In my last article, I noted the U.S. military’s pursuit and prosecution of wars based on lies. Vietnam, Afghanistan, and Iraq are the most prominent and costly of these wars, though there were and are others. I argued that dishonorable wars were wasting the courage of U.S. troops even as they greatly weakened the U.S. military as an institution. And not just the U.S. military but the Constitution itself, to which all military members swear a sacred oath to support and defend.
I shared my article with a friend who teaches at a senior U.S. military school, and his one comment to me was a question: “How would you fix these problems?”
I’m flattered when my readers think I have the answers to fix major systemic problems that have existed and persisted since the Korean War, if not before. My colleague’s question was sincere, I am sure, and I assume he agreed with much of my analysis since he didn’t question or challenge my fundamental thesis.
Of course, I’m not the only person to have noticed the U.S. military has a serious issue with honor and integrity. Vox Populi posted my last article today with the following photo caption:
Leaders lie “in the routine performance of their duties,” and “ethical and moral transgressions [occur] across all levels” of the organization [Army]. Leaders have also become “ethically numb,” using “justifications and rationalizations” to overcome any ethical doubts, according to a 2015 study by Leonard Wong and Stephen Gerras, who are both professors at the U.S. Army War College.
The title of the Wong/Gerras study is “Lying to Ourselves: Dishonesty in the Army Profession,” published in 2019. Another powerful book is Tim Bakken’s “The Cost of Loyalty: Dishonesty, Hubris, and Failure in the U.S. Military,” published in 2020. Bakken teaches at West Point.
So, what is to be done?
I wrote to my colleague that he should put his question to his own students. Since he teaches at a senior military school, his students are mostly Army and Air Force colonels and Navy captains on the fast track to flag rank and stars. Many of them are America’s future generals and admirals. Surely they are the ones who have to come up with solutions, not me. I retired from the military almost two decades ago. I’m no longer part of the clan. Today’s officers are the ones who must challenge the lies, who must seek honor instead of dishonor, who must have the moral courage as public servants to speak up, to change things, and especially to tell the truth to the American people.
Are we as a nation challenging our public servants, including senior military officers, to be men and women of integrity? Are we insisting that they tell the truth when they testify to Congress? When they talk about wars, are they being frank and honest? Or are they evasive and dishonest? If the latter, are they being held accountable for their lies, both within the military and without it, by Congress and by people like us?
I didn’t attend a senior service school, but I did attend Squadron Officer School (for company-grade officers, which I did in-residence) and Air Command and Staff College (for field-grade officers, which I did by correspondence). From what I recall, there was some emphasis on history, on strategy and tactics, and on leadership but not much emphasis, if any, on moral courage, honesty, truth-telling, and integrity.
Fundamental to any military member is the need to honor one’s oath to the U.S. Constitution. We as a nation need to demand that military leaders serve with honor and integrity; this is far more important to the future of our military and our country than gargantuan military budgets and loads of exotic and expensive weaponry.
I remember exactly one discussion at the Air Force Academy when a roomful of officers started debating about which value was most important, the honor code or loyalty (with loyalty here construed in personal terms as support for one’s superiors, equals, and subordinates). The discussion grew heated in a matter of minutes before it was shut down by the senior officer in the room.
That’s exactly one time in six years that I recall a serious, if abbreviated, discussion of honor and truth-telling versus loyalty and the officer’s duty to both, and the challenge one faces when honor conflicts (or seems to conflict) with loyalty.
The failure to address such tensions is not confined to the military. Think of other hierarchical organizations such as the Catholic Church. As a priest, do you honor God’s commandments and the moral teachings of Christ or should you be loyal to your local bishop and the church? When your conscience tells you one thing and the church tells you something else, which one takes priority?
Readers here know I was raised Catholic. I am no longer a practicing Catholic due to the church’s betrayal of children at the hands of predatory priests and the coverups that followed, done in the name of protecting the church and its reputation. In protecting itself, the church betrayed the people. The church lied. The church lacked moral courage and brought dishonor upon itself. Worst of all, it allowed innocent children to suffer.
Whether we’re talking about military officers or ministers and priests, we must demand integrity and honesty, we must seek to inculcate virtue, and we must not tolerate lying, cheating, stealing, and similar crimes and sins.
It’s a very high standard indeed, and perhaps few will live up to it, but I’m not demanding perfection. Just honesty and accountability. A willingness to do the right thing and the courage to admit when the wrong thing is being done and to act to put a stop to it.
So, that’s my “fix” for the U.S. military: a commitment to righteous service where integrity and truth-telling is the priority, even when it hurts one’s career. Because you didn’t take an oath to your career or to your service or to your commanding officer: you took it to the U.S. Constitution, and your officer’s commission is granted by Congress in the name of the people. Serve the people, serve the truth, and remember that moral courage is rarer even than physical courage.
Update (10/3): Clearly, one way to incentivize truth-telling is to reward those who come forward with promotions. The military, however, tends to do the opposite, punishing those who tell “embarrassing” truths to the American people. Two cases in the U.S. Army are LTC Daniel Davis and LTC Paul Yingling. Davis wrote powerfully and honestly about the folly of the Afghan War, based upon his extensive in-country experiences there. Yingling wrote “A Failure in Generalship,” where he noted a private who loses a rifle suffers more repercussions than generals who lose wars. For their courage and honesty, both were ostracized and not promoted.
All service branches usually promote “the true believers,” those who conform, those who who bleed Army green, or Air Force blue, and so on. One gets promoted for doing a good job within the system, and especially for making one’s superiors look good. Davis and Yingling questioned the Army’s performance in the Iraq and Afghan Wars, based on their direct experience with those wars, and for that they were punished.
Other Army officers took note.