Where's the outrage at Pentagon horrors?

From kiddie porn to financial mismanagement, the Defense Department is awash in scandals

September 20, 2010|By Thomas F. Schaller

Why is there not more public outrage about the reported excesses and criminal behavior at — what federal department was it, again? The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services? Or was it the Department of the Interior?

During the past decade, the agency in question (the Labor Department, perhaps?) has been unable to account for nearly $9 billion of appropriated dollars, some of it in cash. Top officials have misrepresented the department's performance and attempted to hide scandals ranging from accidental fatalities to the rapes committed by its employees. And now we learn that top officials initially turned a blind eye toward an online child pornography scandal.

The kiddie porn reference probably gave me away, because by now you may have guessed that all the incidents above actually involve the U.S. Department of Defense.

It was the Defense Department that couldn't explain what happened to billions of bundled American dollars in cash shipped to Iraq. It was the Defense Department that lied about the circumstances surrounding the death in Afghanistan of former National Football League star Pat Tillman. It is within the ranks of our military where thousands of female soldiers and Marines are sexually harassed or raped while on duty.

And it was more than 250 Pentagon staffers or consultants who apparently used credit cards — and, astonishingly, in some cases provided their military addresses — to order kiddie porn online. Presumably, some of these alleged felons downloaded illegal pictures and videos using taxpayer-funded computers during taxpayer-funded office hours.

The Tillman story is tragic and by now familiar. Mr. Tillman gave up the fame and fortune of the NFL to serve his country, and was killed accidentally by friendly fire. But rather than tell the truth about the circumstances surrounding his death, top Pentagon officials propagated the notion that the former defensive back was killed by hostile fire.

The rampant sexual harassment and violence within military ranks is equally tragic and doubly shocking; a 2003 survey result indicated that 30 percent of 550 female war veterans had been raped and nearly 80 percent report having been sexually harassed by their fellow servicemen. Now Helen Benedict has interviewed 40 female soldiers for her book "The Lonely Soldier," which paints a horrific picture of life for many women in uniform. Supporting the troops means supporting the female troops, too, and "harm's way" shouldn't include some dark corner of what are supposed to be safe barracks.

To put these scandals and their coverage into some perspective, consider the ACORN scandal that became a front-page, almost nonstop national story last year. Although ACORN got what it had coming to it, keep in mind that ACORN is a private organization that depends only partially on a smattering of government grants that amounted to, at even the most expansive estimate, about one six-hundred-thousandth of total annual federal spending. The Defense Department, by contrast, is a government agency that accounts for roughly one-fifth of all federal spending annually.

Let me pre-empt angry letters and e-mails right now by making very clear that the vast majority of people who wear chevrons, epaulets or combat boots to work each day are good soldiers and fine citizens. They are honest, devoted patriots who put in long hours, often for low pay, while serving for months away from their families, often in dangerous locales. Too many of them came home from Afghanistan and Iraq missing a limb or any eye or their hearing. And many of those who did return physically whole are psychologically traumatized by what they saw or had to do on the front lines.

But that only makes the malfeasance at the Pentagon and within the military ranks — particularly acts committed by officers, desk personnel or private-sector consultants who do not serve on the front lines — all the more worthy of our collective public outrage.

Americans support the troops. We show it with ribbons and verbal tributes before ballgames, at parades and during other public events. The service men and women deserve every bit of this recognition and attention.

But categorical support for the troops does not imply blind support of the military as a government entity. Like any other agency, the Department of Defense can fall prey to wasteful spending, bureaucratic intransigence, corruption and even scandal — not to mention the reflexive tendency to cover up its failings.

And that's why sometimes the best way to give your heart to the troops is to keep your eye on their bosses.

Thomas F. Schaller teaches political science at UMBC. His column appears regularly. His e-mail is schaller67@gmail.com.

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