William Astore: Two Notes on the US Military

One of the joys of blogging is hearing from insightful readers. Today, I’d like to share two notes that highlight vitally important issues within the military – and that touch on larger problems within American society.

The first note comes from a senior noncommissioned officer in the U.S. Navy. This NCO highlights the tendency for “green” (new) officers to want to prove themselves as “warfighters,” instead of doing the hard work of learning their jobs, which entails listening to their NCOs with a measure of humility while working together as a team. It further highlights the arrogance of some officers who are full of themselves after graduating from military academies, where they are often told to “take charge” because they are “the very best.”

Here’s the note:

As a Chief Hull Technician, I ran the damage control and repair shop. My shop was responsible for hull, piping, water, sewage repairs and damage control equipment on our ship. The officer in charge of “R” Division is always a first assignment for new ensigns reporting to their first ship. I was a senior enlisted with 16 years in the Navy, working for a 22 year old (ensign) with either 4 years at the academy or nine weeks of OCS (officer commissioning school) and a year of SWO (surface warfare) school. All the new officers want to be war fighters. None want to know the nuts and bolts of actually running the ship. During my tour I had 3 (Naval) academy and one OCS ensign. The ensigns from the (Naval) academy were horrible. Not just bad officers, but lousy people. I understand the cluelessness of a 22 year old, but the desire to achieve with no regard for the people who will make you great was appalling. They did not realize their crew would make them great. They thought they were so brilliant, they could do it on their own. My job was to save them from themselves. My Chief Engineer would get mad at me when they made asses of themselves. My OCS ensign was a good officer. He wasn’t full of the Naval Academy education… Breaking traditions is hard in the military. The fact we have presidents with no military leadership is contributing to letting the Generals run wild. Instead of realizing the civilians control the military, not the other way. I would have fired or (forced) early retirements of all flag officers who supported the Iraq war. Who needs people around who give bad advice?

This senior NCO makes an excellent point at the end of his letter. Why not fire or early retire generals and admirals who offer bad advice? But rarely in the military is any senior officer held to account for offering bad advice. As LTC Paul Yingling noted in 2007, a private who loses a rifle is punished far more severely than a general who loses a war. Citing Yingling, military historian Thomas E. Ricks noted in an article at The Atlantic in 2012 that “In the wars of the past decade, hundreds of Army generals were deployed to the field, and the available evidence indicates that not one was relieved by the military brass for combat ineffectiveness.”

Since 1945 decisive victories by the US military have been few but everyone nevertheless gets a trophy.

The second note I received is as brief as it is powerful:

My father is a retired lieutenant colonel (USAF), he flew both Korea & Vietnam, had the time of his young hot shot fighter pilot life in Korea, but had grave misgivings in Vietnam, and in fact was passed over for a Wing & a promotion to General, because as he said to me on 1969 after his return; “There is something fundamentally wrong with dropping napalm on little old men in rice paddies, and going back to (the) Officers Club to drink it up, and do it all over again the next day.”

Yes, there is something wrong with dropping murderous weaponry on often innocent people, then returning the next day to do it again (and again), without experiencing any doubts or moral qualms. There is also something wrong with a military that promotes amoral true believers over those officers who possess a moral spine.

The issue of killing innocent civilians is yet again in the news as casualties rise during the Trump administration. According to The Independent:

More than three-quarters of the civilians killed during the four-year war against Isis in Iraq and Syria occurred during Donald Trump’s presidency, new figures show.

A total of 831 civilians have been “unintentionally killed” over the period, according to the US military’s own figures.

And the official figures offered by the US military significantly underestimate civilian deaths, notes a recent study by Anand Gopal and Azmat Khan. Yet moral qualms about the deaths of innocents are rarely heard today.

I’d like to thank again readers who share their insights and experiences with me, whether by email or in comments at this site. This is how we learn from each other – it is one small way we can work toward making the world a better, more just, place.

William J. Astore is a retired lieutenant colonel (USAF). He taught history for fifteen years at military and civilian schools and blogs at Bracing Views. He can be reached at wastore@pct.edu. Reprinted from Bracing Views with the author’s permission.