Generals March in Silence

Originally posted: May 4, 2007

Greencastle, Ind. – My nomination for the most courageous act of political journalism this year goes to Paul Yingling, who writes for Armed Forces Journal.

Yingling is a lieutenant colonel who has served two tours in Iraq, another in Bosnia and a fourth in Operation Desert Storm. What he writes about is summed up in the title of his article, “A Failure in Generalship.”

In Lt. Col. Yingling’s words: “For the second time in a generation the U.S. faces the prospect of defeat at the hands of an insurgency.”

What Yingling argues very persuasively, and I paraphrase, is that America’s general officer corps shares a good measure of responsibility for our country’s failing effort in Iraq. After Vietnam, military strategists stuck with preparations for the same old state-on-state conflicts like wars of the past. They did too little to prepare for the counterinsurgency combat of the future. Meanwhile, America’s enemies prepared for a new kind of war.

When the Bush administration decided to go to war in Iraq, America’s generals stifled their skepticism, allowed themselves to be bullied into line behind the policy and didn’t warn the country that it was being set up to fail. These are harsh charges. “To prevail,” Yingling contends, “generals must provide policymakers and the public with a correct estimate of strategic probabilities.”

Once Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld humiliated and marginalized Gen. Eric Shinseki for calling for several hundred thousand soldiers, the rest of the generals got the message. They lacked the courage to buck the determination of Rumsfeld, Vice President Cheney and Paul Wolfowitz. So the public never got a realistic assessment of the needs of the war. The generals had many doubts, but mostly kept America in the dark.

The generals kept their reservations to themselves, says Yingling, so neither the American public nor Congress ever got an accurate portrayal of the intensity of the insurgency. In effect, they buckled to the forceful, intimidating, dismissive style of Don Rumsfeld. Yingling says very plainly and with devastating effect that among America’s generals there has been what he terms a lack of moral courage: “In almost surreal language, professional military men blame their recent lack of candor on the intimidating management style of their civilian masters.” In other words, your career is at stake, keep quiet.

There is something deeply wrong with an institution, when its top leadership goes before Congress, systematically fails to tell the truth, and everyone who knows the truth becomes complicit by their silence. There is no penalty for a general who fails to provide Congress with an accurate and candid assessment of strategic possibilities, says Yingling, adding, “As it stands now, a private who loses a rifle suffers far greater consequences than a general who loses a war.”

Armies do not fight wars; nations fight wars, Yingling admonishes, and the passion of the people is necessary. Neither the Bush administration nor the military ever engaged the public. For example, we still have not been told the strategic risks of committing so large a portion of the nation’s land power to a single theater of operations. As with Vietnam, success is just around the corner. And if you have reservations about the war, keep them to yourself and just support the troops.

Yingling notes that now some generals are finding their voices. “They may be too late,” he concludes.

At the bottom of Yingling’s article is this disclaimer: “The views expressed here are the author’s and do not necessarily reflect those of the Army or the Defense Department.” That’s for sure.

In 1997, H.R. McMaster wrote “Dereliction of Duty,” his classic study of the Joint Chiefs during Vietnam. McMaster’s thesis is that in failing to stand up to Lyndon Johnson, the generals “unforgivably shirked their responsibilities.” In the recent Vanity Fair article “The Night of the Generals,” David Margolick cites the Vietnam example of Army Chief of Staff Harold K. Johnson, who believed President Johnson had handed him an unwinnable war and a deeply flawed plan to fight it. Privately, Gen. Johnson resolved to resign in protest. He did not, and he never forgave himself. “I’m now going to my grave with that lapse in moral courage on my back,” says Johnson.

If Paul Yingling is right, it would seem that there are many candidates for that same distinction among America’s general officer corps.

All of which raises the question: Is it possible to support the troops but not the generals?

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