It is unreasonable to expect that an officer who spends 25 years conforming to institutional expectations will emerge as an innovator in his late forties.
So writes Army Lieutenant Colonel Paul Yingling, Deputy Commander, 3rd Armored Calvary Regiment, in an Armed Forces Journal article entitled “A Failure of Generalship.” LTC Yingling has served two tours in Iraq, another in Bosnia and a fourth in Operation Desert Storm. In what Washington Post reporter Thomas E. Ricks calls "a blistering attack," Yingling writes that, as they did in Vietnam, today’s general officers have:
failed to envision the conditions of future combat and prepare their forces accordingly.... to estimate correctly both the means and the ways necessary to achieve the aims of policy prior to beginning the war in Iraq.... [and to] provide Congress and the public with an accurate assessment of the conflict in Iraq.
Though LTC Yingling points the finger at no general officer in particular, such criticism even in general terms from an active duty Army officer is an extraordinary thing. I am neither a present nor former service member of the U.S. Armed Forces nor am I an expert on military law. However, based on decades of close experience with the military, I can pretty much guarantee that just about every military lawyer will soon be thinking, if only academically, about what, if any, disciplinary action could conceivably be taken against LTC Yingling and whether that will be formally considered by his chain of command. Short of direct disciplinary action against him which might risk further negative publicity, it must be assumed that the odds are now prohibitively against his future promotion (and thus against his future) in the Army.
It may sound odd to say, but that is not necessarily a bad thing. Whatever degree of personal or professional sacrifice Yingling’s decision to publish his article may entail, there is much to be said for the notion that good order and discipline in the Army requires that its serving officers, at least below the rank of general officer, refrain from public criticism of their superiors. Then, too, for all I know Yingling may already have burned his bridges, as it were, and his published views may merely be what amounts to a parting gesture. I couldn’t say. Moreover, some of his recommendations, e.g., placing greater emphasis on civilian graduate education and foreign language proficiency for general officer candidates, hardly seem as compelling as he suggests.
Nonetheless, what I can say is that from my admittedly non-expert perspective much of what he writes rings true; that, for example, “professional military men [have tended to] blame their recent lack of candor on the intimidating management style of their civilian masters” and that “[I]n a system in which senior officers select for promotion those like themselves, there are powerful incentives for conformity.” The latter is all well and good if the process is producing the sort of generals needed, but what if it isn’t? If anything, the unwillingness or inability of senior military leadership to be candid, not merely to senior civilian leadership but to the American public itself is some evidence that the process is not producing the sort of military leadership required either in Iraq or in general.
It is a fundamental principle of American law and of the entire structure of the Department of Defense that our military forces ultimately be subject to civilian control. Only a fool or a would-be despot would wish differently. The current enabling legislation for that principle is the Goldwater Nichols DOD Reorganization Act of 1986, late Cold War legislation that still presupposed a vastly different military mission from the situation the Armed Forces confront today. Whether or not he is correct in the particulars of his desired reforms, Yingling is correct in arguing that the responsibility for reform must primarily rest with Congress. Congress should seek reforms which, at minimum, provide senior military leadership the opportunity for candor which current institutional structures not only do not facilitate but, in fact, inhibit.
In an age when not only candor but honor and integrity were more highly valued in society than they are today, we might more reasonably have expected more senior military officers to be willing, when circumstances demanded it, to forsake their own careers for the greater good of the nation. My sense of that leadership leads me to conclude that such expectations would be almost completely unreasonable today and that the sort of moral courage of which Yingling speaks is, in fact, sadly lacking.
Does America now face the sort of mortal danger of which LTC Yingling warns? I don’t think so. But mortal danger or not, we might all sleep more soundly at night if we had better reason to believe that the responsibility for sounding such alarms was met not by lieutenant colonels but by their superior officers. We have no reason to believe that today.