Army Whistleblower Turns Populist
He bucked the generals, how bad could retirement be?
Lt. Col. Daniel L. Davis served the Army for 30 years, earning a reputation in the latter stage of his career as a fierce critic of American conduct of the war in Afghanistan as well as the generals who misled Americans about their failures. Davis is leaving for the civilian asphalt jungle this summer, but finding a civilian outlet for his unyielding truth-telling could pose a challenge.
Davis will not join the officers who retire in Washington in order to belly up to the defense industry, hoping to trade their inside knowledge for an executive post or consulting gig. Instead, he’s looking to the nonprofit sector to give the civilian leadership in Washington the same treatment he gave his military superiors in the Pentagon, and to help people become better informed voters. His project is called “Democracy Awake,” though so far it has a lot more potential than resources, Davis tells TAC.
To understand Danny Davis the prospective civilian, it is vital to understand Daniel L. Davis, the Lieutenant Colonel. In 2009, Davis publicly denounced Gen. David Petraeus’s plan to implement an Iraq-style troop surge in Afghanistan, insisting that it “could actually result in a worsening of the situation.” After a 2011 tour in Afghanistan on a Ready Equipping Force, Davis was so struck by the contrast between the conditions on the ground and the sunny reports coming from the generals that he called them out to media and insiders alike for misleading the American public. His treatise went viral, and he took his case to receptive ears in Congress. He likes to say being honest is the least difficult part of his job, and for the last several years, the corruption of power in the military has stuck in his craw.
“It was the right thing to do,” he said, trying not to come off too cornpone for the room. “Not to do something would have been to endanger the lives of the soldiers. It would have been unconscionable for me to keep quiet. That’s how I want to look at everything.”
Not everyone was thrilled with Davis’ call to conscience. After going public, he was ignored in the hallways at the Pentagon, he said, though he wasn’t fired. Ironically, he was shifted to a marketing job where he helped produce slick recruitment videos, a post he very much liked and continued in until his retirement.
In the meantime, he was predictably attacked in establishment military circles, including by retired Col. Joseph J. Collins, a former assistant secretary for stability operations in Afghanistan, who called Davis’ report “a mess.” Collins suggested that Davis’ “Dereliction of Duty II” does an outright disservice to counterinsurgency idol H.R. McMasters’ 1997 book, Dereliction of Duty, which is about how the Joint Chiefs and the White House failed to provide a clear strategy for victory in the Vietnam War.
“McMaster’s book by the same title was well-researched and well-written. Davis’s work is neither. Davis’s work should be called ‘Dereliction of Civility’ or maybe, ‘Death by Semi-anonymous Anecdote,’ or ‘My Turn for Warhol-hood,’” groused Collins.
“Davis is not a hero, but he will go into the whistleblower hall of fame. If years hence, he doesn’t make full Colonel, it will be construed as punishment, but there is nothing in this report that suggests he has any such potential.” Collins’s own 2008 “pull no punches” tell-all, “Choosing War: the Decision to Invade Iraq and its Aftermath,” was published long after he and former bosses (Wolfowitz, Rumsfeld) were safely out the door, and the Bush administration itself soon to follow. Davis, on the other hand, exposed himself by pointing out his superiors’ mistakes as they were making them.
Three years after Davis’s “Dereliction,” official operations in Afghanistan have ended, but the war is hardly won. The Taliban is stepping up attacks, with numerous bombings in Kabul and Helmand province—two former U.S. military “successes.” They’ve declared Kuduz in the north their first major “foothold” since the 2001 U.S. invasion. Leading hawks like Sen. John McCain are now calling for a “reassessment” of the U.S. withdrawal timeline. Five years ago Gen. Petraeus was saying the Taliban was on the run. What happened?
“We have these PR claims of great success everyday, when the evidence overwhelmingly refutes it. Every tactical engagement you can say we ‘won’ but it doesn’t make any difference,” says Davis, noting that our “actions over the last 10 years have worsened our national security, not improved it and I have a big, big problem with that.”
“I served in the military because I love our country and wanted to serve it,” Davis tells TAC, insisting he never gave up on the Army. “The institution of the U.S. Army is fantastic, the people who fill out the ranks are beautiful people, they are true patriots who care about the country.” Unlike Collins, who wrote his books and critiques for his “soldier-scholar” peers at the National Defense University, Davis says he put pen to paper for the U.S. servicemen and women, and by extension, the American people supporting them, who he felt were being misled.
“We have become disenfranchised,” he says, turning to domestic politics in a recent interview. Ticking off stats about the influence of elite money in elections, he notes that in the 2012 election, not one House or Senate member was elected without the help of the “1 percent of the 1 percent,” the 31,385 people in the U.S. who contributed $6 billion in campaign contributions—nearly 30 percent of all (traceable) funds reported by political committees that year overall.
