Tuesday, June 13, 2006


Credibility and Today's Military

Greyhawk, posting at Milblogs, tipped us off to the Guest Op Ed at the Chicago Tribune, written by a Gregory Foster, former commander of the unit responsible for the My Lai massacre during the Vietnam War.

You know the Op Ed is out for blood with the title, “The specter of command cowardice.” You can also likely anticipate the general tenor of the piece just knowing who wrote it, one of the commanders most immediately responsible for the local command indiscipline that allowed My Lai to occur.

Fortunately, one of our own Milbloggers, Cdr Salamander has had prior experience with the windy and over-intellectualized Foster. He linked to a Powerpoint presentation by Foster that includes a slide titled, Path to Perpetual Peace. I’d say anyone who even envisions such a concept, short of the Rapture, can safely be discounted as a non-credible military analyst. (Chicago Tribune, are you open to a rebuttal from a credible military analyst?)

Of course, someone so closely associated with the reality of command failure at My Lai, versus the legendary and completely inaccurate and mythic media and liberal orthodoxy of the event, would want to deflect criticism to superiors or to a pervasive command climate.

Foster describes a military that, if it ever really existed at all outside the minds of self-serving command failures, disappeared forever with drastic changes in doctrine and training beginning in the 1980’s.

I spent 4 ½ years active in the 80’s, Reserve and Guard time for the past 20 years, and an 18 month activation and deployment to Iraq. The Army and command environment Foster describes was more media hype than reality. And our Army has been bending over backwards to counter these largely false perceptions since the dark days of Vietnam.

Foster clearly recognizes the requirements of today’s soldier, often both war fighter and peace keeper within the same operational time slice. Here’s how Foster describes a standard of behavior some, including Foster, may think is impossible:

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.

And overwhelmingly, they are. They’ve been incented, recruited, trained, and empowered to be all these things, and more.

Foster doesn’t recognize these characteristics in today’s Military. I seriously doubt he knows today’s military, rather deriving his views from Hollywood stereotypes, or ancient Media concoctions from the “bad old days of Vietnam.”

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.

I myself have to admit that certain “war fighter” terminology doesn’t resonate with me as well as Military planners might hope. But rhetorical flare in labeling in no way leads inexorably to psychological mindset, which seems to be Foster’s point. That trivializes the concept of the modern war fighter, makes the modern battlefield the equivalent of a child’s playground, and insults the very fine men and women who serve in today’s volunteer Military.

This is the finest Military the nation has ever produced. Technologically superior, all volunteer, focused by 9/11, motivated and ennobled by Democracy building in Afghanistan and Iraq.

Foster challenges us to evaluate our standards for moral courage. In this I agree with him. I too think that considering half a dozen retired Generals coming forward, late in the game, in a highly politicized manner, to try to influence decisions of the Commander in Chief, in exchange for political influence, opportunity, or financial gain, to be a “sadly diminished standard of moral courage.”

Foster also holds that, in holding those soldiers and leaders most directly responsible for crimes such as My Lai and Abu Ghraib, the military practices “scapegoating.” One might surely expect the lowest level commander above LT Calley to think just that.

Of course, not all soldiers who served in Vietnam share the assessment of veterans such as Foster, Murtha, or for that matter a certain junior senator from Massachusetts, who continues to want to remind us of his glory days in Vietnam.

Their impressions of the US Military are not based on actual, real life, current first hand experiences with today’s Soldiers, Sailors, Airmen or Marines. The Vietnam vets I know, who served with us as we deployed to Iraq, do not share those views.

Foster, Murtha, Kerry et al are hopelessly stuck in some imagined place, days of shame and darkness, a world that was always more about slander, than fact. It is time for those old soldiers, not to die, but to go quietly away.

(A Dadmanly Profile of the Vietnam Vets that mobilized with us for deployment to Iraq is due out later today or tomorrow. I wanted to respond to this editorial as soon as possible.)

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