Generals and majors
Posted by Ron Coleman on November 11, 2008
This somewhat stinging look at soldiering was first published on April 27, 2007. I added a new first sentence. — RDC
“Generals and majors, uh huh,” goes the old lefty XTC song… And in between them are colonels — in this case, Lt. Col. Paul Yingling, who has written a scathing critique of his superiors’ conduct of the Iraq war in the Armed Forces Journal, a non-governmental publication:
For the second time in a generation, the United States faces the prospect of defeat at the hands of an insurgency. In April 1975, the U.S. fled the Republic of Vietnam, abandoning our allies to their fate at the hands of North Vietnamese communists. In 2007, Iraq’s grave and deteriorating condition offers diminishing hope for an American victory and portends risk of an even wider and more destructive regional war.
These debacles are not attributable to individual failures, but rather to a crisis in an entire institution: America’s general officer corps. America’s generals have failed to prepare our armed forces for war and advise civilian authorities on the application of force to achieve the aims of policy. The argument that follows consists of three elements. First, generals have a responsibility to society to provide policymakers with a correct estimate of strategic probabilities. Second, America’s generals in Vietnam and Iraq failed to perform this responsibility. Third, remedying the crisis in American generalship requires the intervention of Congress.
“Yingling served as deputy commander of the 3rd Armored Cavalry Regiment. He has served two tours in Iraq, another in Bosnia and a fourth in Iraq’s Operation Desert Storm in 1991. He attended the Army’s elite School for Advanced Military Studies and has written for one of the Army’s top professional journals, Military Review,” according to the AP; his byline says he “is deputy commander, 3rd Armored Calvary Regiment. He has served two tours in Iraq, another in Bosnia and a fourth in Operation Desert Storm. He holds a master’s degree in political science from the University of Chicago.” He’s the real deal, in other words. It’ s a long article, and Yingling goes to great pains to prove his point, but I am hardly fit to say whether his analysis is correct or dead wrong. You simply have to know the topic to make that decision and read his analysis critically, and I don’t; neither Yingling’s rank nor his use of of military and tactical terminology tell me anything about his qualification to judge the work of the officers who command him. Interestingly, the magazine offers a forum for reader discussion, and when I wrote this, there were no comments at all — even though this article is being reported on Drudge and the Associated Press.
Democracy: Good. Free speech: Good. Honesty: Good.
Active duty military officers criticizing their superiors in print? I don’t know. If he’s right, I want to know, don’t I? But aren’t there problems with this? A year ago, a debate erupted over public commentary about the White House’s management of the war by retired generals. This seemed mostly to be a matter of a breach of custom, a lapse in discretion, though Fred Kaplan, who frequently covers the military (and always criticizes the Bush White House regardless of what it does), thought it was the beginning of something much bigger. The focus then was on public criticism among active officers of civilian policy-making or policy-makers, which according to this is actually a crime.
Now it is something different: A military man is criticizing the general officers’ corps — his uniformed bosses. It is not as bad as criticizing the Secretary of Defense or the Commander in Chief, because it does not threaten the constitutional principle of civilian leadership of the military. On the other hand, the publication of this article is arguably a serious breach of military protocol, which of course Yingling knows. It is a perfectly sensible policy that one not use the press or other vehicles outside the chain of command to circumvent that chain, whether in terms of policy or otherwise. There are exceptions in the case of the reporting of crimes — but policy disagreements?
What should be done? Evidently the issue of free speech in the military is a grey area. It should be. For one thing, as was recognized during the torrent of criticism against Donald Rumsfeld by retired officers, there is a difference between commissioned officers and enlisted personnel. More discretion can, and should, be given to high-ranking officers whose criticisms are not likely to constitute serious threats to military discipline or morale. According to this article by Major Felix F. Moran originally published in Air University Review, there are seven relevant principles of military justice at work here:
Specific articles prohibit:
1. Commissioned officers from using contemptuous words against the President and other senior civilian government officials.
2. Any person from behaving with disrespect toward a superior commissioned officer.
3. Insubordinate conduct (speech) toward a warrant officer, noncommissioned officer or petty officer.
4. Willful disobedience of an order or regulation.
5. Persons from making provoking or reproachful speeches or gestures towards other persons subject to the UCMJ.
6. Conduct unbecoming an officer.
7. Conduct prejudicial to the good order and discipline of the armed forces, or that will bring discredit upon the service.
Shooting from the hip, it’s hard to see a problem with Yingling’s article, separate from the content which, again, I can’t speak to. There is a question as to “respect toward a superior commissioned officer,” but not a serious one, nor is it conduct unbecoming an officer or, as I said, prejudicial to good order and discipline. On the other hand, Moran notes that within the corps of military professionals, there are additional considerations:
[C]urrent  guidelines have been clarified and reinforced by Secretary of the Army Clifford L. Alexander, Jr., in his address at West Point on 8 June 1977. Secretary Alexander outlined three distinct forums for opinion by the military professional:
1. Within the military: Opinions can be voiced freely within the chain of command. Once a final decision has been made, however, the soldier’s responsibility is to work in a creative and dedicated manner to execute the decision.
2. Before Congress: A military man can freely express personal opinion when asked. Once policy has been established, it is his duty to cite the policy and his intent to follow it. If asked, he can state an opinion at odds with the policy, so long as the opinion is so identified.
3. Dealing with the media: The officer must be aware that even before policy is established, expressing personal opinion may be contrary to the national interest. On the other hand, in some cases, discussion may be helpful in the formulation of policy. The official must be sure to state that policy has not been established or is subject to final review by military or civilian authority.
Secretary Alexander further noted that, “in almost no instance will the national interest be served by a military person voicing disagreement with established policy. . . . Attempts to achieve outside the chain of command what one could not achieve inside the chain of command are out of keeping with this tradition [of the President as Commander-in-Chief] and inconsistent with military professionalism.”
These guidelines, though written generally, do seem still to focus on criticism of civilian authorities. It doesn’t seem likely that Lt. Colonel Yingling is going to get in legal trouble for his article, though given the culture of the Army it is hard to imagine him making general short of major reforms — he has now made his stand, according to his conscience, and is not likely to flourish in the military because of it. It may have been the right thing to do, but on the other hand citizens concerned about the effectiveness of the military, including Yingling himself, can hardly wish to see the likes of it done again soon. That realization must speak to how profoundly Yingling believes in the words he wrote, and how frustrated he must be, over the incompetence he perceives. The suggestion that it is not political, but military incompetence, at work here is certainly an important contribution to policy debate, and it is only someone of Col. Yingling’s stature who can make it.
UPDATE: Some milblogs comment:
My source? This search on Milblogging.com.