He says the October 2013 government shutdown that left hundreds of thousands of government workers in the lurch over pay was his epiphany.
“I saw how disastrous and horrible it was to the lives of regular people. I knew it would eventually get resolved [by lawmakers],” he says, “and then nothing was going to change. They could have resolved it on Day One, though, and not disrupted the lives of so many people. It was like they didn’t care what the shutdown was gong to do to those people, the ripple effect.”
He says elected officials on Capitol Hill operate on a pay-to-play field that, like in the case of the shutdown, offers no field time for regular people. He scoffs at a system that now lets super PACs and their hyper-wealthy donors, and their lobbyists, call the shots. Just this week, Democratic candidate and Sen. Bernie Sanders echoed this complaint, calling it a “national disgrace” and blasted his fellow candidates scrambling to raise millions before the current quarterly filing deadline.
“Ninety-nine percent have no say in who runs or who wins and have no influence on what they do when they get into office,” Davis concluded. “That is not right and it is not how the country is run.”
To some, this goal of a grassroots movement trying to do an end-run around big money in politics may seem quixotic, if not a bit Pollyannaish, particularly for a man with bills to pay. The Washington area is a most expensive place to live and he has two young sons, 13, and 9, to support. Even with retirement, the need to find a regular-paying job is inevitable. But Davis is not one to look for the easy way out.
“[Davis] embodies all those things that America is supposed to stand for,” says Matthew Hoh, who served as a Marine and a civilian in both Iraq and Afghanistan before resigning in protest of the war policy in 2009. He and others had actually counseled Davis not to go public with his takedown of the generals, fearing it would wreck his career. “He said, ‘I know what this might bring down on me and my family but it is the right thing to do,’” Hoh recalls to TAC.
Hoh isn’t surprised that Davis is trying to shift his attention towards democracy and money in campaigns. “He’s more concerned with truth and integrity than going along and getting along,” he says. But Hoh knows it won’t be easy. After making his own stand, Hoh is still struggling to resume a career. He worked for a spell in the think tank world in Washington, and for personal reasons eventually drifted back to North Carolina. He knows he has burned bridges, and that the whistleblower moniker is both badge and burden.
“Many [military retirees] want to get out and help fix whatever they see is wrong with the policy,” he says. “But no one is going to hire you for that.”
Col. Morris Davis (no relation) knows this. He retired from the U.S. Air Force in 2008 after quitting his post as Guantanamo Bay prosecutor over the use of waterboarding and torture of prisoners. He spent his time in the immediate aftermath writing op-eds, doing media, tangling with the Congressional Research Service, and teaching part-time. Now he is back working for the government, as an administrative judge for the Department of Labor. He says Davis is in “for a rude awakening” in the non-profit world, which looks attractive and clean from the outside, but is really a tangle of fundraising and forced narcissism. “I went into it naive and learned the lessons the hard way,” he tells TAC.
Morris Davis says he wishes Daniel Davis the best, but warns that money is a corrupting influence in the nonprofit world, too, and having a military background can actually hinder, rather, than help the process. Then of course, there’s that truth-telling.
“LTC Davis should understand that neither being military nor being someone who spoke out weigh in his favor,” Morris said in an email to TAC. “They’ll pat him on the back for what he did there, but they’ll be concerned that he might do it again here. In other words, they admire you pointing out someone else’s warts, but they’ll worry you might expose their theirs.”
Davis says that money—big business—is ruining the military’s vision and effectiveness. The resources poured into bad weapons systems, ships, and vehicles because one contractor dominated the process themselves create massive liabilities in the long-term. He blames the breed of yes-men at the top, and sees the same phenomenon afflicting the political scene on the civilian side of American life.
“I feel there is a small group of people who are taking the country in the wrong direction and one day it could have catastrophic consequences,” he says.
So what to do about it? A self-described conservative independent, Davis wants DemocracyAwake.org to offer an accessible online platform called a “power hub” to serve as a clearinghouse for voter information and a grassroots meeting place, for all political persuasions. He began a crowd-sourcing campaign to raise $30,000 to start building, but it’s barely simmering so he’s now adjusting that goal while looking for a job. There are soft landings in security-related positions all over the greater D.C. area, and then there is hard reality. Right now, it can go either way.
“I’m not looking to make money for myself, I’m looking to make a difference. I’m looking to at where I can use my skills and abilities,” he said. “I want a job with a purpose.”
Kelley Beaucar Vlahos is a Washington, D.C.-based freelance reporter and TAC contributing editor. Follow her on Twitter.