The specter of command cowardiceBy Gregory D. Foster, a West Point graduate, was a decorated infantry company commander in the Vietnam War, serving in the 11th Brigade of the Americal Division, the unit responsible for the My Lai massacre
June 9, 2006
As further details emerge about the alleged massacre by U.S. troops of some two dozen civilians in the Iraqi town of Haditha, the largely unacknowledged crisis that afflicts U.S. civil-military relations today assumes growing proportions.
To anyone who rightly expects the military to be a model of propriety answerable to the public it serves, it would be a mistake to dismiss this episode as a mere aberration brought on by combat stress or to write it off as the fault of something so nebulous as the fog of war.
It would be no less a mistake to blame the press for unpatriotically reporting the story or "liberal" critics for blowing it out of proportion and overzealously rushing to judgment.
It would even be a mistake simply to blame the troops who perpetrated the massacre--if that is what it was--even though they clearly must be held accountable and brought to justice for their actions.
In the final analysis, blame ultimately belongs on the shoulders of those who wear stars: the generals who, consistent with the supreme canon of their profession, bear final responsibility for all that does or doesn't happen under their command.
Military officers crave command--especially combat command. It is the most deeply ingrained aspirational imperative of their culture. It is what gets them promoted, brings them rewards and decorations, affords them recognition and adulation, gives them tentative hope of someday entering the pantheon of Great Captains, empowers them to dispense unassailable orders to dutifully obedient subordinates, feeds their sense of self-importance and accomplishment, distinguishes successful from unsuccessful careers. But privilege, prestige and prerogative isn't what command is--or ought to be--about. Command is about what justifies conflating it with leadership in the first place: the willingness to assume responsibility.
Recall the movie depiction of Gen. George Patton's rousing World War II speech to his Third Army, when he says: "The Nazis are the enemy. Wade into them. Spill their blood. Shoot them in the belly. When you put your hand into a bunch of goo that a moment before was your best friend's face, you'll know what to do."
That was then--when knowing what to do, even under extreme duress, was relatively straightforward; when enemies were whom they appeared to be; when Marquis of Queensberry rules tended to govern war's conduct.
This is now--when knowing what to do, even under routine conditions, isn't always obvious; when formally prescribed rules of engagement leave ample room for confusion and interpretation; when it is frequently unclear who is friend or foe, combatant or non-combatant. Yet mistaking the one for the other, under the microscope of media-age transparency, all too often produces instantaneous, strategically deleterious consequences. Precisely for this reason, military troops today must be more disciplined, mature, emotionally stable, morally sound and intellectually astute than ever before.
Unfortunately, these are traits the military fails to nurture or reward adequately. Instead, an unsettlingly pervasive drumbeat of Pattonesque, chest-thumping, rabble-rousing rhetoric about the virtues of "warfighting," "warfighters" and "warriors" fosters a climate far more conducive to intolerant aggression than to the stoic self-discipline that urban warfare in hostile foreign lands demands. This testosterone-laced climate provides tacit, subliminal license for troops to choose the undisciplined moral low road in the face of stress, fear and fatigue. For this, commanders who otherwise could claim to have neither ordered nor condoned heinous acts must assume responsibility.
It is long past time to test whether the military's self-image of the heroic commander is myth or reality.
First, we must confront our own sadly diminished standards of moral courage, exemplified by the half dozen retired generals who, their pensions secure, recently called for Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld's resignation. While on active duty, they said nothing publicly, much less tendered their resignations, over the strategic and operational shortcomings of our Iraq folly.
More to the point in reflecting our diminished standards of moral courage is the military's long-standing practice of scapegoating--especially lower ranking enlisted personnel and junior officers--in response to all manner of transgressions and catastrophes. Consider My Lai and Abu Ghraib.
The American public is itself morally suspect if we continue such scapegoating in the Haditha case. What we must demand, and have a right to expect, is that senior general officers stand up to be counted. Here is their script: "I take full responsibility for this execrable act of indiscipline, illegality and immorality; for failing to ensure that the troops under my command were adequately prepared; for creating a climate that inadvertently encouraged such behavior. Accordingly, I hereby relinquish my command and stand ready to face the consequences for my subordinates' actions."
Nothing less should suffice if the military is to be worthy of the public trust reposed in it.
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