a broader problem among American generals and the institutions that develop, promote and manage them.Comment on this story
In an essay adapted from his new book, "The Generals," author Thomas Ricks wrote in the November issue of The Atlantic magazine that mediocrity is pervasive among the ranks of today's military leaders.
"Ironically, our generals have grown worse as they have been lionized more and more by a society now reflexively deferential to the military," Ricks wrote.
Burns reported from Perth, Australia.
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