FEATURE: Challenging the generals

Challenging the generals
By Fred Kaplan, New York Times, August 26, 2007

On Aug. 1, Gen. Richard Cody, the United States Army’s vice chief of staff, flew to the sprawling base at Fort Knox, Ky., to talk with the officers enrolled in the Captains Career Course. These are the Army’s elite junior officers. Of the 127 captains taking the five-week course, 119 had served one or two tours of duty in Iraq or Afghanistan, mainly as lieutenants. Nearly all would soon be going back as company commanders. A captain named Matt Wignall, who recently spent 16 months in Iraq with a Stryker brigade combat team, asked Cody, the Army’s second-highest-ranking general, what he thought of a recent article by Lt. Col. Paul Yingling titled “A Failure in Generalship.” The article, a scathing indictment that circulated far and wide, including in Iraq, accused the Army’s generals of lacking “professional character,” “creative intelligence” and “moral courage.”

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.” [complete article]

Editor’s Comment — While the constraints on innovation inside the military are obviously embedded in military culture and the promotions process, there seem to be a number of other factors worth considering.

As self-contained as military culture might be, it is surely influenced by trends evident in society at large. In late 2002 and early 2003, opposition to the imminent war was marginal. Not once was the American antiwar movement able to match Louis Farrakhan’s crowd-pulling power and mobilize a million-strong gathering in Washington. While most of the nation either actively or passively supported the war, it seems unrealistic to imagine that there would be many serious expressions of dissent from inside the military.

The uniformed leadership of the U.S. military are part of the Pentagon’s political culture. They might defer to civilian policymakers but they are an integral branch of the military industrial complex. As such, they have a vested interest in promoting and sustaining those programs that serve this matrix of political, commercial and budgetary needs. Innovation is likely to be deemed good, only to the extent that those needs continue being well served. Pen-pushing generals inside the Pentagon, once retired, slide easily into the boardrooms of a defense industry that ultimately has more interest in who places purchase orders than who uses their products.

The next major test of the moral courage of the generals will probably be whether they are willing to resign en masse rather than follow orders to attack Iran. Rumor has it that a number of generals are ready to rise to the challenge, but I have no confidence that this will happen. The heroism that promises a pension cut and no medals can only appeal to a rare minority. How many people can say that they achieved great success in this world by being true to their conscience?

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