Generals know better: An inside look at the military’s charm schools

Before an NBA rookie plays his first game, the league teaches the youngster that his world is about to change. People will fawn over him, women will fawn over him, do whatever it takes, say whatever he wants to hear to get close to him and his newfound power. He’ll definitely need a CPA. And in exchange for the riches, fame, and public influence, he will be unforgivingly scrutinized -- his every move, every word, and every action carefully watched and critiqued.

In the NBA it’s called the Rookie Transition program. In the military, it’s called “charm school.” The military services require nearly all officers selected become general or “flag” officers -- the military’s designation for those with the rank of brigadier general or rear admiral, or higher -- to go through intense ethics training on what to expect when you become, well, a big shot.

Strong emphasis is placed on being constantly mindful of outside perceptions of one’s behavior. The Pentagon, it turns out, ensures that the nation’s generals and admirals are taught to avoid the ethical trapdoors of becoming the military equivalent of an NBA all-star, including adultery.

A newly minted rear admiral who recently went through the Navy's version of charm school, called NFLEX (which stands for New Flag and Senior Executive Training Symposium), gave the E-Ring an inside look. The course is given once a year -- the last one occurred in October -- and is a one-week symposium at The Bolger Center in Potomac, Md, mandatory for all rising one-stars and civilian senior executive service appointees. Spouses are encouraged to attend, too. The officers endure wall-to-wall briefings and discussions about how to lead the Navy at senior levels and what is expected of them as a leader. The message comes directly from the top ranks. In the most recent course, the first night’s speaker was Adm. Jonathan Greenert, the chief of naval operations, and his wife.

“We spent a considerable amount of time in that one week speaking about ethics and conduct,” said the rear admiral. The lessons range from proper use of government travel to the proper use of email and social media.

The point engrained into the new class is that their behavior was not expected to change -- ethics are black and white in the service -- but that their visibility was about to change markedly.

“It’s not that you can get away with anything as an 0-7 [rear admiral] that you couldn’t as an 0-6 [colonel],” the officer said. It’s that suddenly a lot more people are watching your every move. The Navy has produced a detailed guide called the flag officers Standards of Conduct that is “crystal clear,” the officer said, about what officers can and cannot do. And if officers have any doubt about whether an action is ethical -- or if they worry that it could appear unethical -- they are taught not to do it.

When an NBA rookie gets famous, he'll suddenly have more friends and distant family members eager to please then he knew existed.  When an officer pins on a star, suddenly they get subordinate aides who are not supposed fetch coffee, dry cleaning or errands. But in the military, subordinates are taught to go beyond their duties, which can get murky quickly.

“Even a casual comment can be taken by a subordinate as a direct order,” said the rear admiral. “If I were to say that my office would look neat in pink, I’d come back from a meeting and it’d be painted pink.”

More training occurs in the “Capstone General and Flag Officer Course,” a five-week tranche of classes and events run through National Defense University, in Washington, D.C., for all of the services. The course is much more about teaching officers how to operate in the “joint” way with other services, but ethics and general officer behavior is discussed extensively with the newest generals and admirals over dozens of hours.

“As part of the Capstone curriculum they get an opportunity to meet with most of the senior leadership, both military and civilian,” said Stephen R. Pietropaoli, senior director of the program and a retired 1-star rear admiral who ran the Navy’s public affairs shop. “They meet with the combatant commanders, the service chiefs,” he said, who, “always talk about generalship, always talk about being a flag officer, always talk about the expectations of the American people and the troops we lead and how they expect us to live those standards.”

“It pretty much comes up in their discussions as a talking point with these guys all the time.”

Formally, the curriculum allots just a few hours to ethics. But under the direction of Adm. Mike Mullen, when he was chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, and continued under the current chairman, Gen. Martin Dempsey, NDU added more emphasis on teaching 3-star officers ethical guidelines for their retirement, on topics such as accepting money as Pentagon advisors and endorsing political candidates. Pietropaoli expected the course would change again following the Petraeus and Allen scandals.

“I can guarantee you the next time Capstone meets in the wake of the current controversies, we’ll spend a lot of time talking about this.”

For many officers, the coursework is not the problem, however. That’s why Defense Secretary Leon Panetta’s order to review all general officer ethics training and behavior is raising eyebrows for many in the Pentagon.

“This is like a stand-down,” said one military official in the Pentagon, speaking anonymously and likening the seriousness of the forthcoming Panetta review to the military’s intense reviews to halt suicides and sexual assault. 

Others were unsure how extensive the review will be or how it will be received. Opinions vary on whether bad boy behavior is pervasive, or even prevalent, among the top brass. For some, the allegations of affairs and sexting emails surrounding Afghanistan war commander Gen. John Allen and retired Gen. David Petraeus are extraordinary anomalies among men and women who have had ethics training engrained into their bones from early ages.

Indeed, it’s no easy task to rise to become a 1-star, let alone a 4-star general like Allen and Petraeus.

“The vetting is a lifelong process,” the officer said, where from the service academies or officer candidate schools through their careers, men’s lives and careers are watched, passing through selection board after selection board to reach the top ranks. Along the way, officers take ethics classes around the world and have access to legal counsel on everything from how to follow the rules regarding travel expenses to accepting gifts, dinners, and public appearances.

“There’s training, there’s regulations, there’s policy,” the official said. “It’s all due diligence.”

In other words, military officers know what is expected of them.

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