When Marine General Anthony Zinni became chief of U.S. Central Command in 1997, he was stunned to find a Navy commander working for him dedicated to keeping track of Zinni’s schedule. “You’ve got to be kidding me,” Zinni recalls thinking, before eliminating the slot.
There’s a growing number of senior officers in the U.S. military who wish they’d had Zinni’s judgment. The increased pressures that a decade of war, combined with an ensuing gusher of money and staff bloat, have helped isolate senior military officers and blind them to the rules, military officers say.
— David Petraeus retired as a four-star Army general a year ago to run the CIA, only to resign last month after his post-military affair with his biographer, and fellow West Point graduate, Paula Broadwell surfaced (that was the extent of his punishment, save that to be meted out by his wife, Holly).
— Marine General John Allen, the top U.S. commander in Afghanistan, has had his nomination to run NATO put on hold because of a potentially “inappropriate” exchange of emails he had with a Tampa, Fla., socialite (both Petraeus and Allen weighed in on her sister’s child-custody dispute – on their official four-star stationery, no less — which gob-smacked Pentagon civilians and military officers alike).
— Admiral James Stavridis, the current NATO chief, who tooled around the world in his Gulfstream V and Boeing 737. Sometimes family members would tag along, including to a gathering of Burgundy enthusiasts in France (the Pentagon inspector general said he broke the rules; Navy Secretary Ray Mabus decided otherwise, but the snafu derailed Stavridis’ shot at becoming the Navy’s top officer).
— Army General William “Kip” Ward, as the head of U.S. Africa Command, and his wife spent an overnight fuel stop in Bermuda in a $750 suite in May 2010. He has his staff do personal errands – and dispatched a former aide across the Atlantic for three weeks to plan a holiday party at his official residence (he repaid the government $82,000 and retired at a lower three-star rank, with a smaller pension).
— Army Brigadier General Jeffrey Sinclair has been charged with sexual misconduct – while in Afghanistan, amid a war — with five women, including four subordinates.
— Army Lieut. General Patrick O’Reilly, the Pentagon’s missile-defense chief, stepped down last month the Pentagon inspector general concluded he had repeatedly, loudly and profanely berated his staff (he gets bonus benny points not for staying at a resort, but for publicly exploding at a staffer who booked him into an Arizona Marriott with the word “resort” in its name).
Defense Secretary Leon Panetta Pentagon has told Army General Martin Dempsey, chairman of the Joint Chiefs, to find out if top officers get too many perks, but not enough training in how to navigate ethical conundrums. Pentagon officials suggest rules may be tightened on the size of support staffs and travel, but that wholesale changes are unlikely.
Top generals are not well-paid by corporate standards. They can work 18-hour days, but their take-home pay is capped at $179,700 a year (those few who retire after 40 years in uniform take home $236,650 annually). The uptick in recent cases – among 937 generals and admirals – is unusual because they surfaced about the same time, but doesn’t represent an increase, military experts say.
With each step up the military ladder – officers climb nine rungs to achieve four stars – isolation grows. “They come to believe their own cult of greatness,” a Navy admiral says of his comrades. Generals, especially those at war, are creating their own mini-think tanks, designed to make the boss shine. But, like barnacles, they’re hard to remove, even when the unit returns home. “More generals,” an Army colonel says, “are being surrounded by `yes men’.” It’s a symbiotic relationship. “They’re remoras,” a former Pentagon official says of the retinues, referring to the suckerfish that attach themselves to sharks. “And many of the commanders like it.”
Despite the recent focus, Zinni says military perks peaked awhile ago. U.S.-based four-star commanders, he says, now share aircraft. “I had a dedicated airplane,” he says of his modified 707, which was the oldest Air Force plane flying. “I made more emergency landings,” he recalls, “than I made non-emergency landings.” But the military, realizing it has a problem, is already stepping up its ethics training.
— Read the full story in the Dec. 24 issue of Time.