Since the year began I have had opportunities to visit several American military units and schools. What I found was encouraging. A growing number of officers and staff NCOs accept the painful fact that we have lost two wars. They know we need to change if we are not to lose more. Finally, they have come to understand that their services’ senior leaders, their top generals, do not much care about winning or losing. To them, military defeat is irrelevant because the money keeps flowing. The only war the generals care about is the budget war.
The senior military leadership is facing a crisis of legitimacy and does not know it. As one Marine officer put it to me, the generals seem divorced from reality, powerless, and risk-averse. The problem is less what they do than what they do not do, namely address the reasons for our defeats. The dissatisfaction with the senior leadership is coming not only from junior officers. I found it now goes up to the ranks of lieutenant colonel and even colonel.
Nor is the evidence merely anecdotal. The U.S. Army War College’s Strategic Studies Institute in February published a study by two of its faculty members, Leonard Wong and Stephen J. Gerras, Lying to Ourselves: Dishonesty in the Army Profession. Its conclusion, that many Army officers routinely lie to “the system,” is no surprise to anyone who knows our military. (The phenomenon runs across service lines.) What is more interesting is the study’s finding as to the cause of institutionalized lying: “the suffocating amount of mandatory requirements imposed upon units and commanders.”
Who imposes this burden? Mostly the generals, who appear neither to know nor to care that they are laying on more training and reporting requirements than there is time to meet. Their only concern is covering their own rears. Unable to do as ordered and unwilling to risk their careers by telling their superiors the truth, officers deal with the problem by lying.
The study’s authors do not mince words:
The Army as a profession speaks of values, integrity, and honor. The Army as an organization practices zero defects, pencil-whipping, and checking the box. Army leaders are situated between the two identities—parroting the talking points of the latest Army Profession Campaign while placating the Army bureaucracy or civilian overseers by telling them what they want to hear. As a result, Army leaders learn to talk of one world while living in another. A major described the current trend:
‘It’s getting to the point where you’re almost rewarded for being somebody you’re not. That’s a dangerous situation especially now as we downsize. We’re creating an environment where everything is too rosy because everyone is afraid to paint the true picture. You just wonder when it will break, when it will fall apart.’
The larger problem, again, is less what the generals do than what they do not do. They preside smugly over a cluster of institutional disasters, like so many Soviet industrial managers—which is what most of them are.
Angry officers demanding change provide one wing of a potential new military-reform movement, one that might succeed where that of the 1970s and ’80s failed. But success requires tying demands for reform to the services’ budgets, which is all the senior generals care about. The earlier reform movement got generals interested in Third Generation maneuver warfare because senators and congressmen who voted on the defense budget were talking about it on the House and Senate floors. Whence might come this second arm of a political pincer movement under today’s conditions?
Far more than was true 35 years ago, legislation is now for sale, for the legalized bribes we call “campaign contributions.” Business as usual in defense has vast amounts of money to give to members of Congress. Military reform can offer none. That usually means “end of story” on Capitol Hill.
But there is one possibility. The House now has a number of members who served in Iraq or Afghanistan. Having seen today’s military from the inside, some of them will know its weaknesses. They might put loyalty to their former comrades above payoffs. If they were to reach out to those still serving who are tired of losing, they could create the “inside/outside” nexus that made the earlier reform movement powerful for a time.
Money may still win in the end. If so, our problem will be larger than more lost cabinet wars. A republic whose government is for sale will not be a republic much longer. Or, perhaps, a state.
William S. Lind is author of the Maneuver Warfare Handbook and director of the American Conservative Center for Public Transportation.