Publicly Airing the Military's Dirty Laundry: Caught on the Horns of a Dilemma?

By Wayne Mastin

More and more, America is witnessing an outcry from its military members about the competence and responsibility of its leadership. The beginning of this current crop of critical analyses seems to have been an article entitled "A Failure in Generalship" in the May 2007 issue of Armed Forces Journal by Army Lieutenant Colonel Paul Yingling. Another example is the piece entitled, "The War as We Saw It," by several young soldiers from the 82d Airborne Division that the New York Times published on August 19, 2007. Now retired General Ricardo Sanchez has added his voice to the clamor.

Discussion of the military's failings is not a new phenomenon. What makes this round of comment unique is the venue in which the criticism is being made—the mainstream media. The military has its own series of publications that, while publicly available, tend not to be noticed by the public. These publications are more like their civilian academic counterparts, catering to a narrowly focused audience rather than the person on the street. Parameters, for example, is the journal of the Army War College; Military Review comes out of the Army's Command and General Staff College at Fort Leavenworth. The Marine Corps Gazette is the professional journal of the Marine Corps Association, while Proceedings is the journal of the U.S. Naval Institute, which bills itself as the "Professional Society of the Sea Services. The U. S. Air Force also has its professional journals. A second group of publications by publicly held companies exist, like Armed Forces Journal, and the Military Times publications - Army, Marine Corps, Navy and Air Force - but these too cater to a military audience with news and commentary about the life and work of serving military members. In the past, when military members had critical comments, about the services, they sought to have them printed in publications such as these.

The military has traditionally kept itself out of the mainstream media when it came to criticizing its own internal workings, at least until earlier this year. Still, the genesis is probably much earlier. While in Iraq, LTC Paul Yingling was a subordinate of Colonel H.R. McMaster. McMaster published a book in 1998 entitled Dereliction of Duty: Johnson, McNamara, the Joint Chiefs of Staff, and the Lies That Led to Vietnam. He argues in this book that senior military leadership failed in its duty by not protesting vigorously enough against commitment of U.S. forces in Southeast Asia during the 1960s. Yingling is leading a charge that is making a similar claim about the more current military leadership and its duty regarding the use of U.S. forces in Southwest Asia in the first decade of the 21st Century. Traditionally, the military, like almost every other profession has sought to be a self-policing organization. That is, it has established it own internal policies and procedures for investigating and punishing alleged misconduct by its members. While the results of these investigations have been public to some degree, they have usually stayed well below the level of a call for public investigation beyond that already conducted by the military. The interesting question is why the call for accountability has been brought to a more public venue now. What is causing military members to create a hullabaloo in the mainstream media?

One argument is rather straightforward. These writers, having been raised in the aftermath of Vietnam, do not want to undergo treatment similar to that accorded to the veterans of America's Southeast Asian adventure in futility. Neither do they want the institution of the military to have to go through a period of malaise comparable to the one that marked the post-Vietnam military.

Another possibility is that these authors represent a different generation that has a different outlook on what is important. The members of the "Great Generation" who fought in World War II and Korean apparently placed a very high value on the good of the whole and were —to sacrifice themselves to attain it. They seemed to be likely to accept the slogan "My Country - Right or Wrong."

One of the effects of the Watergate years has been a significant loss of trust in government by the American public. This was compounded by such scandals as Iran-Contra during the Reagan years, the Lewinsky scandal in the Clinton Presidency, and the allegations of lying about Iraq's possession of weapons of mass destruction that was a centerpiece of the Bush Administration's justification for invading Iraq in 2003. In light of such events, Americans seem to have become much less —to believe that their country's leaders are really doing what is best for the nation and for the people who comprise it. When an attitude such as that begins to become pervasive, allowing an organization to be self-policing becomes much harder to make palatable to its members. Those who see what seems to be improper conduct in their organization find it hard to believe that an investigation will yield appropriate results. Consequently, to avoid a whitewashing or cover up, they turn outside the organization to seek accountability for what happens within.

When calls for more public accountability are answered, they bring with them more public scrutiny. Once the investigating "camel gets its nose into the tent," keeping its body out becomes extremely difficult. Self-policing functions are likely to be eroded even more as the spotlight is turned on to the organization. The military is not the only profession that is subject to this type of concern. Healthcare is also under more lay scrutiny. A common physician complaint is that they are forced to practice medicine inappropriately by those who really know little or nothing about healthcare besides the profit and loss statements associated with health insurance.

Specialty areas--which traditionally have been the purview of a profession, which are not considered to be common knowledge or "common sense", and which may even have been the basis for creating the profession in the first place--suddenly are the subject of conversation by anyone and everyone. Everyone becomes an expert and a critic. While Monday morning quarterbacking is not likely to have very drastic national consequences when discussing the failure by Joe Torre in his managing of last week's baseball efforts in the American League Division Series, It seems hard to accept that the same can be said for on-going combat operations against committed American forces in a theater of war.

Thus, we have the dilemma or the Catch-22 of Joseph Heller fame. In order to ensure we have better organizational leadership expertise, perhaps we need to have more public scrutiny. However, in getting more public scrutiny, perhaps we undermine the leadership expertise that makes the organization good in the first place. Sometimes, we need to be careful what we wish for.

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