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Moral Courage and the Officer Corps in Rumsfeld’s Pentagon


On Wednesday, I did a slot on CSPAN’s Washington Journal. One of the callers, a retired officer, used his question opportunity to make a statement. He recalled Colonel David Hackworth’s famous analysis of the Vietnam War and questioned whether America had any more Hackworths in its midst. No doubt the Rumsfeld Pentagon made a priority of eliminating those it could find. But Hackworth does indeed reflect an important part of the American military tradition. Hack was a complex figure, but if we had to boil him down to just one thesis, then surely it was this: when they see that things are going wrong in a war, officers on the ground have a moral responsibility to stand up and be sure that the message gets back to those up the chain of command, including the political leadership. He was terribly concerned about the negative influence of careerism—that officers will do what is safe and what is most likely to lead to their career advancement—not what is right and in the best interest of their troops and country.

The essential ingredient might well be called moral courage. It’s something different from battlefield courage. It means doing the right thing even when people far up the chain of command are doing the wrong thing. And it means doing your best to convince them they’re making a mistake, if you are convinced they’re making a mistake.

Fred Kaplan offers a very good article entitled “Challenging the Generals,” devoted to this issue in today’s New York Times Magazine. Kaplan approaches the question not through Hackworth, but through a recent article entitled “Failure in Generalship” by Lt. Col. Paul Yingling, which takes the focus away from the field commanders and places it more firmly on the general staff.

Yingling’s article — published in the May issue of Armed Forces Journal — noted that a key role of generals is to advise policy makers and the public on the means necessary to win wars. “If the general remains silent while the statesman commits a nation to war with insufficient means,” he wrote, “he shares culpability for the results.” Today’s generals “failed to envision the conditions of future combat and prepare their forces accordingly,” and they failed to advise policy makers on how much force would be necessary to win and stabilize Iraq. These failures, he insisted, stemmed not just from the civilian leaders but also from a military culture that “does little to reward creativity and moral courage.” He concluded, “As matters stand now, a private who loses a rifle suffers far greater consequences than a general who loses a war.”

General Cody looked around the auditorium, packed with men and women in uniform — most of them in their mid-20s, three decades his junior but far more war-hardened than he or his peers were at the same age — and turned Captain Wignall’s question around. “You all have just come from combat, you’re young captains,” he said, addressing the entire room. “What’s your opinion of the general officers corps?”

Over the next 90 minutes, five captains stood up, recited their names and their units and raised several of Yingling’s criticisms. One asked why the top generals failed to give political leaders full and frank advice on how many troops would be needed in Iraq. One asked whether any generals “should be held accountable” for the war’s failures. One asked if the Army should change the way it selected generals. Another said that general officers were so far removed from the fighting, they wound up “sheltered from the truth” and “don’t know what’s going on.”

The tension between the need for military discipline, upholding the authority of command, and the need to do the right thing and make essential corrections when errors are made, is a very old one. One thinks for instance of Heinrich von Kleist’s famous play “Der Prinz von Homburg” (1809) in which an officer wins a stunning victory on the field of battle, though only by disobeying a direct command not to engage the enemy without specific authority. Military discipline required severe punishment for the victor’s offense: execution.

In a democratic society, the role and responsibility of the officer corps has always been seen as something different from that of the aristocratic order of Kleist’s day. One way this expresses itself is in acceptance of the primacy of the law and of the Constitution—an officer should not obey or implement an unlawful order; though the officer may be at grave peril in thinking an order unlawful. If he or she is wrong, the consequences can be terrible.

The question of legality of orders is a current topic, of course. The introduction of highly coercive interrogation techniques let to some serious conflicts, and a number of officers who declined to implement instructions they considered unlawful. Only a few of these have thus far worked their way into the media. By and large the Rumsfeld Pentagon chose to deal with these cases through another route. Some officers were allowed to retire with their reputations intact. Others became the target of vendettas, sometimes quite vicious ones at that. And only this week we have learned that the generals responsible for legal policy were so distraught over Bush’s recent executive order that they went to Congressional Republican leaders to protest it.

But Yingling’s issue is a bit more technical and less geared to broad policy concerns. Kaplan puts it this way:

Yingling’s concern is more narrowly professional, but it should matter greatly to future policy makers who want to consult their military advisers. The challenge is how to ensure that generals possess the experience and analytical prowess to formulate sound military advice and the “moral courage,” as Yingling put it, to take responsibility for that advice and for its resulting successes or failures. The worry is that too few generals today possess either set of qualities — and that the promotional system impedes the rise of officers who do.

As today’s captains and majors come up through the ranks, the culture may change. One question is how long that will take. Another question is whether the most innovative of those junior officers will still be in the Army by the time the top brass decides reform is necessary. As Colonel Wilson, the West Point instructor, put it, “When that moment comes, will there be enough of the right folks in the right slots to make the necessary changes happen?”

These are important questions. Intelligent leadership will appreciate the necessity of getting the best and most candid analytical skills their officers have to give and won’t consider this insubordination. An officer corps of “yes men” would be a disaster. This doesn’t completely explain the present quandary in Iraq, but Yingling’s critique may an important part of the story.

